ANCHORAGE, Alaska — 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 today 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.
He helped shape landmark legislation on Alaska Native land claims, the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, fisheries management and public lands.
One of his projects became a symbol of pork-barrel spending in Congress and a target of taxpayer groups who challenged a $450 million appropriation for bridge construction.
The “Bridge to Nowhere” would have connected Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with just 50 residents at a cost of nearly $400 million. The proposal became a symbol of the waste associated with earmarks, which are items inserted into bills, often at the last minute.
Congress scrubbed funding for the bridge in 2005.
The following year, Stevens became the butt of jokes and satirical songs for describing the Internet as “a series of tubes” and for speaking of sending “an Internet” instead of an e-mail.
Most of the wisecracks portrayed Stevens as an old man who did not understand the technology over which he wielded influence as chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Stevens also was known for being easily angered both in private and on the Senate floor. Stevens saw his volatile temperament as a political tool.
“I don’t lose my temper,” he told the Anchorage Daily News in 1994. “I always know where it is.”
When critics called for his resignation after a Los Angeles Times story detailed how Stevens became a millionaire investing in companies he helped secure government contracts, he said: “If they think I am going to resign because of a story in a newspaper, they’re crazy.”
Stevens also took flak for aiding groups that hired his son, former state Senate President Ben Stevens, as a consultant and for pushing a lease deal with Boeing after it hired his wife’s law firm.
In 2007, FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents raided Stevens’ four-bedroom house south of Anchorage as part of the probe into his relationship with VECO. Former company chief Bill Allen, who pleaded guilty to bribing Alaska state legislators, testified that he oversaw extensive renovations at Stevens’ home and sent VECO employees to work on it.
During the trial, Stevens spent three days on the witness stand, vehemently denying any wrongdoing. He said his wife handled the business of the renovation and paid every bill they received. He said he paid $160,000 for the project and believed that covered everything.
It took Stevens some time to initially win over Alaska voters. He was the Republican nominee for the Senate in 1962, but lost in the general election to incumbent Ernest Gruening, and six years later he lost his party’s nod to Anchorage banker Elmer Rasmuson.
But when incumbent Democrat Bob Bartlett died in December 1968, Stevens was appointed to the vacancy by then-Gov. Walter J. Hickel, a Republican. Stevens won his first full term in 1972, and in subsequent elections was retained by wide margins. He won his sixth full term in 2002 with 78 percent of the vote.
Theodore Fulton Stevens was born Nov. 18, 1923, in Indianapolis. His parents divorced when he was young and, in 1938, he moved to southern California to live with relatives.
After graduating from high school in 1942, he attended college for a semester before joining the Army Air Corps. He flew cargo planes over “the hump” in the Himalayas during World War II and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After the war, Stevens finished college at UCLA and in 1950 earned a law degree at Harvard. Fresh out of law school, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work and, in 1953, he drove cross-country to the Territory of Alaska to take a job in Fairbanks.
In 1954, Stevens was named U.S. attorney in Fairbanks and two years later returned to Washington to work on the statehood issue for Interior Secretary Fred Seaton, a statehood supporter. Eventually Stevens rose to become the Interior Department’s top lawyer.
He moved back to Alaska in 1961, opening a law practice in Anchorage. After losing the 1962 Senate race to incumbent Gruening, he won a seat in the Alaska House of Representatives. He was House majority leader when appointed to finish Bartlett’s term.
Two years after the 1978 plane crash, he married Catherine Chandler, a lawyer from a prominent Democratic family in Alaska.
When Republicans took control of the Senate in 1981, Stevens became assistant majority leader. In 1984, he ran for majority leader, but lost by three votes to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. The most senior Republican in the Senate, Stevens served as Senate President Pro Tempore and was third in the line of succession for the presidency until Democrats regained control of Congress in 2007.