Two weeks ago came the devastating news Sen. Ted Stevens died in an airplane crash. This wasn't surprising in the sense such an occurrence in Alaska is entirely foreseeable, but was inherently tragic upon considering the sudden and too-soon truncation of great life that had literally changed Alaska. Our future is totally different, and so much brighter, directly because of Ted Stevens.
I was born in Anchorage in 1967, one year before Stevens was appointed to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Bob Bartlett's death of a heart attack. From the earliest days, he was so widely thought of as a friend to Alaska who wasn't going anywhere, whose re-election bids every six years had only one possible outcome, success and continued service on behalf of Alaska.
Attending Georgetown University in the late 1980s, I discovered Stevens was respected in our nation's capital for his tenacity and the power he exercised through it. Stevens meant business, and his presence and stature in Washington were further reasons to be proud to be Alaskan.
Working in the early 1990s in the Alaska Legislature, the complex interrelationship between our state end federal governments, and the direct ways in which Stevens affected the daily lives of all Alaskans became clearer to me. From energy to fisheries, mining, timber, subsistence, health care and defense, this man was everywhere, doing what he could to advocate for policies that created opportunity and solved vexing problems.
Stevens could not fix every problem or fund every project, but his efforts on all fronts generated tremendous results. It made perfect sense when the Legislature unanimously named him "Alaskan of the Century," a legislative citation that still hangs on the walls in our State Capitol.
I was attending law school and working in Stevens' Washington office at the end of the 1990s. Then and there, I discovered how many Alaskans had shared this challenging and edifying opportunity over the years. Stevens not only pushed for outcomes that benefited Alaskans, but enlisted young men and women to his staff to help him do the job. He expanded their horizons, developed their skills, and deepened the understanding of national politics for future Alaskan leaders of all stripes. People who got to work for "Uncle Ted" tend to be proud of and grateful for the chance to have done so.
As time went by, we all got used to Stevens' wonderful attributes: Remembering people and their situations, sincere kindness and affection, and the ability to inspire and create energy in his constituents. People had taken to calling him "Senator for Life" and there was no reason to doubt this sobriquet.
It was shocking and deeply disturbing when news broke that Stevens had been charged with corruption. Keeping an open mind, after learning the specific allegations and then hearing the Senator's defense, it was clear that he had not knowingly accepted gifts from Bill Allen, and he ought not to have been charged. His highly politically timed trial produced numerous unjust results, including a conviction and an election loss by a small margin to someone who, but for these circumstances, would never have won the election.
In the months after the trial and election, the world came to learn of egregious misconduct by the prosecutors in Stevens' case, misconduct the trial judge criticized in the harshest possible terms. The early April 2009 morning it was announced the case against Stevens was being thrown out vindicated him for those who had doubted him and reassured those who believed him innocent all along.
The majority of the speakers at Stevens' funeral last week did a great job, but the words of senior Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye stood out in their simplicity and importance. Inouye and Stevens had a special bond, representing two remote former territories for the crucial developmental period following admission to statehood. Inouye reminded us, "I knew it, we all knew it. He was not guilty." Truer words were never spoken.
As sad as it is Stevens died so suddenly, he would want us to remember, each and every day, how incredibly lucky we are to be Alaskans and that we have a tremendous amount to say about our future. Stevens would want us to seize the day, and strive to make our lives, individually and as Alaskans, every bit as full, healthy, prosperous, and rewarding as they possibly can be. He directly helped me do that and I hope all Alaskans share my gratitude as we remember a unique man the likes of whom Alaska will never see again.
Brown is a Juneau attorney.
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