Alaska News

Ted Stevens' Alaska

For almost five decades, Ted Stevens was Alaska politics. Many in the north knew him simply as "Uncle Ted," a sobriquet he earned for all the monetary gifts he brought home to the 49th state from Washington, D.C. He was beloved in Alaska, but in the end, gifts and favors from a prominent oilman would tarnish his reputation both here and in D.C.

Stevens, who had been a state legislator before going on to serve 40 years in the U.S. Senate, died Monday in a plane crash on the way to what had become an annual fishing trip to Southwest Alaska. It was an ironic end for a man whose adult life began as a World War II aviator and whose political career was almost cut short by an explosive crash of a small jet on a runway at what is now known as Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

Stevens' first wife, Ann, and four others died in that Dec. 4, 1978 crash. One-time Alaska Commerce Commissioner Tony Motley and Ted Stevens were the only survivors. Motley went on to become U.S. ambassador to Brazil. Stevens went on to become the longest-serving Senate Republican in U.S. history.

"It takes years to get the power he had," recalled Clem Tillion, a former Alaska legislator and longtime friend of Stevens'. The men met in 1962 during campaign season, when Stevens made his first run at the Senate in a failed bid to unseat Ernest Gruening. Tillion, a fisherman, cultivated his own career in the Alaska Legislature while Stevens went on six years later to make his mark in Washington.

When a federal grand jury in 2008 indicted Stevens for failing to report on his Senate disclosure forms more than $200,000 in gifts and a house remodel from Bill Allen and his oil-field services company, VECO Corp., there were those who said the senator could never be convicted in his home state because it would be hard -- if not impossible -- to impanel a jury pool that didn't contain people for whom Stevens had done favors.

Federal prosecutors, obviously aware of that, tried him in the nation's capital and won a conviction. It was later overturned by a judge who found that Stevens had been railroaded by misconduct on the part of FBI agents and Justice Department lawyers.

"To try a white Republican in Washington, D.C., you know Jesus Christ would have been convicted. There wasn't any way he could get out. The deck was stacked," Tillion said.


Tillion and others believe the trial and jury conviction cost Stevens his Senate seat. In November 2008, Stevens narrowly lost his reelection bid to Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat, just one week after the jury's findings of guilt.

Begich -- whose father Rep. Nick Begich, D-Alaska, died in a plane crash in Alaska in 1972 -- headed off for the nation's capital pledging to try to do as good a job for his state as Stevens had done for all those decades. The story of a younger man with eager ambitions toppling an entrenched, institutionalized elder entered a new era, just as it had when Stevens was 38 and first went after Gruening, who was 75 at the time.

Stevens' driving passion was seeing that Alaskans got their fair share, and then some, of federal tax dollars. Citizens Against Government Waste attacked him for bringing home $3.4 billion between 1995 and 2008. The Washington, D.C.-based, self-proclaimed government watchdog called it all pork.

"He was 20 percent of our economy for years," Tillion said. "People say, 'Well, he was just elected because he brought home the pork.' I hope not. But his argument was that if the federal government was not going to let us use the land and they controlled 90 percent of it, they ought to pay 90 percent of bill. And his arguments were valid enough to win in Washington."

A struggling state

What critics called pork, Stevens called necessity. He cited health problems in villages without sewer or running water. He noted the state's inadequate transportation system. He pointed to the problems in bringing jobs and education to isolated rural villages.

Alaska was a backward, struggling state when Stevens first went to Congress in 1968, and Stevens committed himself heart and soul to changing that. Over the years that followed, he fought to bring Alaska up to pace with the rest of America and then vault it into the 21st century.

Most of the state's villages are now linked to the world by the Internet. General Communications Inc. -- an Alaska telecommunication powerhouse -- was a big player in making that happen. And Stevens was a close personal friend of GCI founder Ron Duncan. It was GCI's plane Stevens was aboard when it crashed Monday, not far from the company's lodge near Dillingham.

His relationship with Duncan went back to when rural Alaska was a primitive place. There was no television prior to the mid-1970s. Some villages lacked electricity, let alone water and sewer. Telephone service, where available, was sometimes a single phone.

Stevens helped change that. He was a backer of the Rural Alaska Television Network (RATNET) that brought the first television service to the Bush. He was a supporter of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that created 13 regional Native corporations that transformed the state of business in the north.

"ANCSA," Stevens once told the Tundra Times newspaper, "was my baptism of fire as a senator from Alaska.'"

"The land claims is his monument," Tillion said, "and no matter whether you like the Alaska land claims or not, it gave the Natives a fighting chance. If they mess it up it's their fault. But he gave them even ground."

