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It was just two days after the FBI raid on U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens’ house, and his colleague, U.S. Rep. Don Young, was at a press conference to attack a Democratic energy bill. It was the first time reporters were able to ask Young any questions since the news emerged that he, too, was under federal investigation.
Young swatted away the inquiries. He didn’t really open up until he was asked about Alaska-related projects that he inserted into a federal water bill — including money for a study of the proposed bridge across Knik Arm, a project known to the rest of America as one of the “bridges to nowhere.” He grinned, happy to answer questions about the millions of dollars he has squirreled away for his home state.
“Oh yeah, I did real well,” Young said, before hopping an elevator and avoiding additional questions. “I’m happy.”
These days, though, such boasts make many in both Alaska and Washington cringe, especially as it becomes more apparent that two-thirds of the state’s congressional delegation is being investigated for improprieties connected with how they allocated federal money. Many people also have started to question how a delegation weakened by criminal investigations and ethical concerns can continue to effectively represent a place that, since statehood, has depended on federal money and attention to thrive.
Even as she refused to speculate about the investigations involving her two GOP colleagues, Alaska’s other Republican U.S. senator, Lisa Murkowski, said she realized that the news about the Alaskan delegation — as well as recent questions about the ethics of the Kenai River real estate deal she was involved with — hadn’t been good for the state.
“There has been a very intense media scrutiny on Alaska,” Murkowski said. “And it’s one thing if you read about it in our own newspapers or hear about it on the 6 o’clock news. It’s another thing when you see the media reports coming out of New York and The Washington Post. We all want coverage to be good about our state. And I acknowledge that it is not particularly good news for Alaska.”
There was another development last week that had an effect on the delegation. The House and the Senate passed an ethics bill calling for more detailed and transparent disclosures about earmarks, the special spending allocations that have made the Alaska delegation so infamous. It’s a change that has made it just a little bit unsavory for Stevens and Young to continue to brag, as Young once did in 2003 of an appropriations bill, that he “stuffed it like a turkey.”
The Alaska that once appreciated such talk has changed in the past 40 years, said Willie Hensley, a former state lawmaker and a founder of the NANA Regional Corp. who now lives in Washington and handles government relations for the Alyeska pipeline.
As the state matures, its leaders have to be cautious about how they look to the rest of the nation, Hensley said. That means they can no longer afford to appear as though they’re cravenly grabbing for federal money — and its leaders can’t be tarnished by ethical problems. There is simply less tolerance for such behavior, even though Alaska might still need the federal help, he said.
“Alaska is somewhat fragile,” he said. “Oil is about the only thing that pays its way, really. I don’t think we have a lot of room for error in our political judgments, and we have to have the best people we can in there, using their judgment and influence.”
Like Young, Stevens also has refused to talk about the investigation.
As senior GOP lawmakers who held powerful committee posts, both Young and Stevens had already lost much of their influence when Democrats took control of Congress in January. But their legacy of federal earmarking lives on in Alaska.
For years, Alaska has topped the list of states with the most per-capita federal government spending.
Politically, meanwhile, many smell blood.
For the first time in years, Young has a challenger with fund-raising juice: Jake Metcalfe, a former Anchorage School Board president and former head of the state Democratic Party, who announced his candidacy last week. Democrat Diane Benson, who challenged Young in 2006, is also running. There may be more. There’s also serious talk about both Republicans and Democrats considering a run against Stevens — people who wouldn’t have dared take him on in past years.
The delegation’s actions have consequences for the state, said Ethan Berkowitz, a Democrat and former state lawmaker who ran for lieutenant governor last year. Berkowitz is now considering a bid for Stevens’ seat, and also has thought about running for Young’s. He expects to make an announcement in September.
“As long as the current delegation is there, Alaska’s going to be cut up in the process,” Berkowitz said. “In my judgment, they’re hurting the state.”
(Find Erika Bolstad online at adn.com/contact/ebolstad.)