ANCHORAGE - Former Sen. Ted Stevens may be clear of legal problems, but his future as an Alaska elected official could be over.
Department of Justice prosecutors on Wednesday asked a judge to dismiss an indictment against Stevens and toss out his October conviction on charges of failing to report home renovations and gifts from a wealthy campaign supporter.
However, the 85-year-old politician's age and scars from the legal battle likely would be used against him in any future race, according to Alaska political observers.
"What has happened to Sen. Stevens is surely tragic," said Stephen Haycox, a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage. "But having been given this pause, he would now, I think, not look particularly attractive were he to run for anything."
Stevens had held the Senate seat since 1968, making him the longest-serving Republican in Senate history. He was responsible for bringing home billions in federal dollars to build up a young state poor in infrastructure long before anyone heard of President Obama's stimulus package.
A grateful constituency named Stevens "Alaskan of the Century" and put the former prosecutor's name on the state's biggest airport, Anchorage International.
Eight days after his conviction, Stevens narrowly lost an election for another term, defeated by Democratic Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich by 3,953 votes. Loyal backers said the guilty verdict made the difference.
Gerald McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, agreed, saying that otherwise Stevens likely would have won hands down.
"From their perspective, it's entirely unfair," he said.
Stevens is expected to be back in court Tuesday in Washington when U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan holds a hearing on the government motion to dismiss. Stevens had appealed his conviction and had been awaiting sentencing.
Alaska Republicans, including Gov. Sarah Palin, called for Begich to resign to give Stevens an election do-over. Alaska Democrats quickly labeled that bizarre, silly, and an insult to voters' intelligence. Begich said he had no intention of resigning.
Haycox said it would be unprecedented for a senator to resign because the circumstances in his state had changed after the election.
"There's no possibility that this would ever happen," he said. "In fact, I would say, if Begich were to resign because of this, then he had no business ever having been elected, and if he were still in office, then he should be impeached."
Without an immediate election, Stevens' political prospects look bleak.
It will be nearly two years before there is a statewide election, for the U.S. House seat now held by Don Young, a 19-term congressman, and the governor's office occupied by Palin.
At the Alaska Capitol on Thursday, a few lawmakers with whom Palin has feuded were sporting pins that read "Ted4GOV 2010." However, that election will take place just two weeks before Stevens' 87th birthday.
Stevens could run against fellow Republican Lisa Murkowski for the Senate in 2012, when he's almost 89, or have another crack at Begich in 2014 - when he's nearly 91.
"His age would be used against him by his opponent," Haycox said. "His capability would be called into question, rightly or wrongly, and it would give voters pause."
Stevens carries heavy baggage from the legal case.
"Technically, of course, he is from a legal standpoint, innocent," Haycox said. "That does not change the fact that on the stand, in testimony, he acknowledged that there were unreported gifts. It does not change the fact that there was enough material there for not just the head of the Public Integrity Section, but undoubtedly people higher up in the Justice Department and probably the president of the United States, who thought that this case should go ahead - in other words, did not stop the Justice Department from pursuing this case."
"Underneath all of that, whether the senator did or did not violate Senate rules, there is the appearance he did," McBeath said.
It would require another trial to find out, McBeath said, but the Justice Department is not in favor of that.
New prosecutors on the case announced they would dismiss the indictment because it had been mishandled. In their motion to the judge, prosecutors said the government had failed to turn over notes of an interview with Bill Allen, the wealthy businessman whose crews worked on Stevens home in Girdwood, in which Allen contradicted a statement he later made under oath at Stevens' trial. The information could have been used to cross-examine Allen and in arguments to the jury, the department said.
Federal attorneys determined that granting a new trial would be in the interest of justice, but then decided a new trial would be inappropriate "based on the totality of circumstances and in the interest of justice."
Haycox said he would counsel against Stevens running for governor, or any other race.
"There'll be a groundswell of sympathy, you know, the conquering hero returns, he's wonderful, let's undo the tragedy," Haycox said. "But then when people start looking at the issues, and they start looking at his age, he would be damned lucky to win an election for governor."
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