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The land claims act, in part, emerged out of the need to create a corridor for the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which passed through Native lands. The young senator would become an unyielding advocate for Alaska Natives and their right to be land owners, even when not everybody in the state Republican Party was in favor of a generous land claims settlement. Stevens took the political risk.

"He absolutely recognized that this was something that the state of Alaska needed to do and that it would be a great thing to do in terms of not just creating one but numerous engines of the economy for years to come," said Roy Huhndorf , former chief executive of what has become one of Alaska's most powerful Native corporations, Cook Inlet Region Inc.

When Native corporations struggled in the years following ANCSA's passage, Stevens was there to help them with tax credits, restrictions on selling stock, and preferential government contracting rules. The legislative process was to Stevens a war, and he fought to win for Alaskans.

"Sen. Stevens was always right there, and he was our friend," said Janie Leask, president and chief executive of First Alaskans Institute. "I don't think his shoes will ever be filled."

Native corporations weren't the only Alaska businesses Stevens was helping.


The Magnuson-Stevens Act

The commercial fishing industry got a big boost from Stevens linking with Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, D-Wash., to drive foreign fishermen out of Alaska waters. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act pushed the U.S. coastal zone out to 200 miles off the coast.

Foreign fishermen were kicked out of the zone. American fishermen moved in. And a new agency -- the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council -- ensured the long-term sustainability of Alaska's offshore fisheries.

Although Stevens couldn't do as much for timber -- his efforts to prop up the Southeast Alaska timber industry during the Alaska parklands battle in the 1980s largely failed -- on almost every other business front Stevens succeeded.

He poured federal money into tourism and fishing, both major Alaska industries. At the height of his power as the ranking member of the Senate appropriations committee early in this decade, Citizens Against Waste attacked him in 2002 for the large amounts of money he brought home for seafood harvesting and marketing, $1.2 million; studies of new processed salmon products, $630,000; and salmon quality control, $120,000.

But, as was often the case, the bulk of the money he was accused of taking from the federal treasury was coming north to aid average Alaskans, primarily in the Bush.

Bringing home the bacon

What might have been seen as chunks of pork to some Outside were seen by Stevens as business necessities for Alaskans striving to move the state forward. For instance, Stevens' major appropriation in 2002 was $24 million for water and sewer, both of which many rural Alaska villages lack.

Not that there might not have been a little pork involved now and then, too. The Anchorage Nordic Ski Association, for instance, once unexpectedly ended up with an extra PistenBully grooming vehicle for maintaining city cross-country trails. No one was quite sure who asked Stevens for it, but the club was happy to have it. And it was a small thing compared to the $500,000 Stevens obtained to help fund a Nordic Ski Center in Alaska's largest city.

Citizens Against Government Waste attacked him for that, too. But the ski center helped Anchorage become one of the preeminent cross-country ski areas in North America.


Stevens himself was a fitness buff. The legislation backing the U.S. Olympic team bares his name: "The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act." He was for years a serious karate buff. Karate, some said, was a sport that fit well with what could sometimes be a kung fu meets incredible hulk personality.

Decade after decade, he was a man who loved to do battle. And over time the young and feisty "fire eater" grew to become a grandfatherly statesman, equal parts teddy bear and tiger, caring and cantankerous.

Tillion last saw Stevens on June 1, when Stevens attended the funeral of Tillion's wife, Diana. Their children grew up together, and the families knew each other well. Stevens was adamant that serving politics as an elected official was behind him, but influence still beckoned, Tillion said. Stevens still wanted to advocate for the fishing industry and he had becoming increasingly vocal in pushing for an in-state natural gas pipeline.

He was also awaiting resolution in what may have been the biggest fight of his life -- the badly botched criminal trial that ruined his political career.

Although it has been under way for more than 16 months, no results have been announced from a court-ordered investigation into whether federal prosecutors committed crimes themselves while trying to win their case against Stevens for failing to disclose gifts and home renovations from VECO, Bill Allen and other friends. And although the Justice Department set aside his convictions and chose not to hold a second trial, it never directly cleared Stevens of any wrongdoing.

"It's like losing him twice. Losing him ... when he lost the election, and then losing him for real this time," Leask of First Alaskans Institute said of Stevens' death. "I don't think that the Native community has had an opportunity to properly thank him for everything that he has done, and that is a huge regret. I think we are still kind of stunned."

Tillion was more pragmatic Tuesday: "He had a full life, that's not a complaint. And he died the way he'd like to go -- in an airplane."

"Those of us of the World War II generation," Tillion added, "when one goes, it's a big vacancy. And when somebody as close as Ted and I were goes, it hurts."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at) Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)

Craig Medred

Craig Medred is a former writer for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2015.

Jill Burke

Jill Burke is a former writer and columnist for Alaska Dispatch News.