This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
“People who vote against this today are voting against me. I will not forget it.”
– Sen. Ted Stevens, 1923-2010
Alaska’s most beloved political figure was a man who didn’t make idle threats.
In 2006 – two years before Ted Stevens left the Senate in disgrace following a since-voided corruption conviction – the powerful senator visited Tacoma to make good on one of his promises.
Stevens told a gathering of the Tacoma/Pierce County Chamber of Commerce: “I can’t remember until these past few years any senator who served your state that wasn’t a close friend of mine. And that is a problem. The problem is not generated from our side.”
He was speaking of Sen. Maria Cantwell, who had the audacity in her freshman term to defy Stevens’ pursuit of oil drilling on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Stevens had pledged retribution on the Senate floor, and he tried mightily to get Cantwell’s challenger, Mike McGavick, elected – without success.
It was one of the few times that Stevens failed to get his way. The World War II veteran who died Monday in a plane crash in Alaska was an old-school politician who knew how to get what he wanted.
Over his 40 years in the Senate, Stevens funneled billions of dollars to Alaska, shaping the young state – and, some say, Alaskans’ sense of entitlement. He also was generous to this state, a remnant of his early friendships with this state’s powerhouse senators, Democrats Warren Magnuson and Henry “Scoop” Jackson.
Scoop and Maggie didn’t stay long enough to see their brand of politics fall out of favor, but Stevens did. The Alaskan came to exemplify the dichotomy of public opinion on pork-barrel politics: Nothing endears a politician to his constituents more, yet generates so much scorn at large.
But Stevens should be eulogized not just for his ability to bring home the bacon, but also for another relic of Senate politics: bipartisanship.
He played parochial politics, not partisan politics. Stevens sparred with Magnuson’s successor, fellow Republican Slade Gorton, but often worked closely with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who remembered him Tuesday as a man who “knew how to compromise” and a close friend.
Stevens once described himself as “a mean, miserable S.O.B.” He also was unapologetically passionate about his state and unapologetically true to himself.
Deep down, Americans like their politicians colorful and a bit irascible. Ted Stevens fit the bill in a way not likely to be soon topped.