The windswept Aleutian Island fishing port of Dutch Harbor is considered far-flung even by Alaska's adjusted standards, farther from the urban hub of Anchorage than New York City is from Madison, Wisconsin. It is, in other words, a good place to hide from the press. Which is perhaps why, on an unseasonably pleasant evening last September, I found myself standing alongside the second-to-last berth of the harbor's spit dock, calling up to the wheelhouse of an oilfield supply boat, the Arctic Seal, looking for an ex-crab fisherman named Ben Stevens.
"I don't think he's going to be talking to any reporters," said the balding, bespectacled middle-aged man in a burgundy polo shirt who appeared along the railing.
"I was hoping to maybe get a comment on a couple of things ..." I offered lamely.
"Probably not," the man said.
"Can I leave a note for him with my phone--"
"Have a wonderful day," he said, and disappeared back into the wheelhouse.
In other states and other circumstances, an attempt to track down Stevens--the son of U.S. Senator Ted Stevens and, until the previous January, the president of Alaska's state Senate--probably would have ended at a receptionist's desk in a law firm's state capital office. But this was Alaska, and, after leaving the legislature, Stevens had become a mate on the Arctic Seal, which was on its way north to the Chukchi Sea. At the time, Stevens was probably better off at sea than on land. On August 31, 2006, FBI agents armed with search warrants had burst into his office, as well as those of five other state legislators, all of whom had been suspected of accepting bribes from executives of Veco Corporation, an Anchorage-based oilfield service company, over a piece of gas pipeline legislation.
The events of the past two years in Alaskan politics read like the last days of a venal institutional party somewhere in Latin America. Indeed, Alaska's history often resembles that of a kind of frozen banana republic: an idealistic political experiment projected onto an unsettled territory with a troubled colonial past, stagnating in the hands of a single ruling party bolstered by a monolithic resource extraction economy. Ted Stevens and Representative Don Young, the state's iconic strongmen, have collectively spent 75 years in Congress, in part by encouraging Alaska's resentfully transactional view of the federal government, which still owns most of the land within the state's borders and supports it with generous subsidies. In lieu of the United Fruit Company, Alaska has the North Slope oil fields, upon which the state has been economically dependent since the 1970s.
Following a flurry of scandals and indictments, however, the political culture in Alaska that nurtured politicians like Stevens and Young for so long seems to be on the wane. A new crop of politicians is emerging, declaiming against the old guard and promising reform. But are the corrupt traditions in Alaska too entrenched to allow for regime change?
Certainly, the current junta seems headed straight for disaster. Most of the Republican establishment's problems are at least tangentially related to the Veco investigation, which has yielded bribery and extortion convictions of three GOP state lawmakers and two lobbyists thus far, with more likely on the way. While Ben Stevens has so far avoided indictment, his father has proven less fortunate. On July 29, the elder Stevens--the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. Senate, who was named "Alaskan of the Century" by the state legislature in 2000--surrendered to authorities in Washington after he was charged with failing to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of goods and services he allegedly received from Veco between 1999 and 2006. Young, Alaska's lone representative in the House for the last three-and-a-half decades, is also under federal investigation in connection with Veco--as well as for an aide's dealings with Jack Abramoff and a $10 million earmark written to benefit a campaign contributor.
Disgusted by the Veco scandals, Alaskans have begun to cast about for alternatives to the old guard. One sign of change came in the 2006 gubernatorial primaries, when Republican voters ditched the incumbent Frank Murkowski, a durable but little-loved icon of the establishment, for Sarah Palin, a newcomer running on a novel (for Alaska) platform of reforming and restoring the dignity of the state's political system. Palin had alienated much of Alaska's Republican leadership two years earlier by pursuing conflict-of-interest charges against state party chair Randy Ruedrich when they both sat on the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (Ruedrich was slapped with a $12,000 fine and resigned his commission post).
