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As Republican convention kicks off in Juneau, tea party says it's staying home

Nathaniel Herz

The Alaska Republican Party's biennial convention kicks off Thursday in Juneau. But a whole swath of the faithful will be missing: the Ron Paul backers and tea party members who overwhelmed and overthrew the traditional leadership at the last convention, in 2012.

Two years later, the struggle for control of the Republican banner appears to have subsided, following the state executive committee's ouster of the new chairman elected in the conservative wave in 2012, Russ Millette. Millette said he and his supporters are disillusioned with the party and won't even be making the trip to Juneau.

"Virtually everyone that elected me will not be there," Millette said in an interview Wednesday. "They had a shot, and they took it and they won, and it was overturned by a group of 16 unelected people called the state executive committee."

"The leadership's done a 360 -- it's come all the way back to where it started," he added.

Party leaders voted last year to hold the 2014 convention in Juneau, which beat out a proposal from the Mat-Su area.

Millette and others think that the site selection was strategic -- the Southeast location is more difficult to reach for their allies in conservative hotbeds like Fairbanks and the Mat-Su.

"The process requires a lot of time and money and motivation," said Evan Cutler, an organizer for Alaskans for Ron Paul 2012. "And right now, there's not enough motivation."

Under 12 years of leadership by former chairman Randy Ruedrich, state Republicans added more than 20,000 registered voters, and by most accounts, he was successful in the party's two other core duties: raising money and recruiting candidates.

But the party's last two years have also been tumultuous. Ruedrich didn't run for re-election as chairman in 2012, and the man he backed for the job lost to Millette.

Millette said he then spent 10 months in the Republican Party headquarters in Anchorage, preparing to take control. He even bought doughnuts and coffee for the office, he said.

But a day before the official transition was scheduled to take place, in January 2013, executive committee members voted to oust Millette, charging that he had failed to raise money and only registered as a Republican in the weeks before the 2012 convention.

Then, Millette's replacement, Debra Holle Brown, who had also been elected at the 2012 convention by the surge of tea party members, was booted just two months later.

The new chairman, Peter Goldberg, has said he supported Mitt Romney in the last presidential election, and said in an interview that he has been relying on Ruedrich as he's adjusted to his new position.

"I still feel I'm drinking through the firehose," Goldberg said. "Given his background and experience, I trust him."

Millette now says his official involvement with the Republican Party is over.

"I don't want to ever go inside of 1001 W. Fireweed Lane again," he said, referring to the address of party headquarters in Anchorage.

Cutler, the Ron Paul organizer, said he had hoped to attend this year's convention in Juneau but his district leader barred him from going.

Some of the Ron Paul supporters and tea party members are now defecting to an alternative group, the Alaska Republican Assembly, which is planning its own convention and "Freedom Fair" in Wasilla later this month.

The group is headed by Daniel Hamm, who has been a member of the Republican Party's central committee. Its convention poster advertises a speech by Rafael Cruz, the father of U.S. Senator and tea party darling Ted Cruz, as well as Sharron Angle, the Nevada Republican who challenged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2010.

While that wing of Alaska's Republican Party will likely be missing in Juneau, some members say they could be back in force for the next convention, which will be held in Fairbanks in 2016. That's a presidential year and people will be "more energized," said Edna DeVries, an Alaska Republican Assembly member and state senator in the 1980s who has also been a Republican Party district leader.

"It's just a whole different flavor for the state convention at that time," she said. She added that, unlike Juneau, Fairbanks is "on the road system."

At this year's convention, though, Goldberg, the current chairman, said he would be up for re-election.

Ruedrich, the former chairman, has said he's not interested in taking the post again, and added that he has no plans to run for elected office, either.

He's spent more of his time lately focusing on Anchorage politics -- waving signs for successful South Anchorage Assembly candidate Bill Evans, then sitting through a week of ballot review and counting at City Hall.

"I'm watching some of the things that are happening, and looking for the consistency of what they're doing, and trying to make sure the city is allowed to grow in an orderly manner for the benefit of all of us," Ruedrich said in an interview. "That sounds way too much like I'm running for office, so I have to reiterate: I'm not."

He added: "I could have taken the same level of interest in the Legislature. But then I have to go to Juneau, and it's cheaper to go to the Assembly."

Ruedrich says he's primarily acting as an interested citizen, not a party operative, though he did acknowledge that he worked on mailing absentee ballot applications for the Republican Party in advance of the city election on April 1.

Ruedrich is also listed as the party's past chairman in this year's convention program, which omits the chairwoman who took over briefly when Millette was ousted last year.

Millette argues that Ruedrich is actually still in charge, and that Goldberg, the new chairman, was only selected because "he would comply with the wishes of the leadership."

Goldberg says that's not true.

"Randy's a brilliant guy. He's got the conservative cause deep in his soul and his being, and he doesn't make a lot of mistakes," Goldberg said. "I would be an absolute fool not to trust him. That doesn't mean I'm not in charge -- I clearly have veto power."

Asked if he had vetoed anything that Ruedrich had pushed for, Goldberg answered: "A couple of times."

"But nothing I would share with you," he added.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com