MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Scandals of a very different sort are having an impact on politics in Alaska. Even before his indictment on charges of concealing gifts last week, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was a favorite of late-night comics. This outburst on the Senate floor got lots of attention.
Senator TED STEVENS (Republican, Alaska): I've been asked several times today, will I agree to this version or that version of the senator's Oklahoma amendment? No, no, I will not. Unless it treats all states the same way.
BLOCK: That clip is from three years ago, when Stevens and his fellow Alaska Republican Congressman Don Young were trying to save the so-called Bridge to Nowhere. The bridge would have been in Ketchikan, Alaska, and it would have cost the federal government more than $200 million. It became a symbol for out- of-control congressional earmarks. Well, the bridge was never built and now with Stevens facing charges and Young under scrutiny for ethics violations, both face stiff re-election challenges.
But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, neither man is about to go quietly.
MARTIN KASTE: Alaskans call Ketchikan First City. In the summertime, this century-old cannery town wakes up to cruise ships. They dock right along the main drag, and it looks like a bunch of Miami condos materialized here overnight. By Alaska standards, this is a big town, and Mayor Bob Weinstein is still a little sore about that whole Bridge to Nowhere thing.
Mayor BOB WEINSTEIN (Ketchikan, Alaska): You know, I can say that I get tired of that, that's why I'm wearing my Nowhere Alaska 99901 T-shirt.
KASTE: The mayor's shirt really does say Nowhere, Alaska. He's wearing it because Don Young and Ted Stevens are coming to town. They were the godfathers of the bridge effort, and Ketchikan still feels the debt of gratitude.
(Soundbite of downtown noise)
KASTE: But now, in the wake of Senator Stevens' indictment, some people here are less eager to see them. At least, that's the sentiment by the downtown Salmon Creek(ph).
Mr. RIG BERE(ph): Oh! He got away, spit the hook.
KASTE: Rig Bere(ph) just lost a huge, pink salmon. He sends his line out again, and he says the news that Senator Stevens has been charged with hiding gifts from an oil company has put a damper on the visit.
Mr. BERE: Personally, I think he's a little dirty. I don't see how you could be in politics that long and not really be into something, and especially Ted. He's been there forever.
KASTE: Bere's opinion of Congressman Don Young isn't any better.
Mr. BERE: I'm really not that big of a fan of Young.
KASTE: Of the two men, Young is the one who's getting more roughed up politically. The 35-year incumbent faces two serious challengers in the Republican primary. They're going after him in part over his penchant for earmarks. This is Young's reaction to the earmarks criticism recorded by alaskareport.com at the state Republican convention in March.
Representative DON YOUNG (Republican, Alaska): How many in this room or this community is asking for earmarks? Raise your hands. Raise your hands. Be truthful, raise your hands. Everybody.
KASTE: Young had good reason to feel a little on edge that night. He just found out that he was being challenged in the primary by the lieutenant governor. Worse, his challenger has the support of Alaska's popular Republican governor, Sarah Palin. Even now, as Young sits in a hallway after a candidate debate in Ketchikan, the thought of his Republican opponents makes him testy.
Rep. YOUNG: I will say this, that the Johnny-come-latelies are not always Republicans.
KASTE: Are you talking about the governor here?
Rep. YOUNG: You answer your own question. You answer your own question. You keep asking those questions, and I'm not gonna keep talking to you. I answered it, you take my answer.
KASTE: Senator Stevens, on the other hand, is being treated a little more gently. His primary opponents are unknowns, and Alaska's political establishment has been reluctant to criticize him even after the federal charges. In the State Capitol, Democratic State House member Mary Sattler Nelson tries to explain where all this reverence comes from.
State Representative MARY SATTLER NELSON (Democrat, Alaska): I've just really seen Senator Stevens as a statesman.
KASTE: That's Nelson's baby sitting on her lap.
State Rep. NELSON: This is Nora Shine(ph). Her Eskimo name is (unintelligible), and she's 4 months old.
KASTE: As it turns out, little Nora is a case in point for why Stevens is so revered. As she wiggles her miniature mukluks in the air, her mother recalls how Senator Stevens recently visited their home in western Alaska, and how he immediately recognized the baby's name.
State Rep. NELSON: We, the Yupiks, we name our babies after people who've passed away. And culturally, it's a very big deal when someone recognizes your baby's namesake. And I mean, I'm kind of choked up now thinking about it. He knows exactly what - who Nora Gwenn(ph) was and her contributions. And to me, I'm just going to be real sad if anything - you know, I'm going to say bad happens to him, but something terrible already has.
KASTE: Keep in mind, the person getting choked up over Stevens is a Democrat. That's the difference between the comedians' version of Stevens and his image at home.
Back in Ketchikan, a small group of locals takes the ferry out to the airport to meet Stevens. This ferry happens to cross the very same channel of water that would have been spanned by the Bridge to Nowhere.
Joe Johnson is holding a bunch of Stevens' campaign signs.
Mr. JOE JOHNSON (Senator Ted Stevens' Supporter): We've come here to show our support for Senator Stevens because we think he's being taken for a ride.
KASTE: Stevens' supporters are feeling combative, and the senator is playing off that mood. Once he gets to Ketchikan, he practically dares Alaskans not to vote for him.
Sen. STEVENS: For 40 years, I've committed my life to Alaska. Now, if you want anything back for that, you'll re-elect me. If you just want to walk away from it, that's your problem, not mine.
KASTE: Don Young makes essentially the same pitch. It's an argument that still has sway, but some Alaskans think Young and Stevens represent an era that's ending. Governor Sarah Palin is one of those people.
Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): We are the highest per- capita recipients of federal funds for all these years. Okay, to me the writing on the wall says that's all changing. That's going to come to a screeching halt, and it's not such a bad thing.
KASTE: Palin believes less federal funding will push Alaska to develop more of its resources - natural gas, more drilling for oil - even if it means going into controversial areas like wilderness lands. That may be the price to pay, the thinking goes, if Americans want to see Alaska less reliant on the legislative skills of men like Stevens and Young.
Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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