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A major player in Alaska, the Senate

Times Staff Writers

In a state with more tundra than turnpikes, Alaska’s Ted Stevens is a political force. The former chairman and now ranking Republican on the influential U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, Stevens is known as a master of pork barrel politics, with a record of channeling billions of federal dollars to his home state.

He has brought home so much federal funding, in fact, that the cash has been given a special name: Stevens money.

“It’s hard to put your finger on anything in Alaska that he hasn’t had his finger on,” said Democratic state Rep. Mike Doogan.

The high political profile that Stevens, 84, has established could help him ride out, at least initially, the uproar triggered by his indictment Tuesday on charges that he failed to report gifts worth a quarter-million dollars.

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The first threat to his hold on power will come next month, when he faces a challenge in his state’s Aug. 26 Republican primary. If he survives that, Stevens will face a tough Democratic rival in November.

His reputation has taken other hits during his four decades of representing Alaska in the Senate. In recent years, Stevens was harshly criticized for securing $223 million in federal funding for a project known as the “bridge to nowhere,” which became a national symbol of wasteful congressional spending.

Yet he has remained a towering presence in Alaska. State lawmakers in 1999 dubbed Stevens “Alaskan of the Century,” and his name -- which adorns an airport and a hospital, among other things -- is hard to miss.

Even Alaska’s Democrats pay tribute. Ethan Berkowitz, who is running in the Democratic primary for Alaska’s sole House seat, called Stevens “an iconic figure for the state. Years from now when they look at his legacy, I would say the measure of the man is going to be far more than the indictment and what unfolds from it.

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“He’s touched every part of the state imaginable, from statutes recognizing tribes to getting capital, and I think it’s a testament to his abilities. So this indictment is a shock,” Berkowitz said. “Even for his political opponents, it’s a shock.”

Part of that Democratic goodwill may reflect the old-style bipartisanship Stevens has practiced, a style that predates the bitter party-line politics of today’s Senate. For example, Stevens and a senior Democrat from Hawaii, Daniel K. Inouye, routinely endorse and campaign for each other.

A member of the Senate since 1968, Stevens has served there longer than any other Republican. Even since his party was relegated to minority status after the 2006 elections, he has been a powerful force as the senior GOP member of the money-dispensing appropriations committee.

Yet Stevens is far from a go-along-to-get-along senator: He is a hardball politician with a long memory about those who cross him. When faced with a tough fight on the Senate floor, he wears an “Incredible Hulk” necktie. He is both feared and loved in an institution that has been likened to a men’s club.

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Now standing accused of personally benefiting from companies that had business before him as a power broker in Congress, Stevens faces voters who -- like voters elsewhere -- are sour on what they regard as the entrenched ways of Washington.

“This is the kind of highhandedness that comes from long tenure in office,” said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.

With the indictment, political analysts are wondering whether Stevens will step aside and give his party a chance to nominate a less controversial Republican for the Senate seat.

“Any politician with any amount of humility and common sense would resign or quickly announce he wasn’t seeking reelection,” said Stuart Rothenberg, author of a nonpartisan political newsletter. “It’s hard to see him winning after this.”

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Still, given Stevens’ history of political determination and defiance, few observers are willing to predict that he will bow out.

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janet.hook@latimes.com

kim.murphy@latimes.com

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Hook reported from Washington and Murphy from Seattle.


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