Forty Alaska Republicans have signed an open letter to Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller, urging him to start answering questions from the media and voters about his background and qualifications to serve.
"It is unacceptable -- and certainly not a winning strategy -- to explicitly refuse to answer reasonable questions about oneself, and to disrespect the Alaska public and the press' right to do so before the questions have even been asked," said the letter, made public Wednesday.
The letter appeared to expose a growing rift within the party between supporters of Miller, the tea party's successful choice in the Republican Party primary in August, and centrist party activists who continue to support the write-in campaign of the incumbent, Lisa Murkowski, who lost in the primary to Miller.
The letter signers include 13 members of the state party's central committee, one of whom also serves on the party's executive committee. Many others were once on the central committee or held other posts or elective office.
Miller's campaign didn't respond to the points raised in the letter. Instead, it attacked the signers as supporters of Murkowski. Campaign spokesman Randy DeSoto said in a prepared statement that the letter-writers should be questioning one of her supporters, Alaska Standing Together, about the money it got from Native corporations that benefit from special federal contracting rules supported by Murkowski.
"I think the group of Murkowski supporters are better served by demanding answers from Alaskans Standing Together for illegally laundering millions of dollars in federal contractor money to prop up their candidate's write in campaign," DeSoto said in the statement.
State Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich also described the signers as having close ties to Murkowski or her father Frank Murkowski, who served as U.S. senator and Alaska governor.
"If you look at the folks, many of these people have either been staff to Frank or Lisa; others have been long-term campaign activists for the governor and for the senator. A few of them are central committee members or past central committee members who meet at least one of those criteria," Ruedrich said.
But one of the signers, Aaron Downing of Wasilla, said he was supporting Miller.
"I also support a Free Press as guaranteed by our Bill of Rights," Downing said in an e-mail to the Daily News. "The suppression of information germane to the suitability of a candidate is, in my opinion, a simple usurping of the citizen's right to know just who he is voting for."
But Ruedrich, echoing a point that has been made by Miller, said that the focus of debate in the days remaining before the Nov. 2 election should be issues of policy, not character.
Even though the signers may be Murkowski supporters, Ruedrich noted, the letter made no mention of her or her campaign.
That was by design, said two of the signers, Bill Noll, the commerce commissioner under Gov. Frank Murkowski, and party executive committee member Frank McQueary.
McQueary, also the party's rules chairman, said that members of the central committee can't publicly support another candidate; if they do, they can be removed from the committee. McQueary said he was asked by Noll and other drafters of the letter whether they could speak out about Miller. After thinking about that question, McQueary said they could, and then decided that he too wanted to sign the letter.
"The folks who signed that letter are longtime, credible Republicans," McQueary said. "They're speaking not necessarily because they're supporting Lisa but because they believe that anybody who purports to be a Republican should be open, honest and transparent."
One of the signers, Hugh "Bud" Fate, a former state representative from Fairbanks, said he joined the open letter because Miller remained silent Sunday when State Sen. Fred Dyson mistakenly introduced Miller to a town hall gathering in Anchorage as Fate's son-in-law. Kathleen Miller, Joe's wife, also remained silent when Fate, a respected retired dentist, was described as her father.
"Let me tell you, if Joe wasn't for real and straight, Bud would've run him off with a shotgun before the wedding happened, or since," Dyson said.
Miller should have corrected Dyson, Fate said, rather than accept an endorsement that he knew didn't exist.
Dyson said Wednesday that he confused Miller with Attorney General Dan Sullivan, who in fact is Fate's son-in-law.
On Oct. 11, Miller sent out an announcement to media that he would hold a press conference following a debate at the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. Instead, he gave a short speech in which he said he would not answer questions about his background or character, then ducked into a nearby stairwell at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center, with his security guards and staff physically blocking reporters who tried to follow him down the steps.
Then on Sunday, at the same town hall where he was introduced by Dyson, Miller's security guards handcuffed a journalist who tried to get Miller to respond to questions about his past employment at the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
Noll said the idea for the letter emerged before Sunday's "event to end all events."
"It was just an intellectual, principled reaction to what was going on and the lack of forthcomingness," Noll said.
"This is not unfair scrutiny," the open letter said. "It is what the Founding Fathers foresaw voters considering when they wrote the U.S. Constitution. It is at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical to conceal facts about one's past while at the same time basing one's campaign on a claim to respect the U.S. Constitution as the most important source of political legitimacy in the land."
McQueary said Miller has brought on the scrutiny by his own actions.
"This isn't us going after Joe," he said. "Joe's behavior is what has raised these questions and he's the one that's going to have to straighten them out -- if he can in the next 12 days."
By RICHARD MAUER