By LIZ RUSKIN
Anchorage Daily News
July 25, 2005
Nor does the secretary of labor fly in to announce every grant of $7 million her department makes.
And when the secretary of transportation wants to say something about intercity Amtrak service, it's not obvious he'd make his point in Anchorage, or by standing at a train station that city residents can't use.
Yet this high-level attention was bestowed on south-central Alaska this month, all within 24 hours. That's because it was early July, and every year around Independence Day, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and a herd of very important people converge on the Kenai River for the Kenai River Classic fishing tournament.
Three Cabinet secretaries and seven U.S. senators were among the VIPs who fished the Classic this year, the 12th for the event.
The Classic is a fundraiser for the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. But it's about more than casting for giant king salmon and raising money to preserve the glacial blue river. For the lobbyists, defense contractors and corporate executives who pay $4,000 a couple to fish, it's a chance to socialize in a casual setting with some of the policy-makers who affect their industry.
It's also an opportunity to get their corporate names on tournament events.
EADS North America, a subsidiary of the European airplane maker Airbus, sponsored the welcome dinner this year. Boeing, EADS' archrival in vying for airplane and defense contracts, paid for the riverside barbecue. Lockheed Martin sponsored the auction at the AT&T Alascom banquet. Verizon bought the fish processing. The perennial prime sponsor is Yamaha.
For the VIPs, the trip is an opportunity to visit some of their farther-flung operations. And for everybody, it's a chance to honor Stevens, who co-hosts the event every year with the governor.
Postmaster General Jack Potter went because Stevens invited him, said his spokesman, Gerry McKiernan.
"This was an opportunity to go north to Alaska," McKiernan said. "He combined it with meetings of the employees up there. I'm told he had customer meetings as well. And it's a good opportunity to visit with Senator Ted. Stevens."
Potter's official duties included a ribbon-cutting July 6 at the new post office in Girdwood, where Stevens maintains his official Alaska residence.
Stevens, McKiernan said, is a big supporter of the Postal Service. As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and as chairman of its defense subcommittee, Stevens has a big say in a lot of federal spending.
Potter, a repeat guest at the Classic, didn't linger this year, the spokesman said.
"I heard that he stopped by, but he's not that big on fishing," he said.
The postmaster was accompanied by one aide - the agency's liaison with the Senate - and their combined travel expenses came to $3,400, McKieran said.
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao came with her husband, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. They are also regulars at the Classic.
The trip was not official travel for her.
"She went as Mrs. Mitch McConnell," her spokeswoman said.
Still, while passing through Anchorage, Chao stopped at the University of Alaska to announce a grant of $7 million to train Alaska workers in the energy industry.
The day before the start of the Classic, Stevens held a Senate hearing in Anchorage. That drew Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, as well as the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Marion Blakey. Mineta testified at the hearing, then gave a speech at Commonwealth North and met with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. He also rode the Alaska Railroad to a train depot at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, where he made a speech saying Amtrak, which is heavily subsidized by the federal government, should be more like the Alaska Railroad. It's a theme he returns to often in pressing for Amtrak reform.
The Alaska Railroad doesn't receive operational subsidies. But, thanks to Stevens, the federal government has provided $25 million a year for track rehabilitation, plus a total of $30 million in recent years for track work on Anchorage's military bases. The railroad also gets about $5 million a year in federal formula funds.
But that's all for the capital budget, said Alaska Railroad President Patrick Gamble. Federal money for capital projects also explains the $28 million train depot at the airport that Mineta used as the backdrop for his speech.
The depot, completed in 2002, was intended to provide public transportation to and from downtown, but so far it has only served the cruise ship industry.
"The depot came first, before there was a built-up demand for service, because the money was available in that particular year," Gamble said. "We will grow into that depot."
It's not right to say the airport depot is closed to the public, he said.
"It's open to the public. People can pass through the depot. They can walk through the depot," Gamble said.
The classic netted about $800,000 for riverbank restoration and other projects of the Kenai Sportfishing Association, said Ricky Gease, the group's executive director.
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