Impunity: What I learned from Senator Ted Stevens

The late Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska is going to be honored by the US Navy and will soon have a guided missile destroyer named after him. Uncle Ted, as he was known even while still alive, was fondly regarded by most Alaskans for most of his career in the US Senate. It took a conviction on federal corruption charges to dislodge him from the Senate seat he held for 41 years and it was still close: he lost by just over 1%. He left office the longest serving senator in US history and with a long, complicated legacy. For my part, the deepest lesson Ted Stevens taught me was how stacked the deck is against me.

This is only the latest of big things named after Alaska’s diminutive former longtime senator; the state’s largest airport, a mountain peak, an ice field, and the most important piece of fisheries management legislation in the nation’s history all bear his name too. The Alaska State Legislature designated every fourth Saturday of July as Ted Stevens Day, “as a tribute to the Senator’s many contributions to our state.” He secured funding for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and support for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. I only had the chance to speak to him twice but I remember Senator Stevens the way many Alaskans do I think: “To Hell with politics, do what’s right for Alaska.

That was his catchphrase and Alaska loved him for it. One of his best friends was fellow war veteran, and Democrat, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. These two unlikely friends epitomized a cross-party, practical (quite possibly corrupt) style of politics that is fast disappearing from our political landscape.

I remember Stevens for his constant fight. Against everyone. He was a pro-choice, fish-protecting Republican who didn’t give a damn what anyone Outside thought, regardless of party. Which is probably part of why people like Sen. Inouye bucked his party leadership during the Stevens trial and openly rooted for his friend. When gearing up for a fight in committee or on the Senate floor he’d wear one of his iconic Incredible Hulk ties.

At only 5 foot 6 inches he was not a naturally imposing fellow but also didn’t shy away from a fight and wanted everyone to know what they’re getting into. Stevens had served as the Majority Whip as well as the Senate President pro tempore, chaired multiple crucial committees, and was widely regarded to wield power and influence far out of proportion to Alaska’s small population. This bombastic little man, wearing a comic book tie, from the frozen 49th state was very, very well-known.

His trial was watched very closely up in Alaska and I remember his case very well. His conviction cost him the senate seat, it damn sure cost him my vote, along with thousands of other Alaskans. When his conviction was overturned, when the scope of prosecutorial misconduct was revealed, I was pissed. But not because his conviction made me vote for someone else.

I’m pissed because if prosecutors feel comfortable in breaking the law when they’re dealing with a millionaire and sitting United States Senator then you and I are truly fucked in the courtroom. I am pretty sure Ted Stevens was guilty of something, but that’s not the point. The point is accountability. If even the most powerful and well-connected among us can’t count on prosecutors acting with any more honor than the thieves and crooks they’re locking up then we are all much less free than we think. If that occurs at this level, it is a hellish indictment of our system as a whole.

That those of meager economic status are disadvantaged by our system is well-documented and shameful enough on it’s own. That prosecutors are encouraged to break the law, argue against the facts, and knowingly imprison innocent people is likewise a godawful stain on our justice system. (and deserves far more attention than it’s getting). When they have no compunctions about hiding and destroying evidence in trial with Ted “I wear an Incredible Hulk tie on the Senate floor” Stevens, then the average Joe and Jane has no chance.

Thomas Brown is a history teacher and recovering political consultant hiding out in the American South. He is also managing editor of The Swamp and has been published in The Bipartisan PressAlaska Native NewsGENHuman EventsTimes of IsraelDialogue & DiscourseFollow him at his Medium page and argue with him on Twitter: @reallythistoo.

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Categories: Alaska, Corruption, First Person Politics, Government, Politics

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