Watching the old men in suits earlier this week at the inquisition of Russ Millette in the dump that is the headquarters of the Alaska Republican Party -- think rundown mobile home circa 1970 to get a picture of the decor -- it was hard to avoid wondering what really constitutes a political party in this country. Millette is the chairman elect of the A-R-P, as the group likes to call itself. He won the seat when supporters of failed presidential candidate Ron Paul and failed Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller took over the party.
Some old guard Republicans didn't like it. One of them, party rules chairman Frank McQueary, petitioned to have Millette removed from office before he could be sworn in on Feb. 1. McQueary charged Millette was nothing more than the leader of a gang of 800 who "bullied and threatened and intimidated'' their way to power. Millette, in McQueary's view, "never contributed, never participated'' in Alaska Republican politics in the past, but now wants to run the party.
McQueary never used the word "takeover,'' but he and others made it abundantly clear that they thought Millette and his gang had staged a coup. McQueary, an Anchorage business consultant and longtime ally of departing ARP chairman Randy Ruedrich, called the April election won by Millette a "totally inappropriate attack on the Republican Party at the state convention.'' The new party leadership, he argued, doesn't represent the views of the state’s 139,000 registered Republicans.
'Frustrated with the ticket'
Millette, for his part, didn't do much to refute that accusation. Almost the opposite. What little he said seemed only to underline the charges McQueary lodged.
Millette expressed dismay with GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, saying, "I was frustrated with the ticket." He admitted he didn't do anything to support the Romney campaign, successful in Alaska but a failure nationally, saying "I didn't support anyone." And then he refused to say for whom he voted when he actually entered the voting both, preferring to hide behind the "secret ballot."
Pressed later on the voting issue, he said the party chairman might have a responsibility to toe the party line at election time, but that standard didn't apply to the party chairman-elect. It seemed odd behavior for someone looking to lead the Republican Party in Alaska. But the odd behavior of the party chairman-elect didn't stop there.
Questioned about his contacts with prominent Alaska Republicans in the 234 days since his election, Millette sat back in a plastic chair, twiddled his thumbs atop the blue sweater covering his ample gut, and confessed to a lack of effort to unify the party in the days since an electoral blood bath, preceding his election, involving Joe Miller and incumbent Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Millette confessed he hadn't put any real effort into party fund-raising, and had only limited contact with Republican Rep. Don Young, the "Congressman for All Alaska" as the state's lone member of the House has been declaring for decades. "He initiated contact with me," said a stone-faced Millette, who seemed to make it pretty clear he wasn't interested in any of the Republican old guard.
Queried as to whether he'd met with Murkowski, he answered "What is the relationship of Mr. Mackie to Lisa Murkowski?"
The question was apparently a reference to Jerry Mackie, co-owner of the Alaska Aces hockey team, a lobbyist, a one-time public relations consultant, a former state Democratic senator turned Republican, and one of many Republicans involved in helping organize a group called Alaskans Standing Together, which helped Murkowski beat Miller with a write-in campaign in the general election.
"I contacted him,'' the 67-year-old Millette said in a tone of voice that just sort of seemed to say, "I don't want to talk to any upstarts."
Standing there watching this show, you almost had to wonder if maybe this was the beginning of the end for a Republican Party that has pretty much dominated Alaska politics since the beginning of the 1990s. The only Republican elected governor between Democrats Bill Egan in 1970 and Steve Cowper, whose term ended in 1990, was Jay Hammond, a rogue Republican from Lake Clark. An environmentalist and founding father of the state's very left-leaning, share-the-wealth, Permanent Fund, Hammond was in his day considered a liberal Republican.
The combination of those two words is no longer permitted in the state. It was, in fact, the rumored taint of hidden liberalism that helped Miller take out incumbent Murkowski in the Republican primary three years ago.
A little-known attorney from Fairbanks, who preached cutting federal spending even if Alaska suffered -- the state gets 71 percent more than the national average from Washington, D.C. -- Miller shocked many when he squeaked out a victory in the 2010 Republican primary. Murkowski conceded defeat. Miller celebrated, and then made the first of what would become an avalanche of political blunders.
