Ted Stevens: Loyal, Passionate Defender of Alaska

John Duricka / AP

Ted Stevens was born in Indiana, but it was Alaska and its rugged terrain that he identified with and that shaped his career, and his life. His first wife, Ann, died when their small plane went down more than 30 years ago. Stevens survived that crash, and in the decades since, as the Republican Party’s longest-serving senator, he often sported an Incredible Hulk tie, as though to underscore his invincibility. He was on his way to a fishing and hunting lodge near Dillingham, Alaska, when the plane carrying him and eight others crashed Monday night in an area so remote that rescue workers could not reach the site until the next day. Stevens, who died in the accident, was 86 years old.   

A beloved figure in Alaska, Stevens had a long and distinguished career representing a state with a very small population but a strong independent streak befitting one of America's last untamed frontiers. He chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee from 1997 to 2005, with the exception of 18 months when the Democrats controlled the majority. From that perch he was able to steer an extraordinary amount of federal largesse to Alaska as well as ingratiate himself to his fellow senators because of the control he exercised over congressional purse strings.  

He was treated like a king in Washington because of his position and his longevity, but he was not universally loved. Built like a bulldog, short and stocky, he had a temper and demanded respect when he didn’t think he was getting enough of it. He had a difficult time getting along with his colleagues and was known for profane outbursts and a short fuse. Yet his staff was incredibly loyal, saying that he returned loyalty to the people closest to him, a rarity in careerist Washington.

An old-school senator with a sense of entitlement and a blind eye toward conflicts of interest, Stevens was indicted by a federal grand jury in July 2008 for failing to report gifts from a corporation headed by a friend. During the investigation leading up to the indictment, his home in Girdwood, Alaska, was raided by the FBI and the IRS in search of evidence of ill-gotten gains. News reports at the time alleged that he had become wealthy as a result of investments with businessmen who benefited from government contracts awarded with Stevens’s help.

Stevens insisted he was innocent and demanded the right to clear his name before the November election. Eight days before the election, he was found guilty on seven counts of failing to report gifts from VECO Corp., an oilfield company, and CEO Bill Allen, a longtime friend, who had overseen extensive remodeling of the Stevens home at bargain rates. After narrowly losing his bid for reelection to Democrat Mark Begich, Stevens gave a final speech on the Senate floor, declaring it had been his “life’s work” to transform Alaska from a place of tundra and forest into a rich oil-producing state that had become a repository for billions of dollars in federal development. He was one of the last of the World War II generation still serving in Congress when he was defeated.

Five months after the election, Attorney General Eric Holder dropped all charges against Stevens, citing prosecutorial misconduct. Justice Department attorneys eager to conclude the case before a new administration took office had withheld notes from an earlier interview with Allen, their star witness, which contradicted what he later said, information they should have shared with the defense.

Though vindicated in the eyes of the law, Stevens had paid what in his mind was the ultimate price, the loss of his Senate seat. Before that, he had never received less than 66 percent of the vote since first being elected to the Senate in 1972. He leaves a tangible legacy in Alaska in military bases, roads, bridges, and sewer systems, a record unlikely to be matched by any successor in the modern era.