'Uncle Ted' Stevens: Alaska's Gruff, Tough Advocate
Before Ted Stevens' indictment Tuesday, Americans in the lower 48 knew him primarily as the cantankerous, outspoken advocate for Alaska.
The longest-serving Republican in Senate history, Stevens was indicted on charges of concealing gifts he received from an Alaska oil services company. But prior to that, Stevens was more likely to make headlines for his at times temperamental outbursts on the Senate floor or his comment back in 2006 likening the Internet to a series of tubes.
Don Mitchell is a writer, lawyer and Alaska historian who has known Stevens over the years. Last summer, when I asked Mitchell if this irascible image of Stevens was accurate, he smiled. "It is one of the Ted Stevens that exist," Mitchell said. "There are many other Ted Stevenses."
Stevens is equally known for his prowess in channeling federal dollars to his home state. For years, he served as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, exerting his power to secure funding for projects in Alaska ranging from millions for new airports right down to a few hundred thousand dollars for berry research. He's been a champion of Native Alaskans and — like almost all Alaskan politicians — he favors drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"Ted Stevens is very, very smart; very, very hard-working; very, very politically astute in the procedures of the Senate," Mitchell said.
Stevens has always been strategic in his thinking — and ambitious. A World War II veteran from California, he moved to Alaska in the early 1950s as a young lawyer and quickly set about making political connections. That led to a position as federal prosecutor in Fairbanks, then a job for the Interior Department in the Eisenhower administration, where he was involved in the push for Alaska's statehood. He backed the wrong horse in the 1960 presidential election and ended up returning to Alaska to work as a lawyer.
Jack Roderick, who later became mayor of Anchorage, shared a small law office with Stevens in those days. He recalled Stevens' unabating professional drive: "Ted would get nervous if the phone didn't ring. He was an A-type, for sure."
Those who knew Stevens then all agree that being elected to Congress was his abiding ambition. But he wasn't a natural. He ran twice for the Senate in the 1960s — losing both times. He finally made it in late 1968, when a senator died in office and Stevens was appointed to the job.
In the four decades since, he's won re-election over and over again on the strength of his hard work for Alaska; his personality has been less of a factor. Mitchell said Alaskans refer to Stevens as "Uncle Ted," but it's not because they find him warm and cuddly.
"I would suspect that it's because of his position as a sort of an avuncular authority figure, your old Uncle Ted, who's sort of a gruff guy who cares about you, but he doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve about it," Mitchell said.
Mitchell, who represented Stevens on a Supreme Court case in the 1990s, said Stevens can be very harsh with his own staff. But he's also very loyal. "Once you're made with Stevens, you're made," Mitchell said. He said Stevens pushes his staff to get law degrees, even if it means studying at night, and he eventually "pushes them out of the nest" to make their own careers.
Over the decades, this has created a whole network of former Stevens staffers who are now movers and shakers in Alaska, as well as in Washington, D.C. At least one of those staffers, Trevor McCabe, is suspected of profiting from his association with Stevens. Investigators are looking into McCabe's sale of a plot of land to a marine interpretive center in Seward, Alaska; the center apparently bought the land with federal money earmarked by Stevens.
Stevens' son, Ben, has also come under scrutiny, especially for his work as a consultant for companies that need help from his father.
However, the charges announced Tuesday stem largely from renovations to Stevens' house, a modest vacation place in Girdwood, Alaska. In July 2007, FBI and IRS agents swarmed over the place, taking pictures and videos. Federal investigators have charged Stevens with failing to disclose how much help he received in enlarging his home from VECO, a local oil services company, and its chief executive, Bill Allen. According to the indictment, between May 1999 and August 2007, Stevens received more than $250,000 in gifts from VECO, Allen and others. Much of that amount allegedly came in the form of home improvements — including the addition of a new first floor, garage and wraparound deck.
The odd thing, in the view of many Alaskans, is that the house in question is nothing special. It's about 2,000 square feet, and it's located on a scruffy lot in a neighborhood that's not exactly exclusive. Wire stories about the search have referred to Girdwood as a "ski resort," and technically, it is. But it's no Aspen. This is a ski resort in Alaska, which means gravel roads and peeling paint jobs. The most posh restaurant in town is a Cajun place called The Double Musky. Given the billions of dollars of federal money that Stevens has channeled into Alaska over the years, people here find it strange to think that he might have jeopardized his career over a house worth a few hundred thousand dollars.