Never one to back down from a brawl, Sen. Ted Stevens is now in the biggest fight of his long political life.
Convicted Monday of concealing gifts from politically connected associates, the Alaska Republican has one week to save his campaign for reelection in a race in which he had caught up with his Democratic opponent in the polls.
If he wins, he still must face his Senate colleagues, who have the power to expel him. If he loses, it would sweep in a new generation of political leaders in Alaska. Nationally, Senator Stevens’s felony conviction already constitutes a blow to the Republican Party, already reeling in the polls because of an unpopular president, an increasingly severe economic slump, two wars, and a slew of corruption scandals that have forced a handful of GOP senators and congressmen to resign or retire in the past three years.
The combative Stevens vowed to press on with his campaign to win reelection and clear his name.
“I will fight this unjust verdict with every ounce of energy I have,” he said in a prepared statement after a federal jury in Washington convicted him on all seven counts he was charged with, which could mean a prison term of up to 35 years. “I am innocent. This verdict is the result of the unconscionable manner in which the Justice Department lawyers conducted this trial. I ask that Alaskans and my Senate colleagues stand with me as I pursue my rights. I remain a candidate for the United States Senate.”
But it is an uphill battle, even with his outsize political clout and large following among Alaskans.
“What? He’s found guilty and there’s a sympathy thing?” says Anchorage pollster and political consultant Ivan Moore. After Stevens’s indictment in July, he fell 20 points behind his Democratic opponent in the polls. Then voters’ doubts about the validity of the federal charges against the senator, combined with a series of effective pro-Stevens campaign ads, turned the race back into a dead heat. In Moore’s last poll, Stevens was only one point behind.
With the jury’s verdict in, however, voters will follow their lead, Moore says.
Stevens’s opponent, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, has largely avoided mentioning Stevens’s legal woes. Instead, he portrays himself as part of a new generation of leaders ready to guide Alaska into the future, offering a new consensus-building approach that contrasts with Stevens’s legendary brawling style.
But minutes after Monday’s verdict, in closing remarks at the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce candidate forum, Mayor Begich weighed in. Although Stevens started his service in Washington with good intentions, he said, “I believe that over the last 40 years his judgment got a little cloudy.” Begich also told local reporters after the forum that the conviction was a sad turn for Alaska. “This has been a very difficult year for Alaska, and a long year,” he said, alluding to an ongoing corruption investigation that has already sent three former state legislators to prison and netted guilty pleas from several other formerly powerful figures.
Other political adversaries expressed sadness at Stevens’s conviction. “For many, it is as if the elves at the North Pole just learned that Santa was convicted on seven felony counts of reindeer abuse and selling unsafe toys,” the left-leaning Alaska political blog Mudflats opined.
Stevens was convicted of concealing a variety of benefits, principally a home renovation, that he received from the former chief executive of VECO Corp., a now-defunct oil-services company that was once the biggest such business in the state. Former VECO CEO Bill Allen and a former VECO vice president have already pleaded guilty to bribing several Alaska politicians and have admitted in court to giving illegal benefits to Stevens and his son Ben, a former state Senate president. Federal prosecutors claimed the elder Stevens received more than $250,000 in unreported gifts.
Despite the trial, Stevens – who helped campaign for Alaska statehood in the 1950s – retains the backing of many. His enduring support stems from the fact that through the decades he has secured billions of dollars in federal funds considered vital to Alaska, earning him the nickname “Uncle Ted.” He is considered such a giant figure that in 2000 he was named “Alaskan of the Century” by the Alaskan of the Year Committee.
In the hours after the verdict, calls poured in to local talk-radio shows from Alaskans vowing to cast their ballots for Stevens in appreciation for his long service. Among the pro-Stevens callers dialing up conservative radio host Dan Fagan was Gail Phillips, a former speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives. “There’s a real family connection here. People put up with family members that maybe do things out of the ordinary sometimes,” Ms. Phillips, a Republican, told Mr. Fagan.
At the somber Stevens campaign headquarters in a midtown Anchorage strip mall, other loyalists streamed in to show support.
“I just thought that I’d show a little bit more today,” says Roy Rank, who drove in from Wasilla to drop off a check to Stevens’s campaign and pick up some yard signs. He says he doubts the verdict will change votes. “People have pretty much made up their minds already,” he says.
Should Stevens pull an upset, his career is not necessarily doomed. The last time the US Senate expelled a sitting member was 1862 when Sen. Jesse Bright (D) of Indiana was forced out for supporting the Confederacy. Several senators charged with corruption and facing an expulsion vote have resigned, most recently Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon in 1995. But at least 10 were able to hold onto their seats, notably Sen. Burton Wheeler (D) of Montana, who went on to become a powerful legislator in the 1920s.