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Alaska GOP sends two chairs to national party meeting in Hollywood

Craig Medred
Peter Goldberg, the Alaska Republican Party's newest chairman. Loren Holmes photo

Both chairpersons of the Alaska Republican Party are at the spring meeting of the Republican National Committee in Hollywood this week, playing their roles in what has become first-class soap opera: "As Alaska's GOP Turns."

Cast in the starring role is Kasilof's Debbie Brown, a middle-aged woman with the curly mop-top of Little Orphan Annie.

She is the party's former vice-chairman, promoted to chairman then ousted by the party's statewide executive committee, whose authority she refuses to recognize.

In the supporting cast next to her stands Eagle River's buttoned-down Peter Goldberg, who got his training for Alaska politics as a U.S Army Reserve colonel mediating between warring ethnic factions in Kosovo.

Goldberg was drafted as vice-chairman after Brown became chairman, and rose to the position of chairman after she was deposed earlier this week. He has been promptly dispatched to Hollywood, where Brown is already encamped, to represent the party.

The backstory reaches at least a year into the past. It looks generally like this:

Supporters of unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, a one-time Libertarian candidate for President, angry that the state Republican leaders backed establishment candidate Mitt Romney, a one-time governor of liberal Massachusetts, organize a takeover of the Grand Old Party in Alaska.

At an April 2012 state convention, Paul supporters -- backed by fans of failed Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller mad because their guy beat establishment Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the party primary, then lost to her unprecedented write-in campaign in the general election -- manage to pull together enough votes to elect a new party chairman.

Their choice was former Californian Russ Millette, a bespectacled 67-year-old with a Santa Clausian girth and the personality of the Grinch who stole Christmas. Named the party's finance chair and given more than six months to show he can do the job most important for a U.S. political party chairman -- raise money -- Millette, a Yellow Pages salesman, fails. A contentious battle to unseat him as chairman before he can officially take the chairman's seat follows.

It ends with the statewide executive committee of the ARP ousting Millette at the end of January. Enter Brown, the vice chairman of the party elected by the same group of conventioneers who picked Millette.

Over some objections from long-time party chairman Randy Ruedrich, who is bowing out after more than a decade as the volunteer head of the party, Brown takes over leadership. Meanwhile, Goldberg is recruited as the party's new vice-chairman.

That doesn't last for long. Party leaders quickly conclude that Brown is no better at fundraising than Millette. Bruce Schulte, the organizer of the April convention that brought her to power and, himself once a candidate for the chairman's job, petitions to have her removed as chairman on the general basis of incompetence.

She's done such a poor job as a fundraiser, he says, that it looks like the party might not have enough money to cover the monthly rent on its Anchorage headquarters on Fireweed Lane.

The party's statewide executive committee sets a hearing for April 8. Brown decides to go on vacation Outside and leaves word she is going from there straight to the RNC convention in Hollywood.

Unwilling to let her get away by ducking town, the statewide executive committee goes to party headquarters Monday night only to find that in Brown's short term as chairman, she has changed the locks on the doors and kept to herself all of the keys to the building. The committee huddles in a snowstorm before deciding to retreat to a Midtown office building, where they try Brown in absentia and then spend hours debating her fate.

As Schulte outlines the problem that evening, Brown's problem is simple.

She "has neither the inclination or the aptitude to raise funds," he says. "I have no ill will for Debbie. It has nothing to do with her philosophy or personality.”

Personality might have a little do with it. Whereas the U.S. Army-trained Goldberg wages counter-insurgency warfare with efforts at every turn to be conciliatory, Brown is combative from the get-go.

Her response to being ousted is to tell Alaska radio reporter Ellen Lockyer that the whole dispute is about "just a couple of factions that are basically at war within the Alaska Republican Party ... who want to circumvent our party rules."

Lockyer goes on to report that changing the locks on the party headquarters is "not an uncommon move for a new party leader."

Party members, and the party's office manager, certainly don't see it that way. Ken Jacobus, an attorney and long-time Republican, sets about trying to get the party into the building to find out what might have transpired before everyone was locked out.

Missing computers?

Meanwhile, rumors circulate that party computers were spirited away and delivered to attorney Wayne Anthony Ross, the state's shortest serving attorney general. An appointment of former Gov. Sarah Palin, he was in the AG's job for only a couple weeks before the Legislature, which has to confirm the AG in Alaska, voted him out.

Ross dodges when questioned about whether he has any ARP computers in his possession.

"I really couldn't say," he says, "I don't have authority to say that."

If a client has entrusted him with the computers -- as an officer of the court -- he argues, he would be violating client-attorney privilege to admit he has the computers. He won't even say if he has a client involved in what is fast becoming the case of the captive computers.

But Ross served as Millette's representative before the statewide executive committee and may serve as Millette's representative when the Republican statewide steering committee takes up Millette's appeal of his ouster at a meeting set for Homer at the end of May.

An old Alaska Republican, the 70-year-old Ross has clearly aligned himself with the Millette-Brown faction of the party. Some say it might have to do with past bad blood between Ross, a one-time unsuccessful candidate for governor, and Ruedrich, who failed to rush to back Ross in that campaign and who later got into a long-running battle with Palin, who appointed Ross AG.

Ross, however, argues his only interest is fairness.

"Those guys just ran roughshod over" Millette and Brown, he says. "She's a really nice lady ... very enthusiastic."

Brown does not respond to email messages from Dispatch. Goldberg, who does respond, says the RNC is still trying to decide who will represent Alaska at the spring meeting in Hollywood. Both Alaska chairmen have been given credentials to attend.

Searches continue

Meanwhile, rumors circulate through Republican circles that the ARP computers were taken so Paul and Miller supporters can sort through them looking for evidence a $400,000 donation earmarked for Miller somehow ended up being spent on the re-election of Murkowski, the incumbent senator Miller beat in the primary and lost to in the general.

Who would have donated so much money -- if there is any truth to the rumor at all -- is a $400,000 question. But it clearly drives Millette, who believes the party has a pile of cash hidden somewhere.

Ruedrich, who says he spent more than 100 hours with Millette between April and December of last year trying to teach him the chairman's job, says Millette never seemed to have much time for school because he was so preoccupied with finding the imaginary missing money.

Millette is now trying to fund a lawsuit to sue the party to force an audit, although all party income and expenses are on file with either the Alaska Public Offices Commission, for state elections, or the Federal Election Commission, for national elections.

Stayed tuned. This is only episode five.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com