Alaska News

Like a rock, Sen. Gary Stevens holds a bipartisan group together

JUNEAU -- Senate President Gary Stevens has spent much of his adult life in Kodiak, an island in the midst of frequently rough seas and rotten weather.

Now, it's the 70-year-old retired history professor who many call "Santa Claus" that finds himself in stormy political waters being stirred up by Gov. Sean Parnell and proponents of oil tax reform. Parnell has been especially critical of the Senate, which has resisted hasty passage of his oil tax bill, calling them "do nothing senators" and stirring up public pressure on the Senate.

For weeks -- and even with just one week remaining in the session -- Stevens, a fellow Republican, has calmly taken the lead in holding the line against the governor's rush to pass legislation that will cost the state an estimated $2 billion a year. He has questions about the bill and he wants answers before he'll sign off on such a huge fiscal dent in the state treasury, answers he says Parnell and his staff have been unable to give.

"Anytime somebody tells you if you don't make this decision right now the world is going to come to an end the first thing you should do is hang on to your wallet, because they sound like a car salesman," Stevens said in an interview last week.

"The governor has very strong beliefs about the oil tax but we need to be logical and look at the data and look at the information and make a decision based on the facts, not on emotion," he says. "The administration has not done a very good job of explaining the bill. They should be able to come in and defend it, and they have not done a very good job of that I think."

On Monday, Stevens took an unusual parliamentary step. He came down from the president's chair and onto the Senate floor to make a speech urging caution in proceeding with any oil tax cuts that could risk education, police services and other important state services.

MORE on Sen. Stevens: Read transcript of speech | Watch video of speech

"The hard thing about being president is having to listen to the debate and not being allowed to participate," he told his colleagues.

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"But I wanted to speak to the most controversial and difficult issue we have faced," he began, and then proceeded to speak for nearly 30 minutes on why the Senate would not be "bullied" into a hurried decision on an oil tax cut.

Stevens isn't the only senator with serious doubts about the proposal to significantly change the tax structure known as Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share (ACES). And he's probably not even the most vocal. Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, who co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee, is often quoted on his opposition to reconfiguring ACES without more facts.

But as leader of the Senate Bipartisan Working Group -- 10 Democrats and six Republicans who in an unusual move installed Stevens as president two terms in a a row -- Stevens usually speaks first if not last when the question comes up, as it always does, at press conferences and in interviews.

"The governor has ganged up with the House majority and there's no question Gary is taking the brunt of that ganging up," says Sen. Johnny Ellis, who as Rules Committee chairman is a top leader of the Senate.

Still, as Ellis points out, "Gary Stevens is sort of a rock of steadiness in these churning waters. But they know how to handle that in Kodiak."

Senate's man in the middle

Stevens is more like a master of ceremonies than the political overseer one might expect to see in the Alaska Senate. Anyone who's watched him at weekly press availabilities notices the way he deftly introduces an issue then smoothly hands off to the senator whose bill it is. He always has a short but thoughtful summation to make sure everyone gets the senator's point. At last week's press conference, several reporters who had been waiting to ask questions via the teleconference system had already hung up. But Stevens mentioned each of them by name, thanked them and apologized for taking too long to call on them.

When asked about the Senate president, people "in the building" -- the catch phrase for lawmakers, staff, lobbyists and other Capitol denizens -- immediately bring up former president Ben Stevens as exactly the type of iron-fisted partisan game-player that Gary Stevens, no relation, is not. They say Ben Stevens used the president's chair for his own political gain and that of his GOP colleagues with little regard for others.

But Gary Stevens, they say, is "gracious" and "down to earth" and "genuinely nice."

"I have never seen him lose control even when he's angry," says Rep. Beth Kerttula, the House Minority Leader and longtime representative from Juneau who sat next to Stevens when he was in the House, where he began his legislative career in 2000 before moving to the Senate in 2003.

She notes that the Senate can be a tough body to try to run. With less frequent turnover than the House, "people in the Senate can hang on to resentments for a very, very long time and he works through that."

"To lead a coalition in the Senate is much more difficult and he's managed to do it," she says.

House Speaker Mike Chenault "respectfully" declined to comment in detail for this story. Later, in a brief hallway chat, he said, "I like Gary. He and I get along just fine." But, he said he didn't feel comfortable talking at length at this point in the session when things are being worked out between the two chambers.

Parnell also didn't respond to a request for an interview for this story.

Stevens is the fourth Senate president in 50 years to succeed himself. Although there are more Democrats than Republicans in the bipartisan coalition, they have placed their faith in Stevens to run the show.

"I think it's because the legislators trust me to be fair with them," says Stevens. "They trust me that their districts are taken care of and that no one is abused."

"When you've got 10-10 you've got to find a way to get people to work together," he says. "It clearly means you can't deal with extreme issues. You have to really deal with middle issues, the moderate issues."

