By now you have probably heard that Governor Mike Dunleavy (R – Alaska) decided to make some senior staff changes. He recently announced that Ben Stevens would be taking over as chief of staff and Tuckerman Babcock would become a senior policy advisor for strategic affairs.
Most people weren’t surprised. Things have not been going well for Dunleavy since he took office last December. Between his budget rollout that was not well explained or communicated to legislators or Alaskans, his bizarre budget roadshow sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, a slew of bad appointment choices, serious questions about the attempt to privatize the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, a recall effort that is underway – to name just a few – it’s been a real bad start.
Tuckerman Babcock has almost certainly been responsible for many of these bad decisions. He has also played a key role in staff appointments in the Governor’s Office. We all know how that has gone. Babcock sees the world in black and white. In reality, politics is mostly gray.
Dunleavy seems to have finally taken note of all of this, and decided that enough was enough. Since it was announced that Ben Stevens would be the new chief of staff, I have received multiple emails, messages, and phone calls about Ben Stevens. They have almost all been negative, with the goal of getting me to do a hit piece or negative article about Stevens. Most of these people are part of the hardcore anti-Dunleavy crowd. The two things they all bring up are the “Valley trash” comment he made in 2004 and the consulting work he did for VECO.
In 2004 Stevens responded to an email from an anonymous Valley woman by saying, “Afraid to sign your name? You’re just more Valley trash.” It created a big media frenzy. T-shirts were even made. But did you know the woman used the term “whore” to describe Stevens and other politicians who she said sold out their constituents? Stevens later told a group in the Valley, “There’s no question about it, the words I chose to respond to that woman were the wrong words.” This ADN article explains it all.
If the metric for who can be a public servant is a dumb comment that someone made in the last 15 years, then about 95% of the people in the Capitol need to resign. I have heard legislators make far more objectionable comments – including comments about people in the Valley. Was Stevens wrong to make the comment? Yes. Does it mean Stevens is some kind of monster who should never again be allowed to be a public servant? No.
The more concerning allegation about Stevens involves his past association with the now defunct oilfield services company VECO. In 2006 the FBI raided the offices of several legislators. These included then Senators Ben Stevens, John Cowdery, Donny Olson, as well as Representatives Vic Kohring, Pete Kott, and Bruce Weyhrauch. We all know what happened after. Stevens had reported $243,250 in consulting fees from VECO between 2002 and 2006. Unlike many of the others, Stevens – along with Senator Donny Olson (D – Golovin) – was never charged with a crime.
I don’t know Ben Stevens very well. I have only talked to him a few times. But I know a lot of people I trust and respect who know Ben Stevens well. These include current and former legislators on both sides of the aisle. In general, their opinions of Stevens are significantly different than many of those who have contacted me.
First, I spoke with former Senate President Lyda Green. She served with Stevens in the State Senate. You may remember that Green organized the bipartisan coalition in the State Senate in 2007. She is also Tuckerman Babcock’s mother-in-law. Green told me, “Ben Stevens is one of the brightest people I have ever met. He was very well informed and quick to understand the issues.” Regarding the raid in 2006, she said, “When I heard they were in Ben Stevens’ office I told my staffer they are out to get Ted Stevens. A lesser person would have been ruined, but Ben persisted.” Regarding the allegations about corruption, she said, “Never once in my relationship with Stevens did he try to persuade me to vote a certain way. I never saw him ask anyone to do that.” She also told me she never saw him take advantage of his connections in D.C.
I also reached out to Democratic Senator Donny Olson. He told me:
I worked very well with Stevens in the Senate. He’s head and shoulders above other people Dunleavy has surrounded himself with. He’s an educated and driven man. There are many times we are not headed in the same direction, but that does not mean he’s a bad person. He’s always been truthful with me in the past and I could always trust what he told me.
I also spoke with former Speaker of the House John Harris. Harris now works as lobbyist. Harris served as Speaker when Stevens served as Senate President. He told me:
Ben is a straight shooter and no nonsense kind of guy. He was always a pleasure to work with. I think he will be a good chief of staff and a good addition for the Governor’s senior staff. He knows how to make a deal. You have to be able to make a deal in politics. Ben and I made a lot of deals to get things done. I could always trust Ben’s word. He always said what he meant.
I also spoke to former Representative Ralph Samuels. Ralph was my representative many years ago and is very well respected in Alaska business and political circles. Samuels served with Stevens in the Legislature. He also happens to be Tuckerman Babcock’s brother-in-law. Samuels has this to say about Stevens:
Ben is one of the smartest people I know, not just in politics but just in general. He has driven ships through the Panama Canal, fished for crab in the Bering Sea, and was an extremely effective legislator. He understands both Alaska and D.C. and will do a great job as chief of staff. I served with a lot of people but Ben was the smartest one, both on issues and on the political aspect of public policy.
I also spoke with Art Hackney. Hackney has a long history of working in Alaska politics, including on Ted Stevens’ campaigns. He also knows Ben well. I have known Art for a longtime and is some I have a great deal of respect for. He had the following to say about Ben:
Ben Stevens never rode on his father’s coattails. He was a real deal tough guy Deadliest Catch captain before he got into politics. He was attacked in a similar fashion as his dad was by the media and political opponents who wanted to make sure Ben never emerged as the great political leader he was becoming. Ben, like his dad, was wrongly attacked and viciously smeared – then completely cleared by the judicial system – but rendered damaged in the process.
Ben Stevens and his wife Elizabeth are two of the greatest Alaskans I know. They have raised a tremendous family that is a whole new generation of remarkable Stevens’. When Ben was in the legislature and other legislators would head for the bars after work, Ben would go coach his kids and all the neighborhood kids in hockey on the little lake in downtown Juneau.
Ben Stevens is unimpeachably honest, one of the smartest people I know, and a fearless proponent of projects that would benefit Alaska – and Alaskans.
Hackney used to be neighbors with former VECO President Bill Allen. Regarding the accusations about Stevens and VECO, Hackney told me the following:
As with many Alaskans, I knew Bill Allen. My late wife and I lived across the alley from him in South Addition in 2004/2005. Bill personally told me how he sometimes had ideas that he would broach to Ben, and how Ben would often blow up at him and say “God damn it, NO Bill, you can’t do that”.
Bill should have listened to Ben. He is permanently damned by all of us who lived through that period of time for dishonestly trying to throw Ben under the bus to save himself.
Many cite Rick Smith’s testimony during the trial of Pete Kott as evidence that Stevens is guilty of corruption and taking bribes. Smith was a former VECO vice president. While on the witness stand Smith told the jury he had bribed Stevens and Cowdery. But Smith was a cooperating witness with the FBI and was trying to get a better deal for himself and Bill Allen. He just screams credible witness. The fact that he said that in the trial and that Stevens was never charged with a crime says a lot.
Is Stevens a perfect person? No, none of us are. He should have been more up front and available to the media about his involvement with VECO. But it’s wrong for people to assume he’s guilty of a crime he was never even charged for. We are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. I guess for some Stevens is just guilty – no charges needed.
There is no doubt that Stevens has a strong personality and is a no nonsense kind of guy. He could even be described as a hard ass. But he’s undeniably smart and more than qualified to be chief of staff. Don’t take my word for it. Listen to the well respected Alaskans who actually know and have served with Stevens. The Dunleavy administration has been off to a bad start. Ben Stevens may just be the person who can turn the tide.
I reached out to former Democratic Senators Johnny Ellis and Hollis French, who both served with Stevens, for this story. I was not able to get a hold of them for a comment.