Ted Stevens is back in Alaska. I decided to crash his welcome home party at the Pen-Air hangar out by the airport. I had no idea what to expect with this one, but I just had to do it. I’ve never been to a welcome home party for a convicted felon returning home to run a Senate campaign. And I probably won’t get the chance again.
Driving out to the airport, it became increasingly obvious that more and more cars on the road were sporting Ted Stevens bumper stickers, and heading in the same direction. As I got closer to the hangar, I noticed immediately cars parked everywhere. Could this really be for Stevens? People were walking toward the hangar, so it must be. I had to park some distance away and by the time I got in the hangar, I was freezing. The place was packed, and brightly lit. Boxes of Ted Stevens buttons and stacks of bumper stickers greeted us at the door as smiling people welcomed us. The sound system was blaring Journey, and that made me think of the long strange journey Uncle Ted has been on for the last two years.
I noticed Assemblyman Chris Birch from South Anchorage milling around, and there was former Assemblyman and Anchorage Mayor wannabe Dan Sullivan. And over there, Senator Lisa Murkowski in the obligatory red suit, smiling and shaking hands. I estimated the crowd at about 600. Bigger than I thought it would be. But I didn’t see Republican Party Chair Randy Reudrich. Or State Senate President Lyda Green. Just one assemblyman, one former assemblyman, and our Junior Senator. The missing persons were obvious, and it demonstrates the interesting fractures developing in the state’s Republican party.
I snapped a picture of the crowd, and a lady grabbed my arm. “You should take a picture of those t-shirts!” she beamed. “Did you see them?? They’re great! They say ‘Fuck the Feds! Vote for Ted!'” This took me by surprise, and I sort of did a choke/gasp combo, and she reassured me, “Oh, they made those marks instead of some of the letters…but you can tell that’s what it means. Look! There’s one!” She pointed. I snapped. And thus the Republican Party in the State of Alaska has officially hit bedrock.
Our emcee was Rick Rydell, a long-time conservative radio talk show icon. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t like outsiders telling me what to think!” Wild cheering with a peppering of testosterone drenched “YEAHH!”. And if any of ‘em tries it, says Rydell, they can “kiss my moose-hunting behind.” I almost didn’t tell you that part, because it’s people like that that make me cringe as an Alaskan. Then he went on to say that there were people that call his radio show all the time and say, “How can you not think Ted is guilty?” and then he says, “Why do you think he IS guilty? And then they tell him, ‘I read it on the internet and the Anchorage Daily News.” Laughter and scorn from the audience. And finally he reminded the crowd that “the prosecutors don’t know Ted….I know Ted, and I choose to believe him.”
Yes, apparently to Anchorage’s conservative radio audience, not only the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska’s only large newspaper), but the entire internet is a bogus source of information. What the talk show guy “chooses to believe” is infinitely more reliable.
Next up, Lisa Murkowski. Here was one angry lady. After being introduced by Rydell as the “other Senator”, she was met with lots of cheering and chants of LEE-SA! LEE-SA! She flashed the crowd what I can only describe as a you’re-in-deep-trouble “Mom face” and said “NO. NO. This is not about me. THIS IS ABOUT ALASKA!” Then, she went on and on about how Ted has “more to give”, and he had faith in us, and we need to have faith in him, and that it was “not a good day for the country when justice is not duly served.” Then she proceeded to slam everyone she could think of for turning on Ted, including the Democratic National Committee (boos from the crowd). She, of course failed to mention that the Republican National Committee, The Republican Senate Minority Leader, The Republican Presidential Candidate, and our own Republican Governor VP Candidate Sarah Palin ALSO asked Ted to step down. Details, details. Much more fun to Boo the DNC. And then the grand finale…we were told to “feel the love in the room” and “wrap our arms around Ted” and give him a “hero’s welcome.”
And then, Lily Stevens, Ted’s daughter spoke. “We need to send a strong message to my Dad. We need him!” Chants of WE NEED TED! WE NEED TED! WE NEED TED! And then, the man of the hour arrived, with his wife Catherine on his arm.
He looked a little tired, but was definitely as cantankerous as ever. “I am innocent of the charges against me!” “I will be vindicated!” “I will NEVER stop fighting for the people of Alaska!” “My future is in God’s hands. Alaska’s future is in your hands!” “I have helped every Alaskan that has ever come to me for help!” Lots of cheers. “I naively trusted someone I thought was a friend.” This reference of course was to former Veco CEO Bill Allen who turned on his buddy and served as the prosecution’s star witness.
It was a short gathering. Only about 1/2 hour. Well attended by a devoted cadre, who can only be described as being “filled with righteous anger”. And we learned that there is no way he’s stepping down. There was absolutely no mention made of Mark Begich, Stevens’ Democratic opponent. “The feds” are the clear enemy here. And we know how we feel about THEM. Just read the t-shirts.
I skated out quickly, and zoomed across town to the open house for Mark Begich. I’m always glad these things happen at the same time, so I can end my journey in a comfortable venue. He made a great speech – short but positive, and hopeful. Young people were everywhere, a great swing band played, there was popcorn. The room was packed. There was a happy flag cake. There were no expletives. Nobody was angry. It was nice.