THE BLOG
08/18/2008 11:33 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Alaska's GOP Congressmen Are Bridge to Nowhere

It's Time for the State to Toss Out Its Ethically Suspect Bullies.

King Salmon, Alaska

An albatross Republicans must haul around this year is that voters no longer clearly see them as the party best able to control government spending and taxes. GOP pork-barrel kings such as Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young are a big reason. Now allegations of corruption are swirling around both men as they face stiff challenges in Alaska's Aug. 26 Republican primary.

Stevens and Young have done enormous damage nationally to the Republican brand. They were champions of the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," a $223 million span to Gravina Island with 50 people on it, that became the butt of late-night comedians. But the jokes have been replaced with anger: Stevens was indicted last month on seven felony counts of lying about $250,000 in gifts he received from the head of the oil services company VECO, Bill Allen, who was seeking earmarks from the senator. Young has spent over $1 million in legal fees fighting a federal investigation of his ties to VECO.

Yet both may win nomination from fellow Republicans, in part because of their long incumbency -- decades in Congress -- and because of all the pork they've dragged home. Alaskans have long justified their raids on the U.S. Treasury because the feds have locked up so many of the state's natural resources (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge being the most famous example). In what some called "compensation," the state made sure it became No. 1 in the nation in pork per person -- $984.85 for each Alaskan in 2005.

Alaska has come to be dominated by welfare-state conservatives. An oil-revenue fund that this year will dish out $2,100 to every resident; now $1,200 in state-issued debit cards is being handed out to help residents pay for higher gas prices.

But voters are voicing dissent. Gov. Sarah Palin swept into office in 2006 by winning a GOP primary over incumbent Frank Murkowski, a former colleague of Stevens and Young in Congress. "I want Alaska to be known for more than FBI sting operations," she has declared. Palin openly encouraged Sean Parnell, her lieutenant governor, to mount a primary challenge to Young and has not endorsed Mr. Stevens against his primary challenger, Anchorage banker David Cuddy.

Both challengers talk about the need for a new model of economic development. "We cannot wholly rely on the federal government," Lt. Gov. Parnell says. "Alaska is 50 years old, we've got a surplus. It's time for us to step up and use some of that." Cuddy is equally adamant. "Earmarks have bred corruption and that should signal it's time to return to constitutional limits on runaway spending." Even former Gov. Wally Hickel, who appointed Mr. Stevens to his seat in 1968, now says "his time is over."

Alaska's Old Bulls are fighting back. Young has collected boatloads of cash from out-of-state unions who admire his pork-barrel ways and his support for "card check" legislation, which would permit unions to organize without holding secret ballot elections. His ads tout the claim that Young does "too much" for Alaska.

Stevens cites advice from his lawyers in refusing to discuss his indictment beyond claiming it's "not some extreme felony." He will learn this Monday if his Sept. 24 trial will be moved from Washington, D.C., to Alaska and a potentially more friendly jury pool. The odds are strongly against him winning a change of venue, leading many to think he will then seek a postponement of his trial.

Still, even tarnished incumbents can win if challengers divide up the vote against them. That may happen in Alaska, where Stevens faces not only Cuddy, but Vic Vickers, who moved back to the state in January after decades in Florida, and who is spending $750,000 of his own money.

Vickers's unusual policy stands -- he favors withdrawing U.S. troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan -- preclude him from winning the nomination. But he could enable Stevens to win with a plurality.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Parnell must share anti-incumbent sentiment against Young with Gabrielle LeDoux, a state legislator who is pumping $350,000 of her own money into the primary.

All of this puts the GOP in a pickle if either incumbent wins. "Anyone who thinks Stevens or Young will be re-elected if they survive their primaries is living in Fantasyland," says Frank Bickford, a government affairs consultant in Anchorage. Indeed, polls show both men trailing their Democratic opponents by double digits -- a remarkable feat, given that Alaska has sent only Republicans to Congress since 1980.

"I tell Republicans to find the courage to take on the old guard," says Dan Fagan, a popular talk-show host and columnist at the Anchorage Daily News. "Don't let the Stevens, Young, Murkowski dynasty intimidate you."

Indeed, it was the power of the purse that Stevens and Young wielded for so long that helped entrench the earmark culture among Congressional Republicans. Few dared risk their wrath. When he became chairman of the Appropriations Committee in 1997, Mr. Stevens proclaimed, "I'm a mean, miserable SOB." When his "Bridge to Nowhere" was challenged in 2005, Mr. Stevens warned fellow senators "if we start cutting funding for individual projects, your project may be next."

In the House, Rep. Young -- the former Transportation Committee chair who stuffed the last highway bill with 6,371 earmarks -- played a similar intimidation game. "Those who bite me will be bitten back," Mr. Young warned Rep. Scott Garrett last year. Garrett, a New Jersey Republican, had tried to kill a $34 million earmark sponsored by Mr. Young.

The ethically suspect bullies who have represented Alaskans for decades are passing from the scene. Voters now have a choice between electing reform Republicans who want to break that mold or Democrats, who are at least up front about their beliefs.

Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2008