After a night of drama that saw the chairman-elect of the Alaska Republican Party ousted and the vice-chair-elect grilled over Kenai Peninsula party finances, Debbie Brown from Kasilof was Friday transitioning into the role as the new leader of the state's most powerful political operation.
A feisty 55-year-old, Brown is the owner of a small Kasilof business. She was elected vice-chair last April by the same coalition of insurgent Republicans who elected Russ Millette to lead the Alaska Republican Party.
That election was overturned Thursday night, when the party's 15-member State Executive Committee sacked Millette.
Outgoing chair Randy Ruedrich expected Brown to stop by the party's Anchorage headquarters Friday, jumping right into the job. She lacks the nearly eight months of grooming and transition time that Millette had, under Ruedrich's guidance, while ramping up to take the helm. Ruedrich's long tenure atop the Alaska Republican Party officially ended Friday.
With an April election looming, Brown will likely be swamped from the start. Ruedrich has promised to stick around and show her the ropes.
"We will work with her and try to make it work," Ruedrich said from party office headquarters Friday.
Brown is a former member of the Kenai Borough School Board and the Kenai Borough Assembly who volunteered on Bill Walker's 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Last year, she ran for mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
She and her husband are still recovering from the loss of their family home to a fire in December.
Thursday night, the executive committee of Alaska's Republican Party decided Millette had shown himself incapable of raising money for candidates, one of the party chair's most important jobs.
As chairman-elect in April, Millette immediately took over the job as state finance chair for the party. Since then, it appears he did little or nothing to boost party finances. He blamed out-going chairman Randy Ruedrich, who Millette claimed "never introduced me to a party donor nor shared with me the donor list.''
Ruedrich took issue with that accusation Thursday night and other members of the executive committee pointed out that the names of all the people who donate to the Republican Party are no secret. Millette's case wasn't helped any when National Republican Committeeman Ralph Seekins from Fairbanks, flat-out asked Millette if he'd been denied access to any information he requested.
"No,'' Millette said.
It has been a rough week for Millette. Along with being ruled unfit for the job of party chair, he took another hit on Monday when an Anchorage court on entered a judgment against him for $55,594.65 in attorney and court fees. The judgment was fallout from a trial last year in Anchorage. Millett had sued another driver with whom he was involved in a relatively minor accident in 2010, claiming serious physical injuries.
A man who served on the jury hearing the case said it appeared to jurors that Millette was mainly trying to play the system to collect some cash.
The jury awarded him $2,751.15 in damages -- "the lowest possible,'' the juror said -- in connection with the case. The judge then ordered he pay the attorney fees and court costs. Factoring what Millette won in the case into the bill for more than $55,000 in fees, he is out $49,795.85, a fair chunk of change for a man of limited income.
Seekins Thursday night raised the issue of the court judgment and questioned whether Millette could afford to be party chairman. The job is voluntary and members of the executive committee noted the chairman is expected to personally pick up significant costs for travel and lodging. Seekins said he spends more than $10,000 a year out of his own pocket to attend meetings as national committeeman from Alaska.
Millette claimed to have no knowledge of the court judgment against him.
"I don't know if it's true or not,'' he said.
Finances were an issue in complaints against both Millette and Brown that the executive committee wrestled with Thursday night. After dismissing Millette, who can still appeal his ouster, they questioned Brown at some length about a Kenai district's finances. Ruedrich said it appeared she might have mismanaged about $700 in party campaign funds. The funds were converted to gas cards when voting District 34 went away as part of statewide redistricting.
The gas cards were then given to another district to be handed out to volunteers doing party business.
Questions were raised about whether the gas cards might subsequently have been misused for something other than party business, but the committee eventually decided that even if they were it really wasn't the fault of Brown, the district co-chair. They voted to dismiss the charges against her with a warning that there was a good lesson for everyone about how finances must be taken seriously.
Thus cleared, Brown assumed her seat as vice-chair and almost immediately moved into the chairman's post vacated by Millette.
Party officials plan to meet Feb. 9 in Juneau to choose a new vice chair. They may also hear an appeal from Millette, should he choose to continue a battle that has been in some ways ongoing since 2008, when then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Joe Miller of Fairbanks tried to dump Ruedrich as chairman. They failed but the fallout rippled into the campaigns -- first the primary and then the general election -- between Miller and incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Miller won and then lost, and his supporters were left angry. Some accused old-time Republicans of helping Murkowski to an unprecedented write-in victory in the general election. They eventually struck back by joining disgruntled fans of failed presidential candidate Ron Paul to vote Millette and Brown into office last year after Ruedrich announced he'd had enough and was bowing out as chairman.
Executive committee was trying its best to tamp down the cracks of party disunity after the meeting.
"This is not personal,'' Steve Colligan of Wasilla, the out-going vice chair and a member of the executive committee, said Friday. "It's a professional board decision. It's not a public process. We're just trying to look out for the health of the Republican Party.''
The party is the dominant player in Alaska politics and has been for almost 20 years. It has succeeded, Colligan said, because "the big tent rallies a lot of us together.''
These days the tent seems to have been caught in a big windstorm, but Colligan suggested some "industrial cables'' might be needed to keep it steady.
"I think you will see (the executive committee) take more of a leadership role'' in guiding the party, he said.
Alaska Dispatch staff reporter Jill Burke contributed to this article. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com