STERLING, Alaska — Days after a Washington D.C. jury found him guilty of seven felonies, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens stood in the cold outside a senior center and rejected the possibility that a single Republican supporter in Alaska has turned against him.
"I don’t believe it," Stevens said. "Not one person has said that to me."
Alaska hasn't elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in nearly 30 years. Stevens himself joined the Senate in 1968, after Gov. Wally Hickel appointed him to the seat that opened when E.L. "Bob" Bartlett died after heart surgery in Cleveland. Stevens hasn't faced a close election since — until this year's battle with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
Begich and Stevens are making a last minute push with just two days before the election. Stevens was on the Kenai Peninsula Friday and in Fairbanks Saturday, while Begich held his own rallies in Juneau and Homer. Both seemed to be targeting voters likely already sympathetic to them, rather than making a big push to change minds on the other side.
If anyone can get elected to the U.S. Senate after a guilty verdict, it's Stevens, said Gerald McBeath, political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks."He’s been there for years, he's delivered so much to the state and made so many people in the state indebted to him," McBeath said.
But the fact is some Republicans, such as state party central committee member Spike Jorgenson of Tok, say they've had enough and are voting for a third party candidate this year. Stevens has also lost the support of independent voters like Shannon Wyatt, who teaches at Soldotna Middle School.
Wyatt was in a Kaladi Brothers coffee shop in Soldotna on Friday when Stevens, a handful of campaign aides and Stevens’ daughter, Susan Covich, a substitute teacher in the Kenai public schools, stopped by on a campaign trip to the Peninsula. Wyatt, who has voted for Stevens in the past, said in an interview that people assume all politicians are corrupt.
"But for me, it can’t be proven they are and still expect me to vote for them," Wyatt said.
The 84-year-old Stevens walked up to the counter of the Kaladi Brothers and bought coffee for his staffers from the barista, a teenager dressed as an American Indian for Halloween. She seemed unfazed by the appearance of a senator who’s both an Alaska icon and, in recent weeks, has been portrayed nationally as a symbol of what’s wrong in Congress.
Stevens and his small entourage walked through the Peninsula Center mall. Some shoppers, like Dan Mason, bounded over to Stevens to shake his hand and wish him victory.
"I think he's a good man," Mason said later. "He ought to appeal and come out a little bit cleaner."
A couple of young women excitedly asked to have their picture taken with Stevens. But an older woman, selling homemade jams in the mall, gave Stevens a skeptical hello. "Not my favorite person," she muttered after the senator walked on.
Later that night in Kenai, children gathered for "trunk or treat," a local Halloween tradition where people fill their trunks with candy in the Boys and Girls Club parking lot and kids go from car to car. Stevens, famous for his temper in the U.S. Senate, put giant Incredible Hulk mitts on his hands and seemed to delight in play-boxing with some of the kids.
The mitts made sounds: "You're making me angry!" they declared. "You won’t like me when I’m angry!" Stevens passed out peppermint balls to kids dressed as "Star Wars" characters, witches and Power Rangers. One child was dressed as an FBI agent. He did not stop by Stevens' trunk for candy.
Stevens has received a hero's welcome at rallies since returning to Alaska last week following the verdict. Around 150 people jammed into small office space in a Soldotna strip mall Friday to support the senator. People hugged him, told him they loved him, urged him to keep up the fight. People had memories of something Stevens' office had done for them, or a local project he’d supported that got built.
"I think he's going to be re-elected, I really do," said Tom Bearup, a one-time mayor of Soldotna. "This man is a man who has paid the price. He probably hasn't done anything the rest of them haven't done."
Stevens told his supporters he’ll be vindicated on appeal and legal scholars would study his case as an example of prosecutorial abuse of power, with the federal government giving the jury false information and manipulating evidence.
He compared it to the 2006 case of the Duke University lacrosse players wrongly accused by a local prosecutor of rape before the North Carolina state attorney's office concluded there was no credible evidence an attack occurred. Stevens' Washington D.C. lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, was one of the attorneys representing the lacrosse players.
"I don't think senators are entitled to special privilege, but if they can do this to a senator, what can they do to anybody!" Stevens said, to cheers. "You fought for us, we’ll fight for you!" somebody yelled.
Last week a federal jury found Stevens guilty of lying on financial disclosure forms about thousands of dollars of gifts and home renovations from the oilfield services company Veco. Stevens denies all wrongdoing, saying the only mistake he made was trusting then-Veco chief executive Bill Allen, a man who he thought was his friend but turned out to be the government’s star witness at his trial.
"It was an oversight," said Al Chong of Soldotna a retiree who attended the rally. "And with all the things he's done for the state of Alaska, we should stand by him. This is a minor thing blown out of proportion."
Begich, 46, had his own rally in Homer on Saturday, trailed by a CNN crew. He spoke to about 150 supporters at a local coffee shop. Most of those attending were Democrats, who were smiling like famine survivors sitting down to a big meal.
Begich gave a short speech, never mentioning Stevens. Afterwards, as people came up to talk, Begich was urged to speak more forcefully about Stevens' conviction. "We want to hear it from you," said Kim Smith, a retired juvenile probation supervisor. "He’s not going to be held accountable. What kind of example is that for our young people?"
Begich responded that he'd made strong statements to the press after their debate last week, in which Stevens said he has not been convicted of anything until a judge rules on his motions to set aside the verdict and to receive a new trial.
"I was shocked," Begich told her. "I think what he has not done is be willing to accept reality."
Law professors have said Stevens is technically correct, that he won’t legally be considered "convicted" until his sentencing. But Stevens' critics have piled on the statement.
One of the few fence sitters in the Begich crowd was Diane Warner, 28, who teaches civics at Homer High School. Warner, a two-year Alaskan, said she used to vote Republican and is still undecided on the presidential race. She had planned to vote for Stevens until his indictment. She pressed forward to ask Begich a few questions Saturday, and by the end of the rally was wearing a Begich sticker.
"He gave a great response about 'Why vote for me?' " Warner said. She cited his answers about generational change and bipartisan effort in the future delegation.
Stevens told Peninsula voters that Alaska needs his experience in the Senate, especially in these times of financial crisis.
"Really, some of us who have lived through the Depression should be in Congress during this," Stevens told a group at the senior center in Sterling. "I think it's highly important for us to continue my representation back there."
One man in the crowd asked Stevens about his boots. The senator said he bought them in 1955 in Fairbanks, and he remembered the name of the man he purchased them from. That's a Stevens gift as a campaigner — his deep roots in the history of Alaska. He ran into a man at the Trustworthy Hardware store in Soldotna who had been with Stevens on the first flight ever into St. George Island. Stevens recalled the great-grandparents of some kids who came up to him trick or treating.
Begich is connected to the history of the state as well. Larry Smith, 67, shook hands with Begich and pointed to an old campaign button on his weatherbeaten cap: "Proudly for Begich Congress." It was a button from a campaign of Begich's father, Nick, who represented Alaska for two years until his disappearance in a 1972 plane crash.
Smith said Nick Begich was his high school guidance counselor back in Anchorage. He said Nick's son appeared to do a good job as mayor and could learn what he didn't know about Congress.
“Everybody we sent to Congress learned their job, except Frank Murkowski and Ralph Rivers," said Smith, reaching back to recall the name of Alaska's first congressman, a Democrat.