2010 was full of surprises

Posted: Sunday, January 02, 2011

ANCHORAGE — While the political buzz continued to hum around former Gov. Sarah Palin, with many asking will she or won’t she run for president, it was Ted Stevens’ unexpected death that rocked Alaska’s world in 2010.

MICHAEL PENN / THE JUNEAU EMPIRE
MICHAEL PENN / THE JUNEAU EMPIRE

To many, Stevens was “Uncle Ted,” a beloved Alaskan of legendary status. His death in a plane crash left many wondering if Alaska would ever see the likes of Ted Stevens again. Who, they asked, will fight the way Ted did for Alaska?

For many Alaskans, his unexpected death was the seminal event of 2010 in a year that had more than its share of surprises.

At his funeral, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Stevens devoted every day of his life to a single-minded mission: helping build the young state of Alaska.

“In the history of our country, no one man has done more for one state than Ted Stevens. His commitment to the people of Alaska and his nation spanned decades, and he left a lasting mark on both,” McConnell said.

Stevens began his political career before statehood in 1959 and, despite his small stature, became a political giant. He was the longest-serving Republican in U.S. Senate history before being convicted of corruption and narrowly losing the 2008 election, only to be vindicated by the misconduct of federal prosecutors who failed to disclose evidence favorable to Stevens. In September, Nicholas Marsh, a Justice Department prosecutor, killed himself while he and others were being investigated in their handling of the Stevens case.

Many Alaskans probably would have voted Stevens back in, but at age 86 he said he wanted more time to spend in Alaska and with his grandchildren. He wasn’t to get his wish. He died while flying to a fish camp north of Dillingham in southwest Alaska.

Michael Carey, an Anchorage Daily News columnist, said many Alaskans felt that Stevens protected them from the excess interference of the federal government and now are wondering who will replace him.

“There really is not anybody to replace him,” Carey said.

Another giant of Alaska politics also died in 2010: Walter “Wally” Hickel.

Hickel began his political career in the early 1950s as a crusader for Alaska statehood and was instrumental in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which helped pave the way for the trans-Alaska pipeline. He was a two-time governor and served as President Nixon’s Interior Department secretary before he was fired in late 1970, several months after writing Nixon a letter criticizing his handling of student protests following the National Guard shootings at Kent State University and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.

Before getting the boot, Hickel used his position to impose strict cleanup rules on oil companies and water polluters following an oil rig explosion off the California coast. He also fought to protect the Everglades from developers and advocated for making Earth Day a national holiday.

Hickel died in May of natural causes at age 90.

“There is nobody to replace him either, immediately,” Carey said.

While Alaska said goodbye to two political giants, it was newcomer Joe Miller who shook up the establishment. Miller, a Republican and tea party favorite backed by Palin, defeated incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the primary but Murkowski prevailed as a write-in candidate in the general election in November. Murkowski is the only sitting senator to lose in a primary and win as a write-in in the general election.

“It is a unique historical event,” Carey said.

Miller, a Yale Law School trained lawyer, unsuccessfully challenged Murkowski’s victory in state and federal court, which caused a delay in certifying the election. Among his complaints was the handling of the write-in ballots.

Miller maintained that any ballot that did not have the exact spelling of the write-in candidate’s last name or the name exactly as it appeared on the declaration of write-in candidacy was invalid. The courts didn’t buy his argument.

While Miller fought for his political life, Sarah Palin very much remained the celebrity politician as she traveled the country to sell her second book, “America By Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag,” while speculation grew over whether the former vice presidential nominee would run for president in 2012.

Palin began the book tour in Phoenix, in the home state of her 2008 running mate, Sen. John McCain. Her daughter, Bristol, recently bought a five-bedroom home there.

Palin’s first book, “Going Rogue,” was published at about the same time last year — just before the holiday buying season — and ended up a million-plus best-seller.

Carey said many Alaskans have become weary of Palin and don’t view her as having a real role in public life. For Alaskans, she has become a very wealthy “celebrity curiosity” and an Alaska export, he said.

Back at home, the Parnell administration was engaged in the state’s business by waging a legal fight with the federal government over the listing of polar bears under the Endangered Species Act and the designation of more than 187,000 square miles of Arctic coastline as critical habitat.

The state’s argument — similar to that used to challenge protections for other marine mammals, including Cook Inlet beluga whales and western Alaska sea lions — is that ESA listing is unnecessary, and will cost the state jobs, revenue and hurt resource development.

In the meantime, Alaska’s economy continued to hum along. The state ended fiscal year 2010 with a $300 million surplus at a time when many other states have no surplus at all, said Jerry Burnett, the state’s deputy commissioner for treasury. The state’s assets also grew by $4 billion, and the outlook for FY 2011 and 2012 looks strong and stable.

“It is a good place to be right now,” Burnett said.

Alaska had its share of tragic, deadly plane crashes in 2010.

In November, there was the Air Force F-22 fighter jet that left Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson on a training run and crashed in a remote area of the Interior. The pilot, the only person on board, was killed.

There also were the three National Park Service employees and pilot killed when their plane crashed in Katmai National Park. The plane was missing for more than a month before debris was spotted inside the park. The park employees were on their way to rebuild an old ranger station.

Four airmen — everyone on board — were killed in July when the C-17 military cargo plane they were flying to prepare for the Arctic Thunder air show crashed about a minute after it took off.

In February, Jim Bowles, the president of ConocoPhillips Alaska, was killed along with a company employee, by an avalanche while snowmachining on the Kenai Peninsula.

That same month, Joshua Alan Wade was sent away for life for killing Mindy Schloss in 2007, a nurse practitioner who lived next door to him in Anchorage. Wade admitted that he’d also killed Della Brown in 2000 even though he had been acquitted of the crime.

Brown’s beaten and partially nude body was found inside an abandoned shed. Wade bound, gagged, kidnapped and shot Schloss in a wooded area near Wasilla. Superior Court Judge Philip Volland said at sentencing he could not remember another time when two murders left such an open wound on the community of Anchorage.

Mechele Linehan, accused of murder in the 1996 killing of Kent Leppink, was handed a second chance in 2010. In 2006, juries convicted the former stripper and another man, John Carlin III, of killing Leppink. Prosecutors say her motive was a $1 million life insurance policy payout, which she never got.

Carlin was killed in prison, and in February the Alaska Court of Appeals overturned Linehan’s conviction after finding that she didn’t get a fair trial. The state intends to retry her in 2011.

This was a deadly year for police officers. In August, two officers were shot and killed as they chatted on a street in the southeast Alaska village of Hoonah. In Anchorage, two police officers were shot and wounded; the first when a car pulled up next to the officer’s vehicle and a passenger fired, and the second during a traffic stop.

On a brighter note, Alaska’s Lance Mackey continued his winning ways, getting an unprecedented fourth consecutive victory in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He did it in classic Mackey style. He said he gambled that a “monster run” could put him in the lead for good, and it worked. By the time he reached the coast and headed to Nome, no one could touch him.

Mackey’s win might have been one of the least surprising events of 2010 given what else occurred during the year, Carey said.

“Everybody thought Murkowski was headed to an easy victory. No one thought what would happen to Ted Stevens and the violent end he would come to,” Carey said. “There were a lot of surprises in this.”

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