Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Jurors have convicted Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens of lying on Senate disclosure forms in order to conceal home renovations and other gifts he received from the oil-field engineering firm VECO Corp. and its CEO.

Stevens was found guilty on all of seven counts against him and now faces up to five years in prison on each count, though he would likely serve much less time, if any.

Al Gore

Sen. Ted Stevens and Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

The verdict changes the Alaska Senate race significantly. Stevens is locked in a tight race against Democratic challenger Mark Begich (Grist interview here), with Steven’s lead at as little as 1 percent in recent polls.

At 84, Stevens is the longest-serving Republican in the Senate. For most of his 38 years in office he’s been an antagonist of environmentalists — particularly when leading the charge to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration. Stevens has questioned whether humankind is warming the planet and offered his own bizarre explanations for climate change.

Yet as far back as 2002 he recognized the impact of global warming on his home state: “Alaska is harder hit by global climate change than any place in the world,” he told The New York Times. In 2007, he cosponsored a moderate climate bill and introduced legislation to raise fuel-economy standards for passenger cars to an average of 40 miles per gallon within 10 years.

But on many issues, he’s favored industry over environmental interests. He’s pushed for more logging in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska, attempted to prevent the federal government from spending money to study and protect fish habitat in the North Pacific, and tried to weaken organic-labeling standards so wild Alaskan salmon could get the organic seal. He also attempted to remove the Steller sea lion from  the endangered-species list so the feds wouldn’t be able to reduce fishing quotas in the animal’s range.

Challenger Begich, whom Grist interviewed this summer, also calls for drilling in ANWR, but he’s put forward an energy plan that includes strong support for renewables. He’s also called for tough action on climate change, outlining a plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Democrats have been hoping to pick up the Alaskan seat, and today’s verdict makes it seem within reach. But it’s not entirely clear what will happen. Stevens can drop out, or he can continue campaigning as a convicted felon. Some GOP strategists in the state have argued that “Uncle Ted” can win even with a conviction. If he does, the Senate Ethics Committee would have to figure out what to do with him next year. If he is sentenced to jail time, there would of course be great pressure to resign, and there would be a special election within 60 days.

But of course, whether he gets to stay in the Senate will be up to Alaska’s voters next week.