U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, brought home the big bacon for so long that his constituents like to call him “Uncle Ted.” Along with such other experts in pork barrel imports as U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. and the late U.S. Rep. Mendel Rivers, D-S.C., Sen. Stevens specialized in creating “earmarks' that helped his state.
In the past two decades he landed about $3 billion in federal funds earmarked for Alaska, including the so-called Bridge to Nowhere, a project ultimately cancelled because of its extravagant cost.
Now Sen. Stevens has a new distinction: He has been indicted in federal court on seven charges of failing to disclose more than $250,000 in gifts from an oil field contractor. Such gifts must be listed on financial disclosure forms required of members of Congress. Sen. Stevens, who is running for re-election, has declared his innocence and said he paid for all of those gifts. He said he's confident he will be declared innocent at a trial to begin in September. If convicted, Sen. Stevens, 84, faces up to five years in federal prison
He faces a handful of challengers in Alaska's Aug. 26 primary, and he is expected to win renomination. The general election campaign against Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich will be tougher, but the incumbent has allies – including President Bush, who appeared with him Monday in Fairbanks.
But Sen. Steven's problem in facing federal charges is emblematic of a problem that faces the Republican Party generally and its candidates in particular. While corruption has no party allegiance and while Democrats have had their legal troubles , too, voters may associate wrongdoing with the GOP and not with Democrats.
That may be the case especially in North Carolina, where former legislators and several Democratic executive branch officials have gone to prison on charges related to misuse of campaign contributions. A recent poll in this state found that voters thought corruption is centered in Washington, not Raleigh.
That may say more about voters' short attention spans than about their ability to comprehend what's wrong with politics. But when high-profile politicians such as Sen. Stevens – who helped Alaska become a state half a century ago and who served it for going on four decades now – are indicted for not following the law, it diminishes the public's trust in government.
Still, when N.C. Speaker of the House Jim Black, a Democrat, was sentenced to federal prison on charges related to bribery, the assumption was that voters would react with most distrust of state government. If the new poll associating corruption with Washington and not Raleigh is accurate, then there may be a bigger disadvantage for Republican candidates this fall than merely the burden of running with an unpopular president in the White House. Sen. Stevens may have accomplished some admirable things in Washington, but his indictment is one more stain on the body politic that his party did not need now.