January 7, 2009
by Maria Downey
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Before he left office, Ted Stevens was the longest-standing Republican senator in history.
But to Alaskans, he was simply known as Uncle Ted.
While former Sen. Ted Stevens may have left under a cloud of controversy, his legacy lives on as the man who for decades looked after Alaskans and their needs.
It all started in 1968 after two failed attempts for Congress.
"A reporter came up and handed me a telegram, I read it and it said Senator Bartlett had just died," former Gov. Wally Hickel recalled in 2002.
And that's how Stevens wedged his political foot into Congress: Hickel appointed Stevens to Bartlett's seat, despite critics who thought he would only be a one-term senator.
"I ignored them," Hickel said in '02. "I said, Time will tell. You wait and see.'"
And what they saw was a tough competitor who became known on Capitol Hill as The Hulk.
Stevens would win the next seven battles for one of Alaska's two Senate seats. He beat out Democrat and attorney Wendell Kay in 1970 by 60 percent of the vote and joined Mark Begich's father Nick as part of Alaska's Congressional delegation.
In his most recent win in 2002, Stevens garnered nearly 80 percent of the vote, feeling quite secure that he'd be Senator for life.
"I don't have any ambitions other than to be an effective senator," Stevens said after that 2002 victory. "I would not want to be around here if I'm not effective. But my grandmother used to tell me, 'Only the good die young.'"
During his reign in the Senate, Stevens brought home the bacon -- critics preferred to call it pork: millions of dollars in earmarked funding. But Alaskans from urban to rural areas say they counted on Uncle Ted to look after their interests from thousands of miles away in the nation's capital.
After the rise to iconic status came the fall: conviction on seven felony counts for lying about gifts received from oil services boss Bill Allen.
With the trial outcome hanging over him, Stevens lost a close race to Mark Begich and bid farewell to his second home of 40 years in a heartfelt speech on the Senate floor.
"Next month will mark the 40th year I've had the honor and privilege to serve here in this great chamber," he said Nov. 20. "Forty years -- it's hard to believe that so much time could pass so quickly. But it has, and I want everyone listening to know that I treasure every moment I've spent her representing Alaska and Alaskans -- the land and the people that I love."
Even while still contesting the jury's verdict, the senior senator said goodbye to his decades-long colleagues.
"I don't have any rearview mirror," Stevens said. "I look only forward, and I still see the day when I can remove the cloud that currently surrounds me."
Fellow lawmakers spent 90 minutes delivering tributes to Stevens after his speech, many torn between supporting their friend while also calling for him to step down.
"When I think of the good things, the positive things that have come to Alaska in the past 50 years, I see the face, I see the hands of Ted Stevens in so many of them," Sen. Lisa Murkowski said.
And after 40 years of Senate life, Stevens steps aside for the next generation of lawmaker, a bittersweet departure.
"Home is where the heart is," Stevens said in his Senate farewell. "If that is so, I have two homes -- one is right here in this chamber, and the other is my beloved state of Alaska. I must leave one to return to the other.
"I yield the floor for the last time."
Stevens did not attend the 50th anniversary gala of statehood on Friday, and his absence was noticeable.
University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton ended the program with a tribute to Stevens, saying no matter how you felt about what he did, he still did so much for Alaska.
That was followed by a standing ovation for the now former senior senator from Alaska.
Contact Maria Downey at email@example.com
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