Ted Stevens was not much of a politician. He tried running for the Senate in ’68, and couldn’t even get nominated. He was a humorless asshole, which generally doesn’t translate into political success. But a vacancy occurred, he got appointed, and took full advantage of his incumbency. He was thoroughly corrupt. In every way.
His personal secretary had been very active in Republican Party politics for years, and when we took over District Nine in ’76, for Reagan, she wanted to be a delegate to the State Convention. Stevens was leading Ford’s campaign, so there was no way I was going to give her a vote. I made her fifth alternate, and she was really pissed off. I’m sure Ted heard all about it. I’d been in the state two years, and I made a life long enemy of a very powerful politician.
Ted Stevens and I were polar opposites. He was a small and insecure man, and a real lawyer. That’s not a compliment. He liked playing the tough guy, though. He used to wear an Incredible Hulk tie to show what a bad ass he was. When I met him we took an instant dislike of each other. He was used to people kissing his ring, and he didn’t like my attitude.
I wanted to take Ted Stevens out, but I could never find a way. Nobody really liked him, he was a jerk. But he was a money machine for the State of Alaska. He brought billions a year back to a state that was quite poor, before Prudhoe. Politically, it made him bullet proof.
He justified his corruption because he thought of himself as a Great White Father to Alaska’s Natives. He probably actually did care for the Natives, I guess I’ll give him that. He tried to give them anything they wanted. What they wanted, more than anything, practically, was a special preference for hunting and fishing rights. They called it subsistence, and it was a huge political issue. A whole lot of non-Natives in Alaska like to hunt and fish. It’s the reason a lot of them live there. And they didn’t want to be second class citizens, which is exactly what the Natives wanted them to be. Stevens got the state legislature to pass a subsistence law, but the Alaska Supreme Court threw it out. It was clearly discriminatory. So Stevens wanted to pass a constitutional amendment granting special preferential rights to Alaska Natives. It didn’t get anywhere at first, but he wouldn’t give up. He kept trying, getting the oil industry behind him, and everybody else he could muscle. Finally, after several years, he managed to get a 2/3 vote in the State Senate, and it came to the House, where I was Minority Leader.
I was amazed at some of the Senators he’d bullied into voting for it. One guy, in particular, Tim Kelly from Eagle River. It was the end of elective office for Tim, and he knew it. That vote cost him his career in politics, but he was now a ward of Ted Stevens, and would be taken care of. Stevens had enough power to do that.
I had 16 of 40 votes in the House. They needed to get three of my people. We beat them in regular session, so Governor Cowper, a Democrat, called us back to Juneau in midsummer. Very inconvenient for everyone, but that was the point. I was vacationing in Santa Barbara with my family, and had to fly to Juneau from California. We were solid. We held out, all 16 of us. It was all a waste of time. After the vote Speaker Sam Cotten called me up to the podium, and told me the Governor wanted to talk to me. I asked Sam, “Why would I want to talk to him?”, and it was all over. We left Juneau the next day.
Stevens finally got taken out by some overzealous and unscrupulous attorneys in the Justice Department. A lot of people are under the impression that Stevens wasn’t corrupt after all. Wrong. Dead wrong.
After his conviction he lost his Senate seat to Mark Begich, a small time Democrat. Embarrassing. And appropriate. I never saw him after that loss. I really didn’t like this guy. I kind of wish I’d seen him one more time. I’d have given him a real big smile.
Lisa Murkowski is Ted’s political heir, and the titular head of what’s left of his political machine. Alaska should be embarrassed by having an airhead like her representing it in the Senate. David Cuddy ran against Stevens back in ’96. He was going to announce his candidacy on my radio talk show. Stevens found out about it and threatened the station owner with the loss of his broadcast license. A couple years later he asked the publisher of the Anchorage Daily News to stop running my biweekly opinion column. Stevens had no answers to my criticism, so he tried to shut me up.
I feel as though I have an unpaid debt in Alaska. It’ll be fun to go back, and try to get some payback.