Alaskans React To End Of Stevens Era

Embattled Sen. Ted Stevens concedes after coming up short in a tight race for re-election to Alaska's Senate seat. How are Alaskans greeting the news that Stevens is out after 40 years in office?

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After about 40 years in the U.S. Senate, what a way to leave. Alaska is getting used to the idea that the man known as Uncle Ted will no longer be their senator. Yesterday, after two weeks of counting ballots, Democrat Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage, defeated Stevens. And today Stevens conceded the race. This is the least of his troubles. He was recently convicted on charges of concealing $250,000 in gifts. As Annie Feidt of the Alaska Public Radio Network reports, many Alaskans are lamenting the way Stevens' career ended, but they're also ready for change.

ANNIE FEIDT: In a quiet room at the Anchorage Division of Elections headquarters yesterday, Begich campaign worker John Vezina reported a tally of freshly counted votes back to his office. The numbers were recorded on long strips of paper that look a lot like grocery receipts.

Mr. JOHN VEZINA (Campaign Worker, Mark Begich Senatorial Campaign): Are you ready? Begich 177. Yeah, this is a good one. Bird 14. Stevens 126.

FEIDT: Vezina couldn't suppress a smile as his candidate pulled farther and farther ahead. By the end of the day, with a narrow lead of 3,724 votes, the election was over and so was Ted Stevens' marathon 40-year Senate career. On the streets of Anchorage, many Alaskans were elated.

Mr. BROCK ALLEN(ph): Fantastic.

FEIDT: Brock Allen is an Anchorage resident.

Mr. ALLEN: They start doing shady deals and start not looking out for our interests, we need to get them out. So I'm real happy about it.

FEIDT: Just before the election, a Washington, D.C., jury found Stevens guilty of lying about a quarter million dollars worth of gifts on his Senate financial disclosure forms. Polls predicted he would lose by a wide margin, but after election night he was leading Begich. Over the next few weeks, as Alaskans held their breath, Senator-for-Life Stevens slowly fell behind while the state counted a record number of absentee and early votes. Anchorage Daily News columnist Michael Carey says while it's clearly time for change, it's hard to accept the way his career is ending.

Mr. MICHAEL CAREY (Columnist, Anchorage Daily News): It's sadder than I think people around the world can ever imagine. He participated in all the great events of the last 50 years. He changed Alaska and left his footprint everywhere.

FEIDT: That mixed reaction is common here. Ruth Dean(ph) explains.

Ms. RUTH DEAN: I think it's sad that such a man who I admired over the years let his judgment falter.

FEIDT: The 85-year-old Stevens is known for steering billions of dollars in federal funding to Alaska. Fifty years ago, he helped usher the territory into statehood. That legacy helped the senator win the votes of Alaskans like Phil Walzak(ph), who says he can't accept Stevens' conviction by a jury thousands of miles away.

Mr. PHIL WALZAK: I voted for him for the things he did in the past and maybe as a way of saying that people in Washington shouldn't be making decisions for us on what's right and wrong.

FEIDT: Stevens' defeat may mark the end of an era for Alaska. But Anchorage Daily News columnist Michael Carey says anyone hoping to see big changes from the state's new member and only Democrat in Congress will be disappointed.

Mr. CAREY: He won't be different on oil issues, I don't think. He won't be different on resource management issues. And he won't be different on native affairs. He will be very good, I think, in Congress and working with his colleagues.

FEIDT: And Mark Begich may be a new face in the U.S. Senate, but his family name is a familiar one in Congress. His father, Nick, served one term from Alaska in the U.S. House in the early 1970s. He disappeared in a plane crash while campaigning for re-election. For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt in Anchorage.

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