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Monday, October 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Powerful patron in Senate has shaped GOP contender

By Alex Fryer
Seattle Times Washington bureau

U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, left, poses with his then-chief of staff, George Nethercutt, in a 1977 photo.
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In politics, as in life, it's good to have powerful friends.

And in the U.S. Senate, there are few more powerful than Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. The 80-year-old Republican is in Seattle today to raise money for his protégé and former aide, Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane.

For more than a year, Stevens, chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and a master at funneling federal money to his state, campaigned hard for Nethercutt, who is trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.

Stevens' political-action committee (PAC) was the first to give Nethercutt the $10,000 maximum donation last June. And Stevens continued to raise money for Nethercutt at a breathtaking pace, bringing in more than $300,000 to Nethercutt this month alone.

Murray's office reportedly was concerned enough to make a round of calls to potential donors last year, warning them Murray was watching who was giving money to her opponent.

Election 2004


One of a series of stories exploring the lives and careers of the candidates for U.S. Senate
During their 32-year friendship, Stevens helped Nethercutt and his family both politically and personally.

And Nethercutt would not be the politician he is today without Stevens' influence.

"Six years is a long time"

The two met in 1972, when Nethercutt was a 27-year-old lawyer winding up a clerkship with a federal judge in Anchorage. Stevens took him to lunch and asked, "How'd you like to come to Washington?"

Nethercutt moved to Capitol Hill and within six months became Stevens' chief of staff and closest adviser.

"He was the most outstanding lawyer in the office," said Stevens. "He moved up to chief of staff without any argument from anyone."

When Nethercutt left D.C. to return to Spokane in 1977, "I told him then I hoped to greet him one day as senator," Stevens said. "I consider him a very fine friend."

Appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1968, Stevens has used his seniority and hard-nosed advocacy to bring Alaska billions of dollars' worth of federal transportation, defense and health projects.

But when Nethercutt ran for his first public office against then-House Speaker Tom Foley in 1994, Nethercutt adopted two un-Stevenslike positions.

He condemned pork-barrel federal projects of the kind Foley — and Stevens — were good at delivering. And Nethercutt advocated limits on congressional terms, promising to serve only three terms in Congress if elected.

Nethercutt said he didn't talk to Stevens about his pledge until well into the campaign.

"He said, 'I wish you hadn't done that,' " said Nethercutt. "But I said, 'Well, six years is a long time.' "

Stevens knew the power of accumulating years of experience in Congress. "I believed at the time that term limits were a sort of fad," said Stevens. "I believed that people should have a choice."

Nethercutt came around to that view, breaking his term-limits pledge in 2000 and winning re-election twice before deciding to relinquish his seat by taking on Murray this year.

A pink pig

Nethercutt has also changed his mind about federal projects in his district.

In the 1994 race, Nethercutt brought a tiny pink pig to debates with Foley to ridicule the federal projects Foley had brought to the district.

Nethercutt criticized Foley's support of the Spokane Intercollegiate Research and Technology Institute (SIRTI), which helped high-tech startups.

But after winning the upset victory and moving to D.C., Nethercutt became a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which spends federal dollars and is the counterpart to Stevens' committee in the Senate.

"I thought to myself, if I'm on appropriations, then I can work with him because he's been so supportive of me and such a good, dear friend," said Nethercutt. "I felt we could have a synergy if we worked together."

Today, Nethercutt points to his record of bringing home dollars for his district, even doing a campaign stop at SIRTI earlier this year to underscore his support for the project.

"I put in some language in agriculture appropriations bills for specific items that apply only to Washington state or the Pacific Northwest," he said. "Potato, asparagus, wheat. Some may say that is pork barrel. I don't think it is."

Wheat to Pakistan

Nethercutt said Stevens was an important ally when he and other Northwest lawmakers pushed a 1998 bill to exempt Pakistan from export restrictions after it tested a nuclear weapon. The measure saved a $35 million purchase of Washington state wheat by Pakistan.

Stevens' connections also helped Nethercutt's wife, Mary Beth.

Mary Beth Nethercutt, an attorney herself, indirectly worked for Stevens, serving as the chief aide on a Senate Appropriations subcommittee from 1997 to 2001.

After working as director for legislative affairs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Mary Beth Nethercutt last year joined a lobbying firm founded by a former Stevens aide. Records indicate she lobbied for AT&T and other clients.

Some anti-government-spending groups say Nethercutt picked up some bad habits from Stevens.

Nethercutt has a 71 percent lifetime rating from Citizens Against Government Waste, which the group says reflects votes on cutting taxes, reducing spending and reducing regulations.

While that is much higher than Murray's 14 percent rating from the group, it's "a disappointment" for a Republican who has criticized excessive spending, said the group's vice president, David Williams.

"We look at a bare minimum for Republicans at 80 percent. They are the party of fiscal responsibility, so 71 percent isn't really trying," said Williams.

Powerful patrons

Stevens' support of Nethercutt reportedly worried Murray. Late last summer, Murray's office called various PACs and lobbyists to warn them Murray would be watching who was giving money to Nethercutt, reported the political newspaper The Hill.

The Nethercutt campaign quickly responded, putting together a video that included testimonials from Republican Senate leaders, including Stevens.

According to sources close to the Nethercutt campaign, Stevens' public connection to Nethercutt was designed to reassure donors not to fear Murray, who also serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Lobbyists and corporations are often nervous about giving money to candidates challenging Appropriations members, since they put together multibillion-dollar spending bills.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, a strong Murray supporter and admirer of Stevens, agreed the Nethercutt-Stevens friendship carries tremendous weight on Capitol Hill. "It sends a signal that he has powerful patrons in the Senate. It means a lot."

And PACs haven't been shy about supporting Nethercutt. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, PACs have contributed nearly $1 million to his campaign, most of it through other lawmakers.

Nethercutt said he has already talked to Stevens about joining him on the Senate Appropriations Committee next year if he knocks off Murray.

"Sen. Stevens and [Majority Leader] Sen. [Bill] Frist are going to advocate for me in no uncertain terms," said Nethercutt. "And I think in all likelihood they will still be in the majority. I think that's important to know."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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