Having heard rumors that Murkowski might re-enter the general election as a Senate candidate on the ticket of the Libertarian Party, he tweeted: "What's the difference between selling out your party's values and the oldest profession?"
Many jumped to the quick, albeit somewhat inaccurate, conclusion that Miller had just called Murkowski a whore. Miller apologized and blamed a campaign aide. Murkowski denied any connection to the Libertarians and a couple weeks later demonstrated the lack of such a connection by announcing she'd run a write-in campaign to try to retain her Senate seat.
'A herd of muskox'
What followed was chaos and a war -- won by Murkowski -- that continues to divide Alaska's Republican Party to this day. Longtime Alaska Republican Ken Jacobus sent a letter to the ARP trying to broker peace before the first of what have turned into a series of Millette hearings. The next is set for Feb. 1.
"Think of a herd of muskox," Jacobus wrote. "It circles up, and presents a unified front against threats. The Republican Party of Alaska is acting like a heard of mentally challenged muskox. We are circling around with our heads pointed inward and butting each other ... the Executive Committee should not add further gasoline to this fire. End it all now so that the Alaska Republican Party can move forward. Summarily dismiss all complaints and move forward. As I have previously told everyone, I will certainly help to the best of my ability in an orderly transition moving forward with a unified party. Everyone needs to support and assist the new administration in moving Republican principles forward. What is gong on here is very self-destructive and can only benefit the Democrats."
As if anything could benefit Alaska Democrats. The dysfunctional ARP might be in the midst of a family feud, but at least the party is organized enough to feud. The Alaska Democratic Party is so dysfunctional it can't even generate a good fight. In the last statewide election, its previously unknown U.S. Senate candidate from Sitka ran a weak third behind Murkowski and Miller, despite a huge infusion of Outside cash.
The Republican Party, meanwhile, has remained a force to be reckoned with despite trying its best to self-destruct for at least the last five years. The roots of the current problems go way back to the early 2000s when Ruedrich worked for the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission along with an upstart Alaska politician named Sarah Palin. The two didn't get along, and when Ruedrich got caught doing Republican Party business on state time, Palin saw a chance to make political hay.
Her subsequent and justified campaigning against the good-old-boys of Alaska politics helped propel her into the governor's mansion in 2006. Two years later in 2008, she, Miller and others tried to roll Ruedrich as party chairman. They failed, but set the stage for Miller's later campaign disaster. He in 2008 surreptitiously used the computers of co-workers at the Fairbanks North Star Borough to vote in an online poll as to who should run the ARP. When caught, he lied. An investigation later uncovered what had happened, and he was reprimanded. He managed to suppress his Fairbanks history in the short term, but it finally surfaced to pound the last nail in the coffin of a campaign teetering on the edge of the grave as Murkowski versus Miller drew to a close in October 2010.
There have been plenty of hard feelings in the ARP ever since. Here's how Miller, who has become an active blogger, summarized the situation after the party's first Millette review:
"Alaska’s Republican Party (ARP) leadership failed in its attempt last night to remove Chair-elect Russ Millette, a constitutional conservative. ... To make matters worse, the inquisitors had the gall to confront Millette on who he supported for president in 2012 -- despite the fact that the very people asking the questions failed to support Republican-nominee Joe Miller in the 2010 U.S. Senate race. The fact that none of the Alaska press in attendance reported on this extreme hypocrisy reflects that little has changed since their efforts in 2010 to sink the anti-establishment candidate with false stories."
Somewhat amazingly, Miller appeared to have forgotten Ruedrich's appearance front and center at Miller's big, pre-election rally in Anchorage's Dena'ina Center at the end of October 2010. Ruedrich was there -- along with Miller and Palin, both of whom tried to sack him as Alaska party chairman -- to support the party ticket. He got up on the stage to rant about how elections are war at the ballot box (they aren't; they're actually the peacemaking that holds American democracy together), and how Republicans win in Alaska by electing Miller.