And that's about right, Stevens reasons, because most Alaskans are moderate and more than half of registered voters classify themselves as non-partisan.

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Stevens also has given standing to the four conservative Republicans who form the minority caucus, even though under Senate rules it takes five senators to officially be a minority. The four are actually considered to be "dissidents" but Stevens has given them committee assignments, office space, staff and travel budgets the same as other senators.

"Every senator represents one-twentieth of the population of Alaska," he says. "They have a constituency that is important and deserves to have attention. They deserve to have capital projects.

"In the end no one is going to be treated badly because they're in the minority. That's not the way we're playing the game this session."

History plays a role

Stevens was born in Oregon, grew up there and got both his master's degree and Ph.d from the University of Oregon. He's lived in Alaska since 1970, teaching history for many years at the University of Alaska in Kodiak.

He is certain his study of history as well as his love of it has helped shape his political ideas and his legislative style.

Machiavelli, he notes, said: "Do generously that which you have to do anyway," a philosophy Stevens has adopted.

He learned how to get people engaged and keep them that way. And how to work the audience.

"As a teacher, you're a performer," Stevens says. "You're on stage."

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Stevens spent 16 years as a local elected official in Kodiak -- school board, city council, city mayor and borough mayor -- before running for the Legislature. He served in the House from 2000 to 2003 when he was appointed to the Senate seat held by Alan Austerman. Austerman, now a state representative, left the Senate to take a job with Gov. Frank Murkowski.

Alaska political history also has taught Stevens about what kind of politician he doesn't want to be. He looks back at the federal corruption investigation that rocked the Legislature a few years ago. "It was a terrible time," he says. "It was a shame to see that type of influence occur and I'd hate to see it happen again."

Stevens has tried to keep his even-keel sense of things despite the sniping from Parnell, who he says has been less engaged with the Legislature this year. That puzzles Stevens, he says, because the oil tax reform is a major issue and a major priority.

"There's really been a lack of communication this year over this issue which is so big." he says. "You'd think the governor's administration -- his chief of staff and his legislative liaison -- would be in our offices more. I think I've seen less involvement of the governor's office this year than I have in the past and its such a big issue."

One area where Stevens has shown his Republican loyalties is redistricting, the every-10-years reshuffling of legislative district boundaries to reflect population shifts. It's arguably the biggest political issue of the year this year, because control of the Legislature is very much at stake.

Stevens got to pick one member of the redistricting board -- the governor picked two, the House Speaker one and the chief justice of the Supreme Court the fifth.

Despite his leadership of a bipartisan group, Stevens chose Bob Brodie, the head the Kodiak Republican Party, as his member.

"I picked somebody I knew and in fact he lives down the street from me," Stevens says. "My belief is he would watch out for rural Alaska and make sure it was not damaged any more then necessary."

He shrugs off a suggestion that the board might be unfair because it it stacked with Republicans. Parnell and House Speaker Mike Chenault chose staunch GOP members, too.

"I suppose partisanship does enter into it," Stevens says. "But you also want to appoint people you know and trust to do the right thing."

Ellis, the Democrats' leader in the Senate, also isn't too bothered by the redistricting pick. He says Stevens was undoubtedly under pressure from the Republican Party to make a solid GOP choice. "It was his decision under the law," Ellis says.

Ellis is a big fan of Gary Stevens and has no qualms about his sincerity in running a classy political operation as Senate president. It's a welcome change from Ben Stevens, who Ellis called "very polarizing."

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"People felt politically abused by Ben Stevens," he says.

Then came Sen. Lyda Green as president, who Ellis credits with recognizing the advantage to trying to work together with Democrats especially after the corruption scandal.

That Stevens was asked to lead the group a second time is "a high compliment," Ellis says. "I don't think there was any question in anybody's mind that he shouldn't."

"I think he brings our group together like others were not able to do," Ellis says. "We have achieved a comfort level with each other. It's not his nature to throw sharp elbows."

Ellis points out that having a healthy budget especially for capital projects has helped Stevens politically because there's plenty of money for all members' districts.

And, he says, the fact that Stevens is from Kodiak means he doesn't have the Anchorage-centric attitude that many others in leadership have flaunted.

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"He's not obsessed with the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce crowd," Ellis says. "He keeps a perspective on small town rural Alaska and balances that with the needs of urban Alaska."

Balancing others priorities while taking a backseat on his own is something Stevens says he knows he needs to do if he's going to be an effective leader. He's committed to improving education, especially higher education opportunities, but he says he knows he can't push his own issues without putting himself in "an untenable position" with his colleagues.

"I might not have made it to my second term if you don't share success with others and share responsibility with others," says Stevens, who plans to stay in the Senate at least a couple more terms if the voters agree.

"None of us can do this alone," he says, "and I've seen a few legislators in the past that act as if they're the only ones who really know what's going on. I'm the first one to admit that there are people smarter than I am here."

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com

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