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Stevens used old-school tactics to help his state

Ted Stevens is a throwback to the Senate he joined almost 40 years ago and then worked so effectively for his home state of Alaska.
Image: Ted Stevens
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, answers question in Anchorage, Alaska, on May 28. An Incredible Hulk figure sits nearby; Stevens likes to wear a Hulk tie while waging fights in the Senate.Al Grillo / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ted Stevens is a throwback to the Senate he joined almost 40 years ago and then worked so effectively in for his home state of Alaska.

His old-school approach combines a knack for bipartisan friendship, smarts, hard work — and a sometimes explosive temper. The result has been four decades as a remarkably effective inside player in passing legislation on myriad issues important to his state.

Along the way, he's delivered so many federal dollars to Alaska that he's become an economic force in his own right.

Such an approach is still common in the Senate, even as a younger, more conservative and combative breed steadily replaces old timers like Stevens. Now, Stevens seems more popular with like-minded Democratic veterans like Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Patrick Leahy of Vermont than he is with GOP insurgents such as Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, with whom he has repeatedly tangled.

"I'm not going there yet," Coburn said Tuesday when asked to comment.

Stevens has also tangled repeatedly with presumptive GOP nominee John McCain — with whom he has a strained relationship — as his Arizona rival fought in futility for years against so-called earmarks. Stevens was invariably a stout defender and became a symbol of that brand of pork barrel legislating.

But Stevens' troubles were met Tuesday with dismay among Republicans and Democrats alike feeling genuine sadness over a career of public service capped by a seven-count indictment for lying on Senate financial disclosure forms — and a possible felony conviction, if not a jail term.

"He's dedicated his life to the Senate and Alaska and you just hate to see something like this happen," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a Stevens friend.

'Uncle Ted'
Even before his indictment, Stevens was in once unthinkable political peril in a state where he has been revered for decades.

The corruption scandal in which he was swept up has critically weakened his party's standing in the state — and could now doom a once-safe seat important to GOP efforts to keep Democrats from gaining a filibuster-proof control of the Senate in November's elections. Stevens' opponent, Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, held a lead in several recent opinion polls paired against Stevens.

Stevens, 84, has held a variety of important posts over his career. He ruled the powerful Appropriations Committee for six years, served as GOP whip for eight years and as president pro tempore for four years was third in the line of presidential succession.

He was named Alaskan of the Century in 1999 for having the greatest impact on the state in 100 years, in part for bringing billions of dollars in "Stevens money" that helped keep solvent his remote and sparsely populated state.

While the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport welcomes visitors, Stevens has always focused more on rural communities lacking health clinics, clean water, roads and schools. He's won millions of dollars in aid for fishermen, help for logging communities losing jobs from environmental restrictions and plenty of money for ports and military bases.

"We lovingly call him throughout the state as 'Uncle Ted,'" said Alaska GOP colleague Lisa Murkowski in a Senate floor tribute delivered last year as Stevens became the longest serving GOP senator ever.

'The only special interest I care about is Alaska'
While many of Stevens' political allies in Alaska benefited financially from his efforts on behalf of the state, Stevens was a man of modest means for most of his career. But over the last decade, as extensively reported by the Los Angeles Times in 2003, Stevens became wealthy in insider deals in real estate and other investments.

On Tuesday, Murkowski stoutly defended Stevens, saying she was "absolutely shocked" by the indictment.

"He's an incredible leader for the state, an incredibly honorable man and a guy who has given his entire life to the state of Alaska," Murkowski said outside the Senate chamber.

"The only special interest I care about is Alaska," Stevens has said.

Stevens, however, was forced by Senate GOP rules to step down from his post as top Republican on the Commerce Committee and the even more potent post on the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

Republicans hope the Stevens scandal won't hurt them politically beyond Alaska.

"If anything, it's an indictment of the whole political class, not necessarily just Republicans," said GOP strategist John Feehery. "This is an indictment of appropriators too. The sense of corruption is oozing from both sides."

While he directed billions of dollars to Alaska over the years, Stevens also helped shape landmark legislation on Alaska Native land claims, the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, fisheries management and public lands. His efforts are interwoven throughout Alaska's relatively brief statehood.

Bitter defeats over ANWR
More recently, Stevens has been bitterly disappointed by his inability to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, to oil production. Losing efforts in 2003 and 2005 were bitter defeats.

"People who vote against this today are voting against me, and I will not forget it," then-Appropriations Committee Chairman Stevens said before the 2003 vote.

Stevens came to the Senate in an era when bipartisan friendships were far more common than now. Veterans of World War II populated the chamber, and the 24-hour news cycle that is now so prevalent is defining senators' approaches to their work.

In an interview last year, Stevens lamented how the Senate had changed over the years, especially the ever-more-intense partisanship that has gripped the chamber. He said senators travel together less frequently on fact-finding trips, and they're less likely to forge friendships with members of the other party, such as Stevens' two-peas-in-a-pod relationship with Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, a fellow World War II veteran.

His critics called him the "King of Pork" for relentlessly "earmarking" taxpayer dollars to Alaska. In one recent year, according to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, Stevens sent almost $1,000 per capita to Alaska, 30 times what went to the average state, based on population.

But Stevens makes no apologies for all the money he has directed to Alaska over the years.

"They can call it what they want," Stevens said last year. "I call it good government."

A decorated pilot in World War II, Stevens attended Harvard Law School and practiced law in Washington, D.C., in the early 1950s before he was appointed U.S. attorney in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Stevens was appointed in 1968 and won a special election in 1970. Until this year, he hasn't faced a difficult race since.