That was the question heard again and again, from Anchorage to Washington, D.C., following the news Monday that Sen. Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska) was convicted in U.S. District Court of seven corruption charges. Eight days before he faces the voters in his bid for re-election, the 84-year-old Stevens was found guilty of lying about the cost of substantial renovation on his Alaska residence provided by the company run by old friend Bill Allen (who was a witness for the prosecution).
Now the questions start. Will the longest serving Republican senator in history (40 years) survive a stiff challenge from Democrat Mark Begich? If Stevens is re-elected and his expected appeals are denied, would the Senate vote to expel him? Or would he follow the example of former Sens. Harrsion J. Williams (D.-N.J.) and Bob Packwood (R.-Ore.) who saw expulsion coming and resigned first; and, under those circumstances, who would Republican Gov. Sarah Palin appoint to serve until a special election in 2010 to fill out the remainder of Stevens’ term?
All told, this latest development does not help the Republicans in their effort to keep Democrats from reaching the “magic sixty” — the number of Senate seats needed to quash a Republican filibuster. The last Ivan Moore poll conducted before the conviction showed Anchorage Mayor Begich, son of the late Rep. Nick Begich (D.-Alaska), leading Stevens by a wafer thin 46 percent to 45 percent among likely voters. A Daily Kos poll gave Begich a 48 percent to 46 percent edge.
In virtually any constituency, any incumbent conviced of a single felony (much less seven) barely a week before an election would be toast. But this Alaska and this is Ted Stevens, a political player in the Land of the Midnight Sun since territorial days, the former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee steered largess with a pricetag of more than $1 billion into his state. As the Almanac of American Politics put it, “It might be said that Stevens is a philanthropist operating in the Senate Appropriations Committee.” Does a felony conviction finish the “philanthropist” for whom the airport in Anchorage is named after and who is universally known back home as “Uncle Ted?” No one in Alaska is writing his obituary yet.
“Yes, he could survive,” said veteran Democratic consultant Joe Rothstein, onetime top aide to Alaska’s first Democratic Gov. William Egan and past editor of the Anchorage Daily News. “I’ve known Stevens for decades. He once was my lawyer when I was at the Daily News. I think there’s a general feeling in Alaska that what he was found guilty of was less a criminal act than losing his way. He’s a busy guy, had a lot on his plate, perhaps got a bit arrogant. An awful lot of Alaskans are willing to give him a pass given the minor status of the infractions — failing to properly file a form. Now had he been caught as a number of state legislators here have — namely, with their hands in the cookie jar in a major bribery probe — he’d be in big trouble.”
But Rothstein added that the recent air of scandal that has brought down many legislators “could work against him.”
Should Stevens survive November 4, the next step is uncertain. An appeal of the convictions is a near-certainty. But while no law bars a felon from serving in the Senate, a vote of two-thirds of his colleague could expel him. Were that likely, it would seem that the natural step for Stevens would be to resign and thus protect the health care and pension he would lose if expelled.
But the senator signaled to reporters during his trial he was in the fight for the long haul. As he said: “Put this down. That will never happen — ever, OK?”
Should Stevens be forced to leave the Senate after taking the oath for another term in January, the appointment of a successor would be made by either of two Republicans he is not close to: Gov. Sarah Palin, or, if she becomes vice president, Lieut. Gov. Sean Parnell. Both are considered anti-establishment figures and more conservative than Stevens. When I interviewed her for the “Veepstakes” feature earlier this year, Palin made it very clear that she and Stevens had some fundamental disagreements on whether Alaska should continue to depend on the federal larges that bear Stevens’ name.
One intriguing prospect for appointment could be retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and past Supreme Commander of NATO. From 1992-94, Ralston was commander of the 11th Air Force and Joint Task Force Alaska at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. He made many friendships there and was considered a possible successor to Republican Frank Murkowski when the then-senator resigned in 2002 to become governor. Technically a resident of the Washington, D.C. area (with an office at the Cohen Group), Ralston could easily claim residence in Alaska, and few would argue with the much-liked retired officer.
When Stevens lost his second bid for the U.S. Senate following his defeat in the Republican primary by Anchorage Mayor Elmer Rasmussen in 1968, he was widely written off as dead politically. Then in November of that year, when Democratic Sen. Bob Bartlett died unexpectedly, Republican Gov. Walter Hickel made Stevens a very live corpse by appointing him to the open seat. He has been there since. The moral of the story is don’t write off Ted Stevens.
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