Ted Stevens was noted D.C. home rule foe
The plane crash that claimed the life of former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) ends one man's dismal relationship with the District of Columbia -- particularly dismal even among the legislators who love to loathe the capital city.
"God forbid that someone should tell me that the city of Washington is my home," Stevens said in 1982. "I can't think of a worse city to have as capital and I don't care who knows it."
Stevens spent virtually all of his professional life in the District of Columbia, from his early days an an attorney in the 1950s through his Senate service, which started in 1968 and ended with his defeat amid corruption charges in 2008. But he never warmed to these more temperate environs, and certainly never warmed to the locals who came to run it.
The quotation above came in defense of a $75 per day tax break that members of Congress were entitled to, Stevens argued, because Washington was essentially a hardship post. He maintained that attitude through his career in public service.
In 1979, when Mayor Marion Barry suggested cutting down on free and subsidized parking for federal workers at a hearing, Stevens was not amused. "If you find it so difficult to put up with so many federal employees," he said, "and I'm very serious, it would be energy efficient to come halfway to Kansas."
In June 1982, Post columnist Richard Cohen suggested renaming Washington as "Alaska." Why? "[B]ecause of how it will addle the mind of [Stevens], who likes to say how much he hates Washington," Cohen wrote. "If the name of Washington were changed to Alaska, he would have to say how much he hates Alaska. This would either so complicate his life that he would stop unloading on Washington or, if he persisted, he would lose the next election."
It wasn't that Stevens didn't have his reasons to hate his not-quite-adopted hometown: His Capitol Hill home was burgled in January 1983. Later that year, Stevens had the Justice Department do a study of crime in Washington after "a whole series of incidents of crime" against Capitol Hill staff members.
Stevens was also a stalwart opponent of the city's gun laws; also in 1983, "a constituent who had come to visit him at the Hart Office Building was arrested when he tried to check a .44-caliber pistol he routinely used to kill injured moose in his job as a conductor on the Alaska Railroad," outraging Stevens.
And, like so many on the Hill, he did not shy away from holding Washingtonians to his own moral standards. In 2001, he spoke out as the Democratic Congress voted to end restrictions of funding health benefits for the gay partners of city employees. "They're spending United States taxpayer money on things that are contrary to the basic concepts" of many Americans, he said -- even though only locally raised taxpayer funds would have been spent on the measure.
But Stevens could be quite substantive when it came to his critique of the District's governance. In a 1996 Post op-ed, Stevens called for a home rule makeover:
The District of Columbia is not a state. It has neither a state's sovereignty, nor its taxing and zoning powers. It has no rural areas to help alleviate the costs of urban problems. More like a city in size, its home rule authority, demographics and governmental structure are primarily those of a municipality. Yet we have given it responsibilities that no city in the country has: the tasks of running a prison system, relying on one major industry and managing a comprehensive welfare system. Even the best-run local government would not function well under such handicaps.
What's the solution? We should start by narrowing the scope of the District's responsibilities, allowing its "state" functions to be absorbed by the federal government or contracted to a neighboring state government.
With that accomplished, we need to give it a more functional form of local government -- the city manager system. Under such a system the mayor would serve directly on the city council and together they would hire a professional city manager with a proven track record to administer the operations of a city. With no personal political agenda, the city manager could focus on efficient, effective administration of the council's policies -- or be replaced by a vote of the council.
Stevens' suggestion of having the feds take over certain District responsibilities indeed became law, via the 1997 Revitalization Act. Still, his animus toward the city ran deep.
In April 1990, the Post's Dan Balz was among a group of reporters invited to lunch with the senior senator when he unloaded on the state of post-home rule Washington. Stevens said that the city had "gone to hell" (unlike all those other cities that were doing so well around that period).
"This is a dangerous place," he told the reporters, adding that he told his fellow Alaskans to keep their hotel doors closed while staying in the city.
Statehood for the District was a hot-button issue at the time, and Stevens said his constituents were "appalled" at the prospect. "This is a company town," he said. "This is a federal government town."
But, he told the reporters, "I don't want to sound like I don't like the District."
File photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
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