Ted Stevens Conviction & Alaska's Politics

Ted Stevens assumed his U.S. Senate seat in 1968—the same year the North Vietnamese Army launched the Tet Offensive, the Beatles recorded "Revolution", and Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. It was also the year when Alaska was discovered to be sitting atop the largest oil fields in North America. A crude relationship was born between Alaska's politicians and its economic lifeblood—one that helped keep Stevens in office for 40 years, and could now end the career of the longest-serving Senate Republican in history.

On Monday, a federal jury found Stevens guilty, on all seven counts, of violating ethics laws by lying on his Senate disclosure forms, concealing $250,000 in gifts and home renovations—the bulk of which came from Bill Allen, a millionaire friend who once ran the state's biggest oil-contracting firm. Stevens, who declared his innocence, vowed to continue his bid for re-election and indicated plans to appeal, faces up to 35 years in prison; he is expected to face sentencing early next year.

The verdict comes amid a tough fight for re-election. Polls earlier this month showed Stevens virtually tied with his Democratic opponent, Anchorage mayor Mark Begich. Republicans and independents alike were giving him the benefit of the doubt while they awaited word from the jury. In the wake of the guilty verdict, analysts predict Stevens will likely lose to Begich, the 46-year-old son of Congressman Nick Begich, Democrat of Alaska, who died in a plane crash with U.S. House Majority Leader Hale Boggs in 1972.

A win for Begich would make him the first Alaska Democrat to hold a congressional seat since Mike Gravel, who served as U.S. Senator from 1969 to 1981 (and earlier this year made his mark as a quirky candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination). The race is important to the national Democratic Party, which currently has a narrow 51-49 edge over the GOP in the Senate when the chamber's two independents throw in. If Alaska flips, and Barack Obama proves to have long coattails nationwide, the party could reach the 60-seat milestone needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.

"The fact that Stevens was indicted should have elected Begich, but there was a backlash, and Stevens picked up some support," says Marc Hellenthal, an Alaska pollster and political consultant who tends to work with Republicans. "I don't expect that to happen now that he's been convicted."

State Republican leaders have urged Stevens to press ahead with his re-election bid, while Democrats have begun calling for him to resign (were he to do so, a special election would be held to determine his replacement). Senate rules would not bar Stevens, now a convicted felon, from serving.

Stevens, 84, is known to relish a good fight. When he does battle on the Senate floor, he often sports a tie featuring the Incredible Hulk. A dominant political force for a generation, he also has a vast record to draw on in seeking support. Stevens has helped secure tens of billions of federal dollars to help modernize Alaska, and he has fought long and hard to advance the land rights of the state's Native population.

But Alaskans may be forgiven for feeling a little scandal-weary. In addition to the Stevens trial, which has been front-page news for much of the year, the state has been buffeted by the so-called Troopergate investigation that has plagued Gov. Sarah Palin—a matter that took on greater urgency after John McCain tapped her to be his vice-presidential running mate this fall. (An investigation by the Alaska Legislature found that Palin abused her powers as governor in seeking to fire the state's public-safety commissioner for failing to dismiss her former brother-in-law, a state trooper. Palin has said she did "nothing unlawful or unethical"). What's more, Alaska's lone congressman, GOP Rep. Don Young, is also under federal investigation over his ties to Bill Allen, the founder and longtime chief executive officer of VECO Corp., an oil-field services company (the firm was sold last year). Young, who has refused to discuss the matter, is locked in the toughest re-election fight of his career against Anchorage Democrat Ethan Berkowitz.

Some think the Stevens verdict will have a domino effect. "People will say to themselves,'If Ted Stevens has gone down, Don Young can't be far behind,'" says Ivan Moore, an Anchorage pollster who tends to work with Democrats.

The Stevens trial exposed the inner workings of Alaska's cozy connection with the oil industry. Many of Alaska's lawmakers—including Gov. Sarah Palin in 2002—counted on Bill Allen for campaign contributions. A larger-than-life figure, Allen pleaded guilty last year to bribing state lawmakers and was the star government witness in Stevens's trial, telling jurors that Stevens knew his company was flipping much of the bill when it remodeled the senator's Alaska home in 2000.

Governor Palin has sought to distance herself from the powers that be in the state Republican hierarchy—part of the reformer credentials that attracted McCain's interest in the first place. If she and her running mate prevail next week, Alaska may yet have a powerful defender in high places in Washington. But if, as the polls suggest, they fall short, Palin will return home to a state in distress from political as well as economic shocks. Alaska, flush with billions of dollars in oil-surplus tax revenue, has largely escaped the housing foreclosures and other financial failures that other states are experiencing. But crude prices have been falling rapidly, pulling down with them the oil taxes and fees that fund some 90 percent of state government.

The prospect of losing Alaska's most powerful advocate on Capitol Hill amid the country's market meltdown has some long-time residents bracing for a bust.

"This place within 24 months is going to be a wasteland with Ted Stevens's demise," says Don Mitchell, an attorney and Alaskan historian who detailed the early years of Stevens's career in two books. "The party is over."