Palin's victory paved the way for a new kind of Alaskan politician. This year's primary ballots are full of candidates--including Palin's Republican lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell, and the Democrats running against Young and Stevens, former state representative Ethan Berkowitz and Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich--who have sold themselves as agents of reform. (Barack Obama is also treating Alaska like a state on the verge of unprecedented change: The Washington Post reported this week that he has sent dozens of campaign workers there, dispatching bush pilots to fly them out to remote villages.) Berkowitz calls their ascendance a "Jeffersonian moment." And some changes in Alaska's circumstances have made its residents more receptive to a reform message. High oil prices have flooded Alaska's treasury and eased its need for federal money, even if it continues to receive it. The idea that the state's relationship with its twin patrons--Washington, D.C., and the petroleum industry--has been unbecoming and unhealthy, which no sane Alaskan politician would have touched a decade ago, has become a matter of active discussion.
"We can't keep waiting for Uncle Sam to solve our problems, and we can't keep waiting for big oil to deliver," Berkowitz says. "When Alaska has the ability to take care of itself, it should take care of itself. We can't act like a colony."
The old regime won't go down without a fight, of course. Last October, Parnell paid a visit to Young in his Washington offices. Young's suite in the Rayburn House building would not be easily confused with, say, Henry Waxman's; the walls are decorated with a bearskin, a walrus skull, and a wealth of other accessories to the representative's long-running Trapper-Jake-goes-to-Washington act. On various occasions, Young has waved the penis bone of a walrus--known in his home state as an oosik--at the head of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, brandished a buck knife on the House floor while castigating a Democratic congressman, and testified in defense of fur trapping with a steel leghold trap clamped onto his own hand for dramatic effect.
On this visit, which was meant to be a routine briefing, Parnell says, Young launched into a ten-minute tirade about Parnell's boss. The elder lawmaker called Palin a "crystal figure" and said he was "going to crush her"--and Parnell himself, if the lieutenant governor stayed too close to her (not surprisingly, Young has disputed the account). But Parnell called Young's bluff in March at the Alaska Republican Party convention, when he announced (standing within an oosik's throw of the incumbent congressman) that he would be challenging Young in the party's August 26 primary.
Young is now trailing Parnell by three points in the Republican primary and, more incredibly, his likely Democratic challenger, State Representative Berkowitz, by eleven points in the general election--this in a state that hasn't sent a Democrat to Capitol Hill since voters retired Senator Mike Gravel in 1980, and has only been carried by one Democratic presidential candidate (Lyndon Johnson) in 49 years of statehood. As for Stevens, even before his indictment he was polling nine points behind Begich, the presumptive Democratic nominee--now he is down by 13. Until this year, Stevens was so popular that the state Democratic Party rarely bothered to field a serious candidate against him (in recent races, his most reliable Democratic challenger has been Frank Vondersaar, an eccentric attorney and self-described "anti-fascist" candidate who believes he is the target of a 25-year, Stevens-engineered conspiracy and doesn't own a telephone).
The price of Alaska's political renaissance, however, is a slate of depressingly conventional candidates for a state used to larger-than-life political icons. Parnell, for instance, who grew up in unremarkably urban Anchorage and practiced corporate law there before entering office, is a clean-cut, suburban kind of Republican. It is as easy to envision him running for office in Orange County as in the Arctic Circle--and pretty hard to see him arguing a bill with a bear trap on his arm.
Palin, at least, may be starting to dabble in her state's political heritage; legislators have ordered an investigation into her dismissal of a commissioner who ignored the governor's requests to fire her ex-brother-in-law when he was employed as a state trooper. The controversy has some uniquely Alaskan flourishes: In 2005, Palin had accused the trooper of, among other things, running down a wolf on a snowmobile and swilling Crown Royal whiskey straight from the bottle while driving home from a wrestling match. Compared to the scandals that are bringing down the generalissimos, this is small beer. But who knows--give Palin another 20-odd years of absolute Alaskanstyle power, and reporters may find themselves trying to track her down on a dock somewhere in the Aleutian Islands.
Charles Homans has written from Alaska for The Washington Monthly and The Economist.
By Charles Homans