For Alaskans, Ted Stevens leaves a larger-than-life legacy
Former Sen. Ted Stevens, who died this week in a plane crash, is remembered by Alaskans as an architect of the state who had a hand in all aspects of modern, oil-rich Alaska.
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“Our hearts are broken, lives are shattered, and we have lost one of the greatest leaders our state will ever see,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said at a subdued airport news conference. “There is nothing that has happened in my lifetime, there is nothing that has happened since statehood, that Ted Stevens did not touch, that he did not build, did not create.”
Her assessment is not an overstatement. Stevens, who served Alaska as a US senator for 40 years until 2008, had a hand in all aspects of modern, oil-rich Alaska, starting with his early days as a federal attorney and his role in the campaign to win statehood. He was among five people who died when a small plane crashed Monday in the mountainous wilderness near Dillingham, in the state’s southwestern region.
From the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in the state’s largest city to the sewage systems in the smallest Native villages, the former senator’s influence is evident. For his skills as a senator securing billions of federal dollars to build and support Alaska – funds dubbed “Stevens money” – he was revered in the state as “Uncle Ted.” Major accomplishments included the sweeping Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, the authorization of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, and the establishment of the modern federal fisheries management system. In 2000, the year his name was attached to the Anchorage airport, a local civic group and the state legislature also honored him as “Alaskan of the Century.”
Outside of Alaska, his penchant for "earmarking" was sometimes ridiculed. But the late senator was unapologetic about the money he wrested from the federal treasury for Alaska, a young and rough-hewn state that needed help to bring its infrastructure and services to par.
When he came to the Senate in 1968, starting what would become the longest tenure there for any Republican, Alaska was “more of an impoverished territory than a full-fledged state,” Stevens recalled in a farewell address delivered to his colleagues in November 2008.
“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. Mr. President, Alaska was not Seward’s folly and is no longer an impoverished territory,” he said in the speech. “I am proud to have had a role in this transformation. My motto has been here: to hell with politics. Let’s do what’s right for Alaska. And I have tried every day to live up to those words.”
Stevens was also famous for his angry outbursts – displays that friends say were more calculated theatrics than expressions of heartfelt enmity – and for the “Incredible Hulk” tie he liked to wear when girding for an important legislative battle.
But those close to him say Stevens was an old-school statesman who, in contrast to today’s polarized style, has close professional and personal relations across party lines and who strove to achieve consensus on sweeping subjects like Native land claims and fisheries management.