TOPICS > Politics

Stevens Guilty Verdict Complicates Re-election Bid

October 28, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska will stay on the ballot after his conviction Monday on seven felony counts, amid Sen. John McCain's call for his resignation. Anchorage Daily News reporter Michael Carey assesses the case and how it's playing out in Alaska.

RAY SUAREZ: A day after a Washington jury found the Alaska senator guilty of seven felony corruption charges, we take a closer look at the political implications of the verdict and gauge reaction in Stevens’ home state with Michael Carey, host of a weekly political program for Alaska Public Television and columnist for the Anchorage Daily News. He joins us now from Anchorage.

Michael Carey, was the trial and its outcome yesterday closely followed in the state?

MICHAEL CAREY, Anchorage Daily News: Intensely. It was the lead story virtually every day in the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska’s largest newspaper, and also on the television stations here, especially Channel 2, the local NBC affiliate.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, before the jury announced its verdict, this already was one of the closest Senate races in the country. Is the verdict already having an impact?

MICHAEL CAREY: We think so, but we really don’t know. It’s going to take a few days.

There’s been a great deal of response in favor and support of Senator Stevens, particularly on talk radio, where people have called in to say they’ve known him for years, they trust him, they think he got a raw deal.

Some of them even say, “We don’t care how they do it in Washington, D.C. We love Ted.”

But I think, as time passes and people begin to look at what the alternatives are for Ted Stevens, they may make a different decision when they finally come to vote.

RAY SUAREZ: Didn’t Senator Stevens from the outset push for a fast verdict on this, push for the jury trial to go ahead right away so that there’d be a judgment before the election?

MICHAEL CAREY: Yes, that was his idea. He pushed the prosecutors and told them he wanted the trial soon. And under the law, he had that right and proceeded with it. I don’t think, quite obviously, he didn’t get the outcome he expected or wanted.

RAY SUAREZ: What have the state Republicans, who are very prominent and strong in Alaska, had to say about this verdict?

MICHAEL CAREY: Well, the official spokesman of the Republican Party came out and said, you know, not only is this a dark day for Alaska, but we should — we have to worry about Mark Begich, the Democrat, becoming a U.S. senator or what it might mean if the Democrats have 60 senators and a filibuster-proof Senate. But the Republican Party now is deeply divided over the response of John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Verdict hits national party lines

RAY SUAREZ: Now, national Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, the minority leader who's in a tough race himself in Kentucky, Senator John Ensign, who's running the Republican senatorial effort, have both appeared to cut Ted Stevens loose.

Does that kind of thing make an impression inside Alaska? Or is it kind of separated from what goes on down in the lower 48?

MICHAEL CAREY: At first, people will perceive it as people like McConnell saying, "Senator Stevens, there's the plank. Jump."

But after a while, I think, as things set in with people, they'll realize that this is a matter of national concern, that people are talking about it all over the United States, and I suspect, in the long run, our opinion will in many ways replicate national opinion, not for those people who are deeply tied to Senator Stevens, have personal relationships with him, but with the larger population.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, one prominent Alaska Republican is also the Republicans' candidate for vice president. What has Governor Palin had to say about the Stevens verdict? Has she been really explicit about her feelings on this?

MICHAEL CAREY: Well, yesterday, I saw her on a tarmac shot where she came out and said the proverbial, "This is a sad day for Alaska," and then sort of left it there.

Today she's joined with John McCain in saying that Senator Stevens needs to step down and the Republican Party needs to be protected.

It's important for the viewers to know that Ted Stevens and John McCain have never been friends. And this is in some measure a continuation of their battle over earmarks and a personal rivalry that's gone on for years, if not decades.

RAY SUAREZ: Previous to Senator Stevens' electoral problems, was he close with the Alaska governor?

MICHAEL CAREY: Senator Stevens? No. They're a different generation, come from different backgrounds. Senator Stevens was in the Alaska legislature when Governor Palin was born, whole different eras and different backgrounds.

During the campaign, Senator Stevens appeared at one or two events with Governor Palin, and this was a huge surprise to voters here, because it suggested that Senator Stevens really needed Governor Palin's help in this election. And he's never asked anybody for help in that way.

Ultimate conclusion depends on vote

RAY SUAREZ: Presumably, it's too late for the ballots to be changed for the Alaska

Republicans to nominate someone else for that seat. What are, under Alaska electoral law, some of the possibilities that could play out now?

MICHAEL CAREY: Well, Senator Stevens -- if Mark Begich wins this election -- and he's run a very good campaign. He's a very skilled young man. I say that -- he's 44 years old, I believe, but 40 years younger than Ted Stevens.

If he wins on Tuesday, he will be the U.S. senator and that will be the end of it. If Senator Stevens prevails, he will go back to Washington and face all the process that would be involved there of a senator who's been indicted and perhaps some ethics question -- independent ethics question, as well.

Then there'd be the question of, would he step down? What would he do if he was sent to prison? These are all hypotheticals that we can only remotely imagine.

I think the important thing to know here is Senator Stevens' character. He is not a man who is going to back down. He is never going to give up. His goal in life, it seems, has been to be a United States senator. And he's going to be a United States senator as long as he can.

RAY SUAREZ: Is he back in Alaska yet to campaign?

MICHAEL CAREY: No. He's coming back tomorrow, is my understanding. There are various press requests in to meet him on Thursday night.

He will be participating in a debate on public broadcasting here in Anchorage. I'll be one of the journalists questioning him. And that's looming as an important event here in the next few days.

RAY SUAREZ: What has he had to say to the people of his state so far?

MICHAEL CAREY: The same thing that's been printed all over the United States, that he thinks that this was really a Justice Department that was -- or lawyers and the Justice Department who are out of control, that the court case was handled very badly, that he was mistreated, he's an innocent man, he's going to prove it, and he will prove it on appeal or whatever method it takes to vindicate himself.

RAY SUAREZ: Were there a lot of people in Alaska, as far as you could tell from your reporting, who were waiting on the sidelines to see what happened in order to decide where they were on this race?

MICHAEL CAREY: This is something I really have never quite understood, how many people would really sit back and say, "You know, I want to find out if he's innocent." There's a variety of bad behaviors that went on with Senator Stevens and other people involved in the corruption trial.

Would people really sit back and say, "I need to know he was innocent"? "I need to know he was guilty"? Because, during the campaign, both Senator Stevens and his challenger, Mayor Begich of Anchorage, were giving people lots of reasons to vote for them or to vote against them.

So I think this has been hyped. I can't prove that. And no pollster that I know of has really talked about it.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Carey in Anchorage, thanks for joining us.