Former Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska Is Dead at 86

Washington – Former Sen. Ted Stevens has died after a plane crash late Monday in Dillingham, Alaska.

Stevens, 86, was the longest-serving Republican senator when his 40-year Senate career came to an end in 2008. On trial in Washington D.C. for corruption in the weeks leading up to that year’s election, scandal-weary Alaska voters voted by a thin margin to replace him with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat.

It was a decision that spared Stevens’ fellow senators from an embarrassing expulsion vote after a jury found him guilty of hiding gifts on his federal financial disclosure forms. The conviction was a humiliating defeat for a former prosecutor and World War II aviator who began his career in public service in Fairbanks as a U.S. attorney.

Stevens continued to appeal the jury’s decision, and also sought a pardon in the final days of the Bush administration. However, it was President Barack Obama’s new Attorney General, Eric Holder, who helped clear the former senator’s name. Five months after his conviction, Holder asked that the indictment against Stevens be dismissed, citing evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.

For many Alaskans, “Uncle Ted” was best known for sending billions of federal dollars to the state for military bases, bridges and rural water systems — in 2000, the Alaska legislature joined with others in proclaiming Stevens “Alaskan of the Century.”

An unrepentant pork-barrel politician, Stevens’ reputation put him at odds during the 2008 election with the vice-presidential campaign of Alaska’s newest Republican star, then-Gov. Sarah Palin.

Stevens’ history was intertwined with that of Alaska: He pushed an Alaska Native land claims act through Congress, shepherded the trans-Alaska pipeline past daunting obstacles there, and rewrote the landmark fisheries laws that bear his name. He chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee, and for two decades oversaw U.S. military spending.

Even before that, Stevens, from a top spot in the Interior Department, led the push inside the Eisenhower administration to make the Alaska territory a state.

Stevens, in his final speech on the Senate floor in 2008, said he was most proud of transforming Alaska from an impoverished U.S. territory to a rich oil-producing state. It was his “life’s work,” Stevens said. “Where there was nothing but tundra and forest, today there are now airports, roads, ports, water and sewer systems, hospitals, clinics, communications networks, research labs and much, much more,” he said. “Mr. President, Alaska was not ‘Seward’s Folly.’ “

His difficult childhood shaped the tenacious adult who, as a senator, donned an “Incredible Hulk” tie when fighting his toughest battles. The second half of his life was shaped by a 1978 crash at Anchorage International Airport that killed his wife, Ann, and four others. Stevens was one of two survivors. He and his wife had five children together, with a sixth child, Lily, born to his second wife, Catherine Bittner.

Stevens’ parents divorced in Chicago when he was 6, amidst the 1929 stock market crash. He helped support his blind father and his grandparents in Indianapolis until his teens, then moved in with an aunt in Southern California. He kept a memento of those sunny teenage years in his Senate office: a polished wooden surfboard bought in 1940, when he was cruising the coast in his 9-year-old gold Pontiac convertible to surf the waves of San Onofre.

Stevens joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in World War II. At age 21, he was a pilot flying C-46 transports over the Himalayas to resupply Chinese nationalist troops fighting the Japanese.

He returned a decorated hero to graduate from UCLA and Harvard Law School and took a job with a firm in Washington, D.C., where he encountered Alaska through one of his first clients, the Usibelli coal mine of Healy.

The connection drew Stevens to Fairbanks, where he worked as a lawyer and federal prosecutor before returning to Washington and the Interior Department, first as an Alaska specialist, then as the department’s top attorney. In 1961, with Democrats back in power, he returned to the new state, this time to Anchorage, where he practiced law and was elected to the state Legislature. He ran twice for U.S. Senate and lost both times.

In 1967, as Republican majority leader in the Alaska House, Stevens steered a bill into law allowing a governor to fill a senatorial vacancy with a candidate of either party. Before that, a new senator had to be from the same party as the old one — and Alaska had two Democratic senators. Stevens later said he had no inkling he would be the first to benefit from the law.

