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Why Alaska celebrates Ted Stevens Day

Amanda Coyne
Aaron Jansen illustration/Loren Holmes photo

On July 28, Alaska will honor the life and accomplishments of Theodore Fulton “Ted” Stevens Sr., its late, long-time senator, on the state's second official Ted Stevens Day. In recent weeks, television commercials have been playing statewide encouraging Alaskans to get outdoors and play in honor of “Uncle Ted.” Stevens was a lifelong proponent of active living, and as senator, he was instrumental in fostering amateur and Olympic sports in the U.S., but there were mountains more to the man than a life-long dedication to physical fitness.

Stevens' background before he touched foot in Alaska is alone a remarkable story. Born during the Roaring Twenties in Indianapolis, Ted Stevens was six years old when the good times came to a halt on Oct. 29, 1929. Things got bad for his family. His father lost his eyesight during the Depression. His parents divorced. He spent his youth in his grandparent’s house, taking care of his father and mentally challenged cousin by hawking newspapers on the street.

Then California called. In Manhattan Beach Stevens was able to relax under the watch of a happy-go-lucky uncle, Walt. He cruised the Southern California streets in a 1931 Pontiac convertible, and he and his best friend Russell Green spent the last years of Stevens’ youth running through the sand and riding the waves.

Next up? World War II, in which he flew transport planes to support the Flying Tigers and Chinese forces fight Japan, earning the Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross.

Onto UCLA, Harvard law school, and to Washington, D.C., where the only coal mine in Alaska, the Usibelli coal mine in Healy, became his client, and it was there, in D.C., that he got bit by the call of wild.

Ted and his first wife Ann headed up the bumpy Alaska Highway in 1953 in their overloaded Buick, and the state would never be the same.

Stevens died in August 2010 at age 86, before his time, and his fingerprints are everywhere in Alaska, from runways and running water, telemedicine and telephones to the small villages that dot the state. He’s present in the now-thriving Kenai River sport fishery, the Kodiak space launch facilities, to the well-groomed ski trails that wrap around Anchorage, to the spit jutting out from Homer, to the airport in Anchorage that bears his name.

Ted Stevens’s influence on Alaska’s economy was so profound that some economists referred to it as “Stevens Money.” From the 1980s to the mid-1990s, Alaska received 30 to 40 percent more federal money per capita than the national average. At the height of Stevens’s reign, that rate jumped to more than 70 percent.

It’s impossible to sum up all that Stevens has done to the state, but on Ted Stevens Day, we thought we’d break out a few of what we consider his key accomplishments. This list is completely subjective. Feel free to comment and include other Stevens-related projects or initiatives you think have been particularly important to the state.

We’re doing this because the earlier this year, Gov. Sean Parnell signed a bill designating the fourth Saturday of every July as Ted Stevens Day. So read on, and then get outside. That’s what Uncle Ted would have wanted.

Statehood

In 1958, weeks after the state’s constitutional convention, Stevens returned to Washington, D.C., to work for Fred Seaton, the Secretary of Interior. Both men shared a dream of seeing Alaska become a state, and Stevens was given free rein to lobby for Alaska’s goal to become a state, which had to be voted on by Congress.

Stevens and his staff studied the lawmakers and created a punch card for each, listing, as Stevens recalled in an interview with an historian, whether “they were Rotarians or Kiwanians or Catholics or Baptists, and veterans or loggers -- the whole thing.” With the help of boosters at home, they tracked down Alaskans with the same religious affiliations or interests and brought them to D.C. to talk to the lawmakers. He had such tunnel vision about his goal that he earned the moniker “Mr. Alaska.” His and others' efforts paid off. On Jan. 3, 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill that turned the far-flung territory into a full-blown member of the United States.

Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act

Less than a year after Ted Stevens was appointed to the Senate at the end of 1968, three big oil companies -- Atlantic Richfield , British Petroleum and Humble Oil (Exxon) -- teamed up to order $100 million worth of 4-foot diameter steel pipe to get oil from the North Slope oil fields in the Arctic to an ice-free seaport on the southern coast, where oil tankers would transport their loads to refineries on the West Coast and beyond.

From sea level at Prudhoe Bay, the 800-mile-long oil pipeline would climb 4,700 feet to cross the Brooks Range, cross 34 major rivers and streams and climb through more mountains, before descending quickly to the southern Alaska harbor town of Valdez, nestled on the shores of Prince William Sound. It was daunting, but even before the pipe segments arrived in Alaska, one problem rose above all: The pipeline would run across lands claimed by Alaska Natives. In the late 1960s, about 17 percent of residents were Alaska Native, many of whom continued to live on large swaths of their ancestral lands that were as much a part of their identity as their culture and livelihood. Ted Stevens respected this throughout his life, playing a pivotal role in trying to preserve a way of life that was in danger of slipping away.

Although Alaska was granted more than 100 million acres of federal land when it became a state in 1959, Native people had never reached a settlement with the federal government on who really owned the land they lived on. Now, a decade late, the state had selected a chunk of its 100 million acres, oil had been discovered, and a big pipeline was about to slice through the entire state -- and it would pass through the ancestral lands of many First Alaskans.

