ANCHORAGE - Whatever they might think about Sen. Ted Stevens' honesty or lack thereof, many folks in Alaska aren't ready to see their Uncle Ted go.
Indictment or not, they are grateful for the bounty of federal dollars he has delivered in the nearly 40 years he has represented them in Washington. And they worry about how Alaska would fare on Capitol Hill without him.
"As I told the senator, he can do more in six years that any of his opponents can do in 20," said Joe Williams, mayor of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough and one of many Alaska residents who have rallied to the Republican senator's defense after his indictment this week.
Stevens, 84, pleaded not guilty Thursday to federal charges of concealing more than a quarter-million dollars in home renovations, furnishings and other gifts from an oilfield services company.
Anchorage resident Robert Mellin, retired from the Alaska Air Guard and the state's Transportation Department, displayed a Stevens campaign sign in his yard Thursday and said it would stay there until the entire story on the senator had played out.
"I've lived in Alaska all my life," he said. "I think he's done a great job for us."
Homebuilder Chuck Spinelli picked up some Stevens yard signs Thursday and planned to display them at his home, his office and on his trucks.
"People of Alaska have hired him to bring money back to this state," Spinelli said. "He has done that over and over and over again. Whatever these charges are, he deserves the respect and our admiration. We should wait to see what actually happens before there's a call to do anything."
Alaska has been a big beneficiary of the federal government's largess, largely because of Stevens' leadership role on the Senate Appropriations Committee and his skill at inserting earmarks into budget bills.
In 2005, the latest year for which figures are available, Alaska received $1.84 in federal spending for every $1 the state paid in taxes to Washington, according to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan organization. The state ranked third, behind New Mexico and Mississippi.
According to Taxpayers for Common Sense, Stevens helped bring $3.2 billion home in earmarks in the past four years. That amounts to $4,873 per Alaskan, more than 18 times the national average.
One-third of all jobs in Alaska are tied to the federal government, according to state economist Neal Fried.
Stevens and Rep. Don Young, Alaska's 18-term congressman, boldly defend their skill at obtaining money, citing needs in Alaska for basic infrastructure that were addressed long ago in older and less spacious states.
Labor officials and trade associations that have benefited are reaffirming their support for another term for Stevens.
"He's brought projects to the state. He's put our people to work. He's protected the labor agreements," said Tim Sharp of Fairbanks, business manager of the state Laborers Union. As for the allegations against the senator, Sharp said: "It's hard to fathom or believe that a guy who's given his life to public service ... would jeopardize that for a Viking stove and a good deal on a car and rebuilding his house."
Stevens, a Harvard-trained lawyer, helped Alaska become a state when he was an attorney with the Interior Department in the late 1950s. After a stint as a legislator, he in 1968 replaced the late Bob Bartlett in the Senate.
In a state sometimes divided by urban and rural interests, Stevens transcended the divide. He obtained millions for village health care centers, airports and sewage systems, giving low-income rural residents the chance for indoor plumbing.
"How huge is that?" said Kodiak Borough Mayor Jerome Selby said. "Think of all the thousands of families whose lives suddenly got better. Most folks in the Lower 48 have no concept of that. That seems like old news to them."
Jim Rowe, executive director of the Alaska Telephone Association, said Stevens has been the No. 1 supporter of the right of every American to have affordable telephone access. Washington Beltway regulators who thought "rural" meant the Shenandoah Valley were invited by Stevens to see remote Alaska, Rowe said, and sometimes came away speechless.
"He's a hero to us," Rowe said.
Rowe said he expects Stevens to win the primary Aug. 26 and the general election in November.
"He's not God, but he's the best we've got up here," Rowe said. "I revere the gentleman."
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