Former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) passed away as a result of a plane crash last night outside of Dillingham, Alaska. He was 86 years old. He leaves behind a wife, Catherine; five children from his first marriage to Ann — Ben, a former state Senator, Susan, Beth, Walter, Ted Jr.; and Lily, his daughter with Catherine.
Stevens was the longest-serving Republican member of the United States Senate in its history, having first won election to it in 1968.
[TPM SLIDESHOW: The Senator From Alaska: Ted Stevens’ Political Career]
According to a profile in the Anchorage Daily News, Stevens began his political career volunteering for Eisenhower’s Presidential campaign in 1952 while working at a DC-based law firm: he left to take a job he was offered at the Interior Department which then failed to materialize. He accepted a job offer with an Alaskan law firm instead, driving to Fairbanks in February 1953. Stevens got the job offer from Charles Clasby because Stevens was the D.C.-based lawyer of Clasby’s client, coal miner Emil Usibelli.
Stevens spent only 6 months working for Clasby before he was offered the job of U.S. Attorney for the Alaska Territory, and the Senate confirmed him in 1954. Stevens built a reputation as a pugnacious prosecutor, though he denied reports that he regularly accompanied the U.S. Marshalls on raids packing heat, telling the Anchorage Daily News in 1994:
He remembers only one such incident. It was in Big Delta, about 75 miles southwest of Fairbanks. “We decided we’d take a combined force down there because of information we’d received about a lot of different violations of federal and territorial law. There was a prostitution ring, and drugs and violations of liquor laws.
“They wanted to make sure everything was done right, that the evidence would be admissible, the arrests would be legal, so they asked me if I wanted to go along. I said, yeah. “So one of them suggested I ought to take a gun,” he said. “So he checked me out a gun. It was a holster with a gun. It wasn’t two guns. I never had two guns. I never walked around town with it. “But someone did see it,” he said. “Someone saw us coming back in or going out of the federal building that day and said, ‘Jesus Christ, there’s the damn district attorney carrying a gun.’ ” The report spread “up and down Fourth Avenue in every bar.”
In 1956, Stevens finally got the job he’d wanted at the Interior Department, where he was assigned to help shepherd through Alaska’s statehood under Interior Secretary Fred Seaton. According to the Anchorage Daily News:
“Ted probably spent more time with Secretary Seaton than any of us,” said Roger Ernst, who was Seaton’s assistant secretary for public land management. “He did all the work on statehood,” Ernst said. `”He wrote 90 percent of all the speeches. Statehood was his main project.”
Stevens admitted in a 1977 interview, quoted by the Anchorage Daily News, that he worked with members of the press to keep the question of Alaskan statehood in front of a skeptical Eisenhower during his time at Interior. In a final deal worked out, in part, by Stevens, the president has emergency powers to take direct federal control of sparsely populated areas to the north and west of the so-called PYK line, which runs “From the northeast corner of the territory, it followed the Porcupine, Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers to the Bering Sea, then went south and east to clip off the lower half of the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands.” Those powers have never been exercised.
Stevens admitted in the same interview that, in apparent violation of federal law, he helped plan the extensive lobbying campaign that accompanied Alaska’s push for statehood in 1957 and 1958. That campaign paid off: Congress and Eisenhower signed off on Alaska statehood in 1958.
Just before the Eisenhower Administration ended, when Stevens was the top lawyer at the Interior Department, the Anchorage Daily News reported he was instrumental in creating the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge — where oil companies now seek permission to drill. At the time, Alaskans and energy interests were more interested in deposits in Prudhoe Bay and the North Slope, so ANWR was a compromise position for Stevens. It wasn’t until the 1980 Alaska Lands Act that all drilling in ANWR required a vote of Congress: Stevens said that the original deal would have allowed more exploration.
At the end of the Eisenhower Administration, Stevens returned to Alaska and the law — but not for long. He ran for Senate against Sen. Ernest Gruening (D) in 1962 and lost, but refocused his energies on the state legislature. He ran in 1964 and 66, serving as House Majority Leader from 1967-68. He lost the Republican Senate primary in 1968 to Elmer Rasmuson, who went on to lose to Mike Gravel in the general election. And then the state’s other Senator, E.L. “Bob” Bartlett, died on December 11, 1968 — less than two years after Majority Leader Stevens helped push a change in the law that would allow the governor to appoint the Senator of his choosing, rather than one of the same party as the departing Senator. When Bartlett, a Democrat, died, the governor was Wally Hickel — who was about to be appointed by Richard Nixon to serve as the Secretary of the Interior.