The most powerful politician of the statehood era, Democratic Sen. Bob Bartlett, died unexpectedly the next year. The Republican governor, Wally Hickel, skipped past several more prominent choices to name Stevens.

From his arrival in the Senate in 1968, Stevens was known as the workhorse in Alaska’s delegation. This was especially true in comparison with Democrat Mike Gravel, with whom he clashed loudly, and also to some extent in contrast with Gravel’s replacement after 1980, Republican Frank Murkowski.

His intense focus on Alaskan issues gave Stevens expertise in budget and defense matters, and he became a respected Senate leader in those fields. By 1977 he had risen to the leadership role of Republican whip in the Senate, and in 1984 he lost a race for majority leader to Bob Dole of Kansas by three votes. He was also considered a contender for secretary of defense in 1989 under President George H.W. Bush. The position went instead to Wyoming congressman Dick Cheney.

In 2003, Stevens was appointed president pro tempore of the Senate — a largely ceremonial position that made him third in the line of succession to the presidency, after the vice-president and the speaker of the House.

Stevens was no great orator — at times, his ideas would seem to spill out faster than his tongue could deliver them — and he never became a national spokesman for his party. A social moderate and results-oriented compromiser with friends among Democrats, his Republicanism seemed old-school in the stridently partisan 1990s.

As a senior senator, he developed close relationships with defense contractors and telecommunications companies that remained largely unnoticed by constituents back home _ except when he brought titans of industry to Alaska for his annual Kenai River fishing fundraiser. He seldom had good words for national conservation groups, whom he derided as “extreme environmentalists.”

He became the appropriations master. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee starting in 1997, he found ways to send money north with hard-to-find attachments to budget bills. He infuriated budget watchdog groups but argued that Alaska needed to catch up with the rest of the nation. He developed an effective snarl.

“I’m a mean, miserable SOB,” he said, introducing himself as appropriations chairman. He became known for a crotchety exterior and a temper that could flash against constituents as well as colleagues. It was something Stevens made light of, with his Incredible Hulk tie and his quip: “I didn’t lose my temper. I know right where it is.”

One admitted regret was his failure to accumulate personal wealth. After several investments went bad, Ted and Catherine Stevens were forced to sell their house in suburban Maryland in 1986 to pay off debts. Looking ahead to re-election two years later, Stevens said voters should appreciate the sacrifices he’d made for Alaska, because he could be making millions as a lawyer.

Those remarks struck some Alaska voters as arrogant. But by Election Day, Stevens won yet another easy victory.

Stevens’ finances were rescued by a 1989 bequest from longtime friend Bill Snedden, publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and later by a big payback in an Anchorage real estate investment. Stevens and his wife eventually bought another house in the D.C. area, but their home base — the Girdwood chalet at the center of his corruption trial — remained decidedly modest.

Returning to Alaska to campaign in 2008, Stevens cited another regret in his televised debate: “A habit I got into of trusting people.”

It was plainly a reference to Bill Allen, the Veco chairman and oilman who had been the state’s most visible peddler of political influence since the 1980s, but whom Stevens considered a personal friend. Allen’s unreimbursed work on the Girdwood house, and his subsequent conversations with the FBI, had brought the Justice Department down on Alaska’s senior senator for unreported gifts.

The sharp ethical lines of Stevens’ early career seemed to blur somewhat in the last decade. As Stevens worked the appropriations levers, questions were raised about trusted former aides who returned as favor-seeking lobbyists, about real estate and fishery deals, and about his son, Ben, who as state Senate president had a Veco contract that Allen says was all about delivering votes in Juneau.

Despite all that, Stevens was the subject of warm praise and standing ovations on April 12, 2007, when the Senate stopped work to commemorate his service of 13,990 days — the longest-serving Republican in U.S. history.

When he exited the Senate in 2008, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate minority leader, said this: “I think it is safe to say, without any fear of contradiction, that no senator in the history of the United States has ever done more for his state than Sen. Ted Stevens,” McConnell said. “Alaska would not be what it is today were it not for him.”

(Kizzia is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News.)