Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Fellow politicians remember Ted Stevens

FAIRBANKS — For more than 40 years, Ted Stevens towered over Alaskan politics, an icon who inspired generations of Republicans and yet still garnered the respect of Democrats.

The 86-year-old’s sudden death in a plane crash Monday near Dillingham shocked those who were closest to him.

Rep. Don Young, who served in the House for almost the entirety of Stevens’ Senate career from 1968-2009, issued a statement Tuesday extending his condolences to the family of the man whom he called a “close personal friend.”

Stevens and Young would often babysit each other’s children, he said.

“He’s been my mentor, first in the state legislature, and then as our senior senator and I will miss him a great deal,” Young said. “Ted is a true Alaskan hero, and a hero for our nation. I am a man of strong faith and I know that he is in heaven continuing the good Lord’s work as he did here on earth.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski recalled interning for Stevens’ Washington, D.C. office in the summer of 1975 and how it influenced her to eventually pursue politics at the federal level.

“I was in awe of him as a young girl,” she said. “He was just such a high energy individual. He seemed to know everything and do everything.”

Though Murkowski was not appointed to the Senate until 2002, long after Stevens had made a name for himself and gained a reputation for being able to steer federal money to his home state, Murkowski said Stevens encouraged her to be her own person and never tried to influence her votes.

“I recall suggesting that because of his seniority, his leadership and stature, I’d follow his lead,” she said. “He reminded me that my vote as the senator from Alaska had just as much weight as his vote as the senator from Alaska.”

Though Stevens remained consistently popular within the state throughout his tenure in the Senate, earning the nickname “Uncle Ted” from constituents, his influence on federal spending was often seen negatively throughout the rest of the country.

Criticism from Outside came to a head in 2008 when he was convicted of seven felony counts of failing to report gifts, tens of thousands of dollars of renovations on his home paid for by the VECO corporation.

The conviction was set aside the next year because of prosecutorial misconduct, though many Republicans believe the guilty verdict shortly before election day cost Stevens a seventh term in the Senate.

Sen. Stevens was a great man and a real hero and he went through some things and very difficult times a few years ago,” Murkowski said. “Some have brought that period of his life up first. I am an Alaskan who is honored to have served with that man, and they need to put Ted Stevens’ life in perspective. He gave over half a century of his life to public service, and he needs to be remembered in that way.”

Though they both remained busy after he left the Senate, Murkowsi said she remained close to Stevens, and shortly before his death he pledged to work on her re-election campaign.

Sen. Mark Begich, who defeated Stevens in the 2008 election, also released a statement Tuesday praising his predecessor’s contributions to Alaska.

“Alaska has lost one of its greatest statesmen and a true pioneer of our state with the passing of Sen. Ted Stevens,” Begich said. “Over his four decades of public service in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Stevens was a forceful advocate for Alaska who helped transform our state in the challenging years after statehood. Sen. Stevens’ many contributions to Alaska are enormous and his legacy of fierce devotion to Alaska will be long-lasting.”

Former Gov. Sarah Palin memorialized Stevens Tuesday in a Facebook note titled “Alaska’s Tough Warrior.”

“In our land of towering mountains and larger than life characters, none were larger than the man who in 2000 was voted ‘Alaskan of the Century.’” Palin wrote. “This decorated World War II pilot was a warrior and a true champion of Alaska.”

Of the four Alaska senators who served with Stevens, none held that position longer than Lisa Murkowski’s father, Frank, who was in the Senate from 1981-2002 before being elected governor of Alaska and appointing his daughter to the seat he vacated.

“He had a tough personality, and he never gave up,” Frank Murkowski said. “He believed in his views, and more often than not, he was right.”

When Frank Murkowski was elected to the Senate, Stevens was the first to warn him of the long hours he would have to put in and the time he would have to spend away from his family, something Stevens was more than willing to do to improve Alaskans’ quality of life.

“Most Alaskans knew home, but he made a lot of sacrifices for Alaska, and they deserve to know the extent of those personal sacrifices,” he said.

Frank Murkowski and Stevens continued to stay in touch after Murkowski’s election as governor and Stevens left the Senate. After losing his bid for re-election, Stevens was working on his memoirs and doing some consulting work, Murkowski said.

The elder Murkowski heard of Stevens’ death at the Waterfall Resort outside Ketchikan where he and has wife were hosting their annual fishing tournament to raise money to fight breast cancer.

Stevens had expressed interest in attending this year’s fundraiser, but canceled at the last minute to for another engagement.

“That’s something that’s been on my mind,” Frank Murkowski said.

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Source: By Chris Freiberg. Originally published August 11, 2010