According to Hickel’s statements to the Anchorage Daily News, Stevens was one of his three choices, but Stevens was Nixon’s only choice. And, after plenty of political maneuvering, he was Hickel’s too. Stevens was appointed to Bennett’s seat before Gravel was sworn in in 1969, making him Alaska’s senior Senator for all but 10 days of his career; he won the special election in 1970 and then went on to win all but his final reelection campaign in 2008.
Stevens served as head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee in 1975, and then became the Republican Whip in 1975, a position he held until 1985: first when the Republicans were in the minority and then when they were in the majority.
In the early years of his Senate career, Stevens was perhaps best known for his clashes with the Alaska’s other Senator, Mike Gravel, which culminated in a series of battles over the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which was designed to turn major swaths of land in Alaska into national parks, refuges and preserves — and prevent development and minerals exploration. Stevens told the Anchorage Daily News that he felt it was necessary to compromise to prevent more land from being designated as national lands, as well as to resolve the outstanding issue of 100 million acres still held by the federal government but promised to Alaska under other legislation. Gravel successfully blocked passage of the ANILCA in 1978, sparking an all-out war with Stevens. Gravel decided to pour his own money in the 1978 race to defeat Stevens to little effect.
What Gravel’s legislative maneuvering did do was convince the advocates on Stevens’ side that more money would be necessary to battle a larger federal land-grab in 1978 — and they scheduled a December 1978 fundraiser to help. Stevens, his wife Ann and several others spent the early part of December 4, 1978 in Juneau for the inauguration of the new Republican governor, and then boarded an Anchorage-bound Learjet. That plane crashed on approach to the airport, killing everyone but Stevens and Tony Motley, who headed the organization sponsoring the fundraiser.
Two months later, Stevens spoke at a hearing on the legislation and made remarks widely interpreted as blaming Gravel for his wife’s death. The Anchorage Daily News reported:
Stevens said the flight wouldn’t have been necessary if Gravel had kept his word and supported the compromise. “As I am sure you realize,” Stevens somberly told the House Interior Committee, “the solution of the issue means more to me than it did before.”
“I don’t want to get personal about it, but I think, if that bill had passed, I might have a wife sitting at home when I get home tonight, too,” Stevens said.
Stevens and Gravel later denied that Stevens has meant to blame Gravel. The ANILCA passed in a lame-duck session in 1980, after Gravel lost re-election and the bill was reformulated to protect more wilderness land, as Stevens has predicted. Both Stevens and Gravel voted against the final version.
Stevens remarried in 1980. In 1984, he ran for Majority Leader, but lost in the third round of balloting to then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS). In 1986, a series of bad investments by Catherine forced them to sell their Maryland home to pay back taxes and move into a rental property in D.C., according to the Anchorage Daily News.
In 1989, as Stevens was publicly contemplating retirement, Sean O’Keefe — then Stevens’ top military aide, who later went on to serve as Secretary of the Navy, NASA Administration and CEO of EADS, and whom was on the plane that crashed — told the Anchorage Daily News that Stevens got a call from the White House about potentially taking a position as Secretary of Defense. Stevens hesitated, and former Rep. Dick Cheney (R-WY) was appointed instead.
Stevens was considered a master of pork barrel politics, bringing home many earmarks to his adopted home state. But in 2007, the FBI began investigating a series of renovations made to Stevens home by oilfield services company VECO’s founder Bill Allen. Stevens was indicted in 2008 on charges that he failed to report gifts; he was convicted shortly before the 2008 election and lost the race.
In the wake of the election, an FBI whistleblower came forward to allege proseuctorial misconduct, including the intention witholding of evidence. Brand-new Attorney General Eric Holder filed a motion to void the conviction and dismiss the indictment; he later dropped all the charges against Stevens.
Though many people will remember Stevens for little more than the scandals that ended his career, even some of the most committed Democrats in the state shed tears for him and his family. There are few politicians left that can say they helped found a state or that served it so long.