A defiant Stevens returns to Alaska
Looking fatigued but jubilant, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens returned home Wednesday, vowing to fight his conviction on federal corruption charges, win reelection and save the state from the national economic crisis.
The Republican faces the last great fight of his life to hold onto his seat. Even his party’s presidential and vice presidential nominees have called on him to resign. But Stevens remained defiant.
“I’m here to tell you that I am innocent of the charges that have been brought against me, and I will be vindicated,” the Senate’s longest-serving Republican told hundreds of cheering supporters at the airport. “And there is one thing you can count on: I will never stop fighting for the people of Alaska.”
The crowd chanted, “We trust you, Ted!” and, “We need Ted!”
Stevens’ wife, Catherine, fought back tears as loudspeakers played Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” The senator, 84, locked arms with Alaska’s other U.S. senator, Lisa Murkowski, who urged the crowd to give him the “hero’s welcome that he deserves.”
“I have literally loved this state,” Stevens said, showing an uncharacteristic trace of sentimentality. “Alaska is America’s last link to the frontier sprit that makes our nation great.”
Among those who have called on Stevens to resign are Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee; her running mate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona; and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate’s Republican leader.
A federal jury in Washington convicted Stevens on Monday of seven felony corruption charges stemming from his failure to report gifts and home remodeling work from a powerful oil services industry company. He is only the fifth sitting senator in U.S. history to be convicted of a felony.
State Republican leaders are hoping the veteran politician can win reelection despite his conviction. Then, if he were to resign or be expelled by fellow senators, the party could nominate a new candidate in a special election and almost certainly hold onto the seat.
GOP candidates generally have a substantial edge in the state. But Stevens has slipped badly in the polls this week against the Democratic challenger, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
A new Rasmussen Reports poll conducted Tuesday showed Stevens trailing by 8 percentage points, 52%-44%. In early October, Stevens held a 1-point edge.
The state’s leading newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, cited Stevens’ “astonishingly bad judgment” and in an editorial advised voters to “not reward his arrogance” on election day.
Alaska’s airwaves have been full of Stevens. Democratic ads endlessly replay excerpts from the senator’s secretly taped telephone calls in which he worries about doing jail time. The ads also quote people who call themselves former Stevens supporters, urging parents to teach their children “the difference between right and wrong.”
A Republican ad calls the charges against Stevens “hogwash.”
“Ted Stevens may have made a few mistakes, but he didn’t break any laws,” the GOP ad says. “Give Ted Stevens the verdict he deserves: reelection.”
Gerald McBeath, political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said many Alaskans have only become aware of the seriousness of the charges since Stevens’ conviction.
“It’s a surprise to a lot of people that he was convicted because they think the charges were trivial ones,” he said. Voters “didn’t realize that they were felonies.”
“Given the widespread Republicanism . . . about 30% of the state have said they would vote for him knowing he had been convicted,” McBeath said. “I talk to people who support Stevens. One said he would vote for him if he were convicted of murder.”
At Wednesday evening’s welcome-home rally, Stevens emphasized his ability to get things done in Washington when, he said, the economic slowdown could threaten thousands of jobs in the state.
“I am not asking for your vote because of what we have achieved in the past,” he said. “I’m running for election seeking your support because of what we can achieve in the future.”
Rick Rydell, a local radio talk show host who introduced the senator at the airport rally, warned that Alaskans were in danger of losing their senator to a campaign from outside the state.
“It’s a sad thing for Alaskans that people are saying, ‘Maybe Ted should just step down,” he said. “I don’t particularly trust it when outsiders tell me what to do. You know what? You can kiss my Alaskan moose-hunting behind, because I know Ted, and I stand with him!”
Alaskans credit Stevens with helping the territory win statehood, settling Alaska Native land claims, expanding oil development and bringing home millions of federal dollars for highways, schools, hospitals and rural development.
But some have begun to question whether they are willing to vote for a felon.
“I can’t make no bones about it: He’s done some good things for the state, and to wipe it all out like this is just terrible,” said Dorsey Roland, 46, an Eagle River resident who had been registered as a Republican but switched to independent about a year ago.
“He kind of lost sight of who he was representing,” said Roland, who did not attend the airport rally. “It’s very unfortunate, because the rest of the country’s sitting there right now looking and waiting to see what we do. If we turn around now and elect a felon as our senator, were going to be the laughingstock of the country.”