Sen. Ted Stevens returned to Alaska on Wednesday for the first time since his conviction, telling a crowd of supporters he made a mistake but is not a criminal and needs their help to save his re-election.
"Like most people, I'm not perfect. I naively trusted someone I thought was an honest friend. When he was neither honest nor a friend," Stevens said.
Stevens was talking about Bill Allen, former chief executive of the oilfield services company Veco Corp. and the prosecution's star witness against him. A Washington, D.C., jury on Monday convicted Stevens of seven felony counts of lying on financial disclosure forms about thousands of dollars of gifts and home renovations from Veco.
"My future is in God's hands," the Republican told the crowd of roughly 500 gathered in the PenAir hangar at Ted Stevens International Airport. "Alaska's future is in your hands."
Stevens' return marks the beginning of what his campaign says will be an aggressive, whirlwind, effort to persuade Alaskans to re-elect the 84-year-old senator. With the election just five days away, Stevens has little time and a big challenge.
But the crowd at his Anchorage rally seemed to harbor little doubt that Stevens, who showed flashes of both humility and defiance, would beat his challengers. They include Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat, who was holding a dueling rally at a union hall at the same time as Stevens' event.
There was undisguised hostility toward the federal government and the FBI at the Stevens event, with people wearing T-shirts that said "F*#@ the feds, vote for Ted."
"Anyone who thinks you can get a fair trial in the heart of liberalism, Washington, D.C., is smoking dope. He was railroaded," said Mark Kelliher, a retired engineer.
Talk radio host Rick Rydell told the crowd he knows Stevens, a D.C. jury doesn't.
"I don't particularly like it when outsiders tell me what to do," Rydell said, before Stevens took the stage. "You can kiss my Alaska moose-hunting behind."
Stevens reiterated his innocence, assured his supporters that he would be vindicated on appeal, and said he's still the best choice for Alaska. Stevens said that when he filed his financial disclosure forms, he believed they were accurate and complete.
"The verdict was driven by prosecutors who were willing to do anything to win. If I had a fair trial in Alaska, I would have been acquitted," he said.
The crowd cheered and shouted, "We trust you," over and over again as he spoke. Former governor Bill Sheffield, former Anchorage mayor George Wuerch, and mayoral candidate Dan Sullivan were there. So was Alaska's junior U.S. senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, who told the Stevens supporters they need to get their neighbors and co-workers out to support Stevens.
Republican congressional staffers in suits and stylish glasses came to the rally, but the crowd also included moms and old men in long beards and worn Carhartts. Some had a memorable experience with Stevens or one of his staffers helping them with a constituent problem, others just saw him as the lion of Alaska. They seemed to share an unshakeable faith in Stevens, a belief that if he said he didn't do it, he didn't.
Outside of the love and respect for Stevens in that hangar, though, the 40-year senator faces enormous hurdles in getting re-elected. No convicted senator has ever been elected, and a new Rasumusson poll released Tuesday indicates his race went from a statistical tie to an 8-point Begich lead following his conviction.
Several of Stevens' Republican colleagues in the Senate, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have said Stevens broke the public trust and should resign. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican nominee for vice president, and her running mate, John McCain, have also called on Stevens to step down. Palin said Stevens should resign even if he wins next week, to allow a special election to pick his replacement. The McCain-Palin campaign has declined to elaborate on Palin's statement, though, and Palin won't say whom she plans to vote for.
Many Alaska Republicans are conflicted over Stevens, saying they'll vote for a third-party candidate, like Bob Bird of the Alaskan Independence Party or Libertarian David Haase. The state Republican Party's pitch to vote for Stevens is that it would keep Begich from winning, so if Stevens resigns or is expelled from the Senate, there could be a special election allowing another Republican to try and win the seat.
But people who turned out for Stevens' Wednesday rally weren't basing their votes on the hope that a Plan B Republican could emerge in a special election. For them it was all about Stevens, whom many called a "great man," the father of Alaska, a man who built the state and would never break the law.
John Sparaga, an Anchorage dentist, said he believes Stevens will win in Tuesday's election. Alaskans are exceptional, he said, and should turn out for the senator.
"I think Alaskans should prove themselves stronger than other types of people," he said.
Stevens gave an eight-and-a-half minute speech, often interrupted by cheers. He said he was the best person to represent Alaska during this economic crisis, as federal programs important to the state will be in danger of being cut.
"I will represent Alaska in the Senate while my lawyers pursue the appeal to clear my name," Stevens said. " I can advance Alaska's interests regardless of which party is in the majority, or whether I chair a committee."
He criticized the prosecutors in his trial, saying they manipulated evidence and interfered with his defense. On Tuesday, the day after his conviction, Stevens' chief lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, sent a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey complaining about misconduct in the case by prosecutors. The trial, the letter says, was "irretrievably tainted by the prosecution team's zeal to convict a high-profile but innocent defendant."
The Justice Department had no comment on the letter.
Meanwhile, Democrats said Wednesday that four main areas of contention raised by Stevens' defense were all brought to light during the trial, which reduces the chance an appeals court would consider them reason for a retrial. That includes an FBI note in which Veco owner Allen said Stevens would probably pay if given a bill, said Meg Simonian, an Anchorage lawyer and Democrat. She also dismissed the contention that the trial should have been held in Alaska, saying the crimes were committed in Washington, D.C., where Stevens lives, and that extensive questioning of the jury pool filtered out any jurors with built-in bias against Congress or Republicans.
"He is not entitled to a jury of supporters," she said.
Stevens is flying to Fairbanks this morning for a rally there as well as meetings with the editorial board of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and the local Rotary. He'll be back in Anchorage tonight for a public broadcasting debate. It's the first debate he's had with any of his challengers.
Daily News reporters Tom Kizzia and Erika Bolstad contributed to this story. Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.
Final debate tonight
All four major candidates for U.S. Senate and U.S. House will debate tonight on statewide public television and radio between 8 and 10 p.m.
U.S. Rep. Don Young and former state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz debate between 8 and 9, and Sen. Ted Stevens and Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich debate between 9 and 10. In Anchorage, it's on KAKM-Channel 7 and KSKA-91.1 FM.