Long-serving senator

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens surpasses record for Republican seniority

Posted: Sunday, April 15, 2007

Alaska's U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens has become longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history.

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On Friday, Stevens logged 13,990 days seniority, passing South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, whose credentials come with an asterisk. Thurmond switched from Democrat to Republican earlier in his career.

Stevens has been an unwavering Republican for nearly 39 years.

"He has a good sense of humor, he is a tough believer, a good fighter, loyal to the state of Alaska," said Walter Hickel, the governor who appointed Stevens in 1968. "We've got to figure out who will replace him when he dies."

Stevens, 83, isn't planning on leaving yet. He's running for a seventh term.

He has long been known for his charismatic personality, his passion for his adopted state - and now his No. 7 ranking in all-time Senate longevity. All his seniors are, or have been, Democrats.

First among them is Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., the longest-serving senator ever and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, which Stevens once chaired and on which he continues to serve.

In an interview with the Empire, Stevens said he'd prefer not to think of Friday as a "milestone," as many have been calling it, but as a "milepost" - a term that better suits the state he represents.

He sees his greatest accomplishment as bringing Alaskans the same rights and laws as the rest of the country's citizens.

Critics have called him the "King of Pork" for relentlessly earmarking taxpayer dollars for Alaska from his influential position as head of Senate appropriations.

In one recent year, according to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, Stevens sent almost $1,000 per capita to Alaska, 30 times that of the average state.

Few Alaskans objected.

Stevens makes no apologies for the billions of dollars he has appropriated for port facilities, military barracks, water and sewer projects and the Alaska Railroad, just for starters.

It's all part of the job, he said.

"We had to be very innovative across the board, but we got criticized. We have had to make sure that we have the same kind of privileges and that we have the same rights," Stevens said in a phone interview.

When asked why he has received such strong support from Alaskans for nearly four decades, Stevens said: "I think people expect me to be honest with them, and I am."

He said he wants to ensure the natural gas pipeline project gets going and that the No Child Left Behind Act can be implemented to better education in rural areas.

He said he was also working to cut down on illegal fishing in international waters.

Stevens was a decorated pilot in World War II and later attended Harvard Law School. He practiced law in Washington, D.C. in the early 1950s before he was appointed U.S. attorney in Fairbanks.

He ran twice and lost before being appointed by Hickel to succeed Democratic Sen. E.L. Bartlett, who died in office.

"I can tell you how it happened. Ted had lost two straight elections. I sort of had a vision," Hickel said in an interview.

"That vision was right," he said.

"He is a survivor. And I saw this years ago. He understood. That is our land. That is our oil. I could see by his eyes that he was a survivor," Hickel said.

At the time he was appointed, Stevens said, "I had no intention of running for office. I was a prosecuting attorney, I had no reason to come to the Senate."

"It was not some sort of childhood dream," he said.

The other contender for the spot was Carl Brady Sr., a friend of Hickel. Hickel claimed that he wasn't a close friend of Stevens but selected him because he saw a good public servant.

"He still does a good job, basically, for our country," Hickel said.

The Senate has changed in the years since Stevens was appointed. Instant communication and the 24-hour cycle of cable news have ratcheted up partisanship, Stevens said.

During his earlier years in the Senate, lawmakers were more inclined to make friendships across the aisle. One of Stevens' close colleagues is Hawaii's Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye.

"When he joined the Senate, I went up and introduced myself. From that first meeting, we have grown very close. For many years now, we have been close - like brothers," Inouye said.

"We represent states whose culture and history have been shaped by their indigenous native populations. While the attack on Pearl Harbor pushed the United States into World War II, Alaska was both attacked and occupied. Both states are dependent on shipping," Inouye said.

"Both continue to be strategic militarily. Both are not beneficiaries of the interstate (highway) system that links the Lower 48, and both have special needs," he said.

Stevens has not been without home-state opponents, but none has posed a serious threat. One of the latest contenders is Rocky Caldero, a councilman and fish plant manager in Unalaska who declared his candidacy in December.

Jake Metalfe, chairman of the Alaska Democratic Party, says it is time for change.

"I think that most people think now that it is our best opportunity to defeat him. He is out of touch with most issues that are important to Alaskans," Metcalfe said. Stevens' ties to President Bush will put him at a disadvantage, he said.

"He has not spoken out against bringing the troops home. That is an issue that gets more and more important to the Alaskan voters," he said.

Metcalfe said that trying to run a campaign against Stevens can be difficult, but not impossible. He believes this could be the first year Stevens might see serious opponents in both the primary and the general election.

"Trying to get other people elected to that office is hard, and he has built up so much seniority," Metcalfe said.

"You've got basically six years to campaign for re-election and raise money ... which has put people running against him at a huge disadvantage," he said.

Metcalfe said that Stevens has been able to run on a platform of power: He has long been in the majority party and in leadership positions. Democrats won a slim majority in the 2006 election, however.

"I don't know how long I will stay here. I will stay here as long as Alaskans want me to stay here ... there are lots of things still to do," Stevens said.

Hickel has confidence that Stevens will win in 2008.

"He is unique and he is lasting," he said.

"When he dies and goes to heaven, I am going to tell St. Peter to put him on the Senate up there."

To see a Timeline of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens Senate Career click here.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at brittany.retherford@juneauempire.com.

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