Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens dies in plane crash

Former Sen. Ted Stevens, an uncompromising advocate for Alaska for four decades who delivered scores of expensive projects to one of the nation's most sparsely populated states, including the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," has died in a plane crash. He was 86.

Family spokesman Mitch Rose said Tuesday that Stevens was among five people killed in the crash of a small aircraft outside Dillingham, about 325 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Stevens began his career in the days before Alaska statehood and did not leave politics until 2008, when he was convicted on corruption charges weeks before Election Day. But a federal judge threw out the verdict because of misconduct by federal prosecutors.

Stevens, a moderate Republican, was appointed in December 1968 and became the longest-serving Republican in Senate history. (The late Strom Thurmond was in the Senate longer than Stevens, but he spent a decade there as a Democrat before switching to the GOP.)

The wiry octogenarian was a legend in his home state, where he was known as "Uncle Ted." Though he was built like a birch sapling, he liked to encourage comparisons with the Incredible Hulk -- an analogy that seemed appropriate for his outsized place in Alaska history.

The crash that killed Stevens was not his first. Shortly after being elected to his second full term in 1978, he was aboard a private jet that went down at Anchorage International Airport, killing his first wife, Ann.

Stevens' standing in Alaska was hurt by allegations he accepted a bonanza of home renovations and fancy trimmings from VECO Corp., a powerful oil field services contractor, and then lied about it on congressional disclosure documents.

Indicted on federal charges in July 2008, he asked for an unusually speedy trial, hoping to clear his name before Election Day. Instead, he was convicted in late October of all seven counts -- and narrowly lost his Senate seat to Democrat Mark Begich in the election the following week.

In his farewell speech to the Senate, he said: "I look only forward and I still see the day when I can remove the cloud that currently surrounds me."

Five months after the election, Attorney General Eric Holder dropped the indictment and declined to proceed with a new trial because of misconduct by federal prosecutors. Stevens never discussed the events publicly.

When his party held a majority, Stevens -- known as a formidable parliamentarian -- was chairman of several Senate committees, including the powerful Rules and Appropriations panels. For three years, he was majority whip. When the Democrats took back control of the Senate in January 2007, he lost his chairmanships but remained ranking Republican member of the powerful Commerce Committee.

His skill in appropriating military and other federal money for Alaska earned him the reputation among many in Washington as a pork-barrel politician.

Revered in Alaska -- he was named Alaskan of the Century in 1999 for having the greatest impact on the state in 100 years -- he brought in "Stevens money" that literally helped keep the remote state solvent. The Anchorage airport is also named in his honor.

"The only special interest I care about is Alaska," he was fond of saying.

A television reporter once quipped that Stevens could shoot Santa's reindeer and Alaskans would applaud.


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