Bush's 'big-tent' idea
There have long been rumors Ruedrich was secretly supporting Murkowski at the time, or at least privately rooting for her. But publicly the guy always did his job of backing the candidate, which is what some think political party chairman should do. It's the "big-tent" idea of President George W. Bush, who put it this way in 1999: "I'm a uniter, not a divider."
Palin took up the same theme in her 2006 inaugural address, urging Republicans to move "forward in unity. ... We're blended. Let us be united with one heart."
Little could anyone have guessed Palin was destined to become one of the most divisive figures in the politics of this era. Or that the big-tent idea that brought Republicans so much success would fade.
And now comes Millette, a man who could bring the ARP together -- as Jacobus, longtime Republican Wayne Anthony Ross (WAR) and some others see it -- or tear apart the Alaska section of a party already struggling nationally, as McQueary, the departing Ruedrich and others seem to fear. Say what you want about Ruedrich, and he has plenty of detractors. But the objective fact is the Republican Party flourished in Alaska for a decade with him in charge.
Millette is an unknown. And there seem to be plenty in the ARP who question his motives. "What is Alaska Talks Liberty?" McQueary wanted to know.
"It's a radio show," Millette said.
There followed a discussion as to whether Millette was more interested in raising money for the Republican Party or for Alaska Talks Liberty, which actively solicits donations. "I don't see it as competition," Millette said.
The website of the radio show says, "We are not a political party. We are an educational media that endeavors to bring truth to the conversation, wanting less government, more individual responsibility and hopefully a better Nation." But it also adds that "we are not associated with any political party or candidate, our donors are allowed to give as much as they want in support of us and our Mission of education and sounding the warning of the impending nightmare for America."
The latter statement might make a reasonable person wonder if Millette wants to have it both ways as the chairman of the very political ARP on one hand while on the side running an educational, online business as someone "not associated with any political party or candidate."
As to Millette's personal politics, he has described himself as a "paleo-conservative" and made much of campaigning for the late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater in his unsuccessful Republican bid for the presidency in 1964. Goldwater supported a woman's right to abortion and generally opposed the politics of religion, once famously observing that "every good Christian ought to kick (Rev. Jerry) Falwell right in the ass."
Those are decidedly not the views of Millette, who is unabashedly opposed to abortion and wholeheartedly supportive of the activities of the religious right. It is a small-tent view of party politics that seeks those of like mind to move in lockstep versus the many of similar mind willing to work toward general objectives. In a paleo sense, it is tribal rather than societal.
Who's a paleoconservative?
"Paleoconservative is a term that describes conservatives who opine strong restrictions on immigration, a rollback of multicultural programs, the decentralization of the federal polity, the restoration of controls upon free trade, a greater emphasis upon economic nationalism and isolationism in the conduct of American foreign policy, and a generally revanchist outlook upon a social order in need of recovering old lines of distinction and in particular the assignment of roles in accordance with traditional categories of gender, ethnicity, and race, as such, paleoconservatives differ from mainstream conservatives," according to Conservapedia.com, which bills itself as "a clean and concise resource for those seeking the truth. We do not allow liberal bias to deceive and distort here."
"Paleoconservatives are Conservative Christians, like Protestant Fundamentalists and Traditionalist Catholics. They oppose religious pluralism and support orthodoxy of the doctrine within the respective denominations. They stress the importance of the need of America to return to its Christian Heritage."
In other words, they lean somewhat toward becoming "The Party of God." Nothing wrong with that, and certainly there are plenty of paleoconservatives in Alaska like Millette. But a paleoconservative party does not sound like the Republican Party of late, great Alaska politicians such as Govs. Wally Hickel and Jay Hammond, or of a lot of current Republicans like Murkowski, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell or even Don Young and Gov. Sean Parnell. Parnell has been trying to work a deal with Japan for the purchase of Alaska natural gas. That's an idea which runs counter to the "restoration of controls upon free trade."
And Young has never been big on the "assignment of roles" in relationship to anything.
All of which leaves a big question hanging out there: Does Millette want to run the Alaska Repubilcan Party, or does he want to take it over and replace it with some new party?
And it's a whole lot harder to start a new party -- look at the meager success of the almost unknown Alaska Talks Liberty -- than to take over an old one.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com