Few lawmakers are as closely identified with the history of their state as Mr. Stevens, who often recalled sitting in the gallery when the Senate voted to make Alaska the 49th state.
The Ted Stevens plane crash occurred Monday night in southwest Alaska.
Over his 40 years in the Senate, Stevens delivered billions of dollars in aid to his home state. He also muscled through laws that opened the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1973 and reined in foreign fishing fleets that threatened nearby fisheries. But, in a rare defeat, he failed to overcome opposition from environmentalists to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to exploration and drilling.
“When I came to the Senate, Alaska had been a state for less than a decade. We were then more of an impoverished territory than a full-fledged state,” Stevens said in his farewell address to the Senate on Nov. 20, 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,” he added.
With Stevens’s clout, including a stint as chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Alaska consistently ranked No. 1 in the “pork per capita” ranking, an annual production of Citizens Against Government Waste. The Washington-based public-interest group made Stevens its poster boy for wasteful, pork-barrel spending.
Stevens, in turn, railed at critics who he said failed to understand the special needs of his vast, underserviced rural state. In a fiery floor speech on Oct. 20, 2005, Stevens threatened to resign from the Senate if his colleagues approved an amendment to cut money for a $453 million measure to fund a bridge from Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with some 50 residents – dubbed by critics the “Bridge to Nowhere.”
"I will put the Senate on notice – and I don't kid people: If the Senate decides to discriminate against our state and take money only from our state, I will resign from this body," he said. He won that Senate showdown, but Congress subsequently stripped the earmark out of the omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2006, although it didn’t decrease Alaska’s overall funding. Sarah Palin (R) canceled the project in 2007 when she was governor of Alaska.
In the midst of a reelection campaign in July 2008, Stevens was indicted by a federal grand jury for failing to report corporate gifts and was convicted. He then lost his reelection bid. In April 2009, the Justice Department dropped all charges against Stevens, citing prosecutorial misconduct.
No stranger to aviation, Stevens flew support missions for the Flying Tigers of the 14th Air Force during World War II, for which he won the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was elected to the Alaska House in 1964 and appointed to the US Senate in 1968 to fill the unexpired term of Alaska’s first senator, Democrat Bob Bartlett. He barely survived an airline crash in 1978, which took the life of his first wife, Ann, and nearly ended his career.
“But my dear wife, Catherine, entered my life in 1980, and, joined by my six children – Susan, Beth, Ted, Walter, Ben, and Lily – and my 11 grandchildren, my family has given me love, support, and sacrifice, which made my continued career here in the Senate possible and gave it meaning,” he said in his 2008 farewell speech.
Plane crashes in Alaska, where travel by small private aircraft is a necessity to cover the expansive state, happen often – and have taken the lives of other public officials. In 1972, House majority leader Hale Boggs (D) of Louisiana and Rep. Nick Begich (D) of Alaska were presumed dead after their plane went missing during a campaign flight in Alaska. Of 64 aviation accidents in the state in the past 20 years, 22 have resulted in fatalities, according to the Flight Safety Foundation's aviation-safety database.
“In the history of our country, no one man has done more for one state than Ted Stevens,” said Republican leader Mitch McConnell in a statement. “His commitment to the people of Alaska and his nation spanned decades, and he left a lasting mark on both.”
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana, who often joined Stevens in the hit lists of public-interest groups opposed to pork spending, said in a statement: "Ted always said, 'To hell with politics. Do what is best for Alaska.' He never apologized for fighting for his state, and Alaska is better for it today."