Stevens and others envisioned something more than a federal reservation system for Alaska Natives. Corporations owned by Alaska Native people themselves should be given the land and a cash settlement they could use to launch new companies, developments, and investments. In time, Stevens predicted, these new corporations would develop their land and natural resources and bring yet more development to Alaska. This kept the land out of federal hands and would give Native people the opportunity to become self-sustaining.

In December 1971, President Richard Nixon signed it into law, creating the largest land claims settlement in U.S. history. Along with 44 million acres, the settlement act provided nearly $1 billion to establish corporations owned by the various tribes and 12 geographically defined Native regions of Alaska -- a social experiment that is still playing out today.

Alaska Native corporations

In Anchorage, some urban Alaska Natives from those small villages have nice offices in glimmering buildings, buildings housing huge corporations that are the beneficiary of huge federal government contracts. Because of Ted Stevens, the Alaska Native corporations created under the land settlement act he fought for in the early 1970s qualify for no-bid federal contracts, which over the years, with the help of slick businessmen from Outside, had a fighting chance of making it.

When some of the corporations grew too big to qualify for small business loans, Stevens successfully lobbied for an amendment to continue granting Native corporations small business status. When they began to approach the nine-year limit for a single company’s participation in the program, Stevens made sure they got a break, allowing the corporations to create subsidiaries to apply for the contracts. As often was the case, the Native corporations' subsidiaries then contracted with other businesses—companies like Lockheed Martin, Halliburton, and Blackwater. From 2000 to 2008, Native corporations landed $12.1 billion under special federal contracting privileges.

Rural Alaska

Because of a policy he spearheaded through the U.S. Postal Service, airplanes carrying mail and groceries and people regularly buzz into far-flung villages throughout the state, tiny communities hundreds of miles from the nearest road, many impoverished. As soon as Stevens was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1968, he began to lead a procession of politicians and federal secretaries through these villages. They saw people struggling with no running water, no basic services. No access to medicine or doctors. And when those dignitaries returned to the Beltway, their eyes were opened and money would flow into these outposts.

By the end of his career, Stevens was still working on getting plumbing to 13,000 rural Alaskans. He helped bring telephone and Internet service to rural corners of Alaska, as well as grants and other funds that went toward building new communities centers and basketball courts. Retaining walls to prevent an unruly sea agitated by climate change from flooding a town. Federally funded health clinics in a villages in the middle of nowhere with cutting-edge telemedicine capability. Federal funding to study everything from whale blubber to berry picking.

Magnuson-Stevens Act

Not all that Stevens did was popular, and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act act became perhaps his least popular initiative in certain sectors in the state. In 1976, Congress passed what would later be known as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, named in honor of Stevens and the late Washington state Sen. Warren G. Magnuson.

The act, restricting foreign countries from fishing near the U.S. shores and creating fisheries councils under the jurisdiction of NOAA, has since proven to be the single defining federal law for fisheries management. Various amendments through the years and the act's reauthorization created some of the most controversial provisions, like catch shares and crab allocation, putting many small fisherman out of work. Kodiak, an island in the Gulf of Alaska dependent on fishing, might be the only place where Stevens got booed at a public forum.

Taking it to the Justice Department

It’s now a fact that the Feds thoroughly and completely botched the Stevens corruption investigation and trial that ultimately led to him losing his first re-election in 2008. Just days before the November 2008 election, Stevens was found guilty by a Washington, D.C., federal jury for failing to disclose thousands of dollars in renovations to his home, "gifts" that had been mostly provided by former Alaska oilman Bill Allen and his company VECO -- at least as alleged by federal prosecutors.

As was later revealed, the Feds were sloppy and cut corners and sometimes outright lied. Mostly, they withheld evidence that might have exonerated Stevens.

At issue is the legal process called “discovery.” Defendants have the right to see evidence held by prosecutors that could help their defense, including deals cut with government witnesses or information that would allow their lawyers to question the credibility of such witnesses.

In Alaska’s and many other state courts, it’s a fairly straightforward process governed by fairly straightforward rules. After you’re indicted, your lawyer is supposed to get from prosecutors any evidence that’s going to be used against you. The discovery rules don’t completely protect defendants from prosecutorial misconduct in state courts. Still, at least in state court the discovery rules are unambiguous. In federal court, the rules are much vaguer. It’s the prosecutors who decide what constitutes exculpatory evidence and what the defense can and can’t see. Because prosecutors want to win, that’s where abuses sometimes happen.

Lawyers have complained for years about prosecutorial abuses to little avail. The public -- and judges apparently -- have been hardened to the pleas of defense lawyers yelling about problems in the system.

The Stevens case, however, brought a spotlight to such issues.

The federal judge in the case, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, wrote that the case “has come not only to symbolize the dangers of an overzealous prosecution and the risks inherent when the government does not abide by its discovery obligations, but it has also been credited with changing the way other courts, prosecutors, and defense counsel approach discovery in criminal cases."

Some in the legal community, helped in part by Sullivan, are now calling for reform. U. S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is leading the charge in Congress to change the rules. And even William M. Welch, the former section chief for the division of the Justice Department that prosecuted Stevens, has recently come out for reform.

And Ted Stevens is smiling, somewhere up there.

Contact Amanada Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com

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