Published May 25, 2009
Call it the reckoning.
Alaskans knew the day would come when Ted Stevens would no longer be in Congress to funnel billions of dollars back to their state. Now those fears are being realized.
Stevens was defeated in November after being convicted on corruption charges -- and although those charges were later tossed out, Stevens is still out of the Senate where he exerted his influence for decades.
Life without Stevens, or "Uncle Ted" as he was called, is already taking its toll on the last frontier as cuts in everything from missile defense to public works are costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
"You could make a good argument that Alaska took the biggest hit from the 2008 election," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "Not only did they lose a friend in the White House, they lost a senator with 40 years seniority."
The hardest hit was the missile defense program at Fort Greely. The anticipated construction of a whole missile field was scrapped, sending 14 missiles that taxpayers paid millions to build into storage.
Alaska natives also lost about $30 million in funding for things like health care clinics and job training.
Bill Griffith, with Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation, said public works is in dire need of funding.
"We've got many villages still in Alaska without running water and sewage in homes, where they're relying on Honey Buckets and outhouses and hauling their own water from sources around the community," he said.
Just about anywhere in Alaska one could see the influence of the former Republican senator, from the airport that bears his name to the remote villages where he's treated like family.
Thanks to projects like the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" and a $1 million bus stop, Stevens was routinely criticized by government watchdogs as the king of pork-barrel spending.
But to Alaskans, he was their champion and their defender.
"He had a lot of the same values as we did, but when rural Alaskans had very few people to look to for assistance during the 90s, he was solid, rock solid with us," said former state legislator Mary Nelson.
And now that clout is gone.
Stevens was defeated in November by Democrat Mark Begich.
But risking a backlash from his own party, Begich has criticized the Obama administration's cuts and vows to continue fighting for Alaska -- earmarks and all -- just as Stevens did.
"Since 1980 there's been no Democrat, no Democrat in the Democratic caucus here in the U.S. Senate since 1980 from Alaska. So this is a new opportunity for me to present to the Democrats what we have and what our needs are," he said.
It could be a tough sell as the White House runs up massive deficits with bailouts and stimulus funding. Alaska's federal gravy train appears to be running out of steam.
But Begich also defended the many infrastructure earmarks that Alaska enjoyed over the years under Stevens.
"We saw these as capital improvement projects. There are items that come from the community, driven from local communities of needs based on water, sewer, port projects -- basic core issues," Begich said.