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Alaska's 'Stevens money'

The senator's ability to deliver the dollars has transformed the state.

August 07, 2007|Michael Carey | Michael Carey, a freelance writer, is a former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. E-mail:

Sen. ted stevens has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Not as a friend or colleague but as a public figure, from federal attorney in my hometown, Fairbanks, in the 1950s, to Alaska's senior senator -- and currently the nation's longest-serving Republican senator -- half a century later. As a journalist, I have written about Stevens for more than 25 years.

Last week, federal agents searched his home in Alaska as part of a public-corruption investigation. But from everything I know of Stevens, it is impossible for me to believe that he has engaged in old-fashioned favors-for-votes bribery. But it is possible that he became careless or indifferent in his legislative and personal affairs. So it's not difficult to believe that after years of having his way with the federal Treasury, he eventually became the subject of a government investigation.

A brief anecdote will illustrate why.

A couple of years ago, while working on a story about Stevens' career as a young prosecutor, I interviewed him -- or rather attempted to interview him. We met over breakfast at an Anchorage hotel. During the hour we spent together, we were interrupted by a parade of constituents who wanted to talk to Stevens about "a little project" that would benefit Alaskans. Perhaps it was a highway, a healthcare program, an airport improvement -- the "little project" lacked only one ingredient: money. If only Stevens would provide federal dollars, the project would succeed.

As a former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee (and later the ranking minority member), Stevens has delivered hundreds of millions of dollars to his constituents, sometimes through agency appropriations, sometimes through the now-vilified earmarks. In Alaska, the presence of so-called Stevens money is as prevalent as the winter snow. Everywhere you look, Stevens has left his mark.

Stevens' ability to deliver -- and his invulnerability to electoral challenge because he could deliver -- transformed him from an elected official into something of a frontier fertility god -- worshiped, propitiated, feared. Stevens answered to no one.

In a moment I will never forget from that breakfast, Stevens caught the eye of a man he knew across the room and waved to him, just as any old friend or longtime acquaintance would. The man became rigid and obviously uncomfortable, perhaps thinking, "Oh my God, Ted Stevens waved at me, now what do I do?" He quickly recovered, however, and came over to talk to Stevens -- not because he had anything to say but perhaps because he feared Stevens' disapproval if he did not.

If Stevens was transformed by his extraordinary power in Washington, so were Alaskans -- from constituents to supplicants. This transformation not only distorted Alaska's political system, it distorted our economy. Alaska receives more federal dollars per capita than any other state. We rely on Stevens money (a wag said our currency should be the "Ted") to keep the economy humming, to keep our taxes low. We're certainly not going to pay for "little projects" out of our own pockets as long as we have Ted Stevens shoveling federal dollars at us.

Stevens had the Midas touch, and if he brought corruption to Alaska, it came in this form: too many people developing easy access to the U.S. Treasury. For example, Jim Hayes, the former mayor of Fairbanks, is now awaiting federal trial for alleged misuse of earmarks -- earmarks generated by Stevens.

Yet if you asked Stevens about his intentions for any of his actions, I am sure he would insist he's interested only in the public good. Stevens is rapidly becoming a media caricature -- the angry, snarling, curmudgeon at the center of what one New York tabloid calls a "perks-for-pork" scandal. A writer in the New York Times recently went so far as to compare him to Louisiana's famed Kingfish, Huey Long -- an absurd comparison because as governor and senator, Long ran a gang in the 1920s that fixed elections and corrupted every major institution in Louisiana, including the judiciary. Stevens has never applied his power in that way.

It is rare for the federal government to investigate a U.S. senator for corruption. This investigation and its aftermath could drag on for years. But here's something we can say with certainty: Stevens, through the appropriation of federal funds, transformed himself into the most powerful elected official in Alaska history while transforming Alaska -- and Alaskans.

Michael Carey, a freelance writer, is a former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. E-mail: mcarey@adn.com

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