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Alaska Democrats face internal strife over US Senate candidate

  • Author: Erica Martinson
  • Updated: October 22, 2016
  • Published October 22, 2016

U.S. Senate candidates, from left, Joe Miller, Lisa Murkowski, Ray Metcalfe and Margaret Stock, participate in a candidates forum at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention Friday at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Alaska's Democratic Party has quietly all but abandoned its candidate for U.S. Senate, Ray Metcalfe, while some party members rally instead for independent candidate Margaret Stock.

But unlike the state's Republican Party, which has ousted officials from key committee positions for supporting non-GOP candidates — including Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan — there are no apparent repercussions for Democratic Party officials, as long as they stick to the letter of the (party) law.

Interviews with the party and candidates indicate that much of the party splinter is personal, rooted in Metcalfe's fights with party members. Some of the strife can be attributed to the party's failed efforts to back the independent, instead of a Democrat, who could have a tough time unseating Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Not everyone agrees. Some party members say it's a poor choice for the Alaska Democratic Party to support non-Democrats.

But there is a deep strain of resentment against Metcalfe among party leaders, evident from the moment the self-proclaimed anti-corruption advocate clinched the nomination in the August primary.

When the party sent out an email proclaiming its Democratic winners after the primary, it contained no mention of Metcalfe's walk-away win in the U.S. Senate race, or of the race at all. He has since been added to the party's online list of Democratic candidates.

Reached by phone, Kay Brown, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party, said she had absolutely nothing to say about Ray Metcalfe.

The Alaska Democratic Party rules say that after the primary and before the general election, a party officer "may not publicly endorse or support the election of a candidate from another political party against a Democratic candidate in a partisan race, or publicly denounce a Democratic Party nominee." Breaking that rule means automatic removal from office, the rule says.

Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Ray Metcalfe participates in a candidates forum at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention Friday at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

The party adopted a rule to allow non-affiliated candidates to run in the primary and seek the Democratic Party's endorsement.

"However, the state has yet to implement the rule change, though we firmly believe our party has a constitutional right to nominate a non-party member," said Jake Hamburg, the communications director for the Alaska Democratic Party. "That said, Ray is the Democratic nominee."

Metcalfe, an Anchorage real estate agent, was elected to the Alaska Legislature as a Republican and later formed the Republican Moderate Party before becoming a Democrat. "Disco Ray" — a widely known nickname of disputed origins — backed Sen. Bernie Sanders in this year's presidential race and says he would be the Vermont lawmaker's closest ally in Congress. But he has personal disputes with some party members who represented the state's 82 percent Sanders vote at the Democratic National Convention.

Stock, an Anchorage attorney, was a Republican before turning independent. In 2015, she donated to Republican Jeb Bush's presidential election campaign. 

Julie Olsen, who chairs House District 24 and is treasurer of the Anchorage Democrats, disagrees with the running interpretation of the rule and made that known to party leaders, she said.

By supporting independents, Green Party members or "people who were Republicans last week," the party is "leaving the public thinking that Democrats don't really stand for anything," Olsen said. "I think the Democratic Party should only be supporting Democrats." To allow a pass for independents is "really just splitting hairs," she said.

Olsen said she was told her concerns were discussed in a "spirited debate," which included "many people there … of the opinion" that failing to support Metcalfe "meant effectively disenfranchising the 15,000 voters that voted for the Democrat in the primary."

Nevertheless, Alaska's Interior Democrats voted to endorse Stock in September, reasoning that she's not a member of any party, so it doesn't violate the rules. They argue that as long as they stay mum on Metcalfe, they're meeting the party's requirements.

Stock said earlier this month that she is "very pleased to get the support of the Interior Democrats."

The Alaska Progressive Caucus supports Stock, as does the party's Executive Director Kay Brown, personally.

Independent candidate for U.S. Senate Margaret Stock participates in a candidates forum at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention Friday at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Metcalfe said he doesn't think the party's interpretation of the rules "meets the smell test."

The Alaska Democratic Party has provided no financial support to Metcalfe, though Metcalfe said he doesn't want it anyway.

"The party has invited all Democratic candidates to join the coordinated campaign. Metcalfe declined and has stated publicly that he doesn't need the services offered," said Jake Hamburg, the communications director for the Alaska Democratic Party.

While Metcalfe didn't want any of the state party's money, he was fine with looking to the national party. After leaving a message for Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Metcalfe got a call from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington, D.C., he said.

"Bottom line, they said call back when I can show myself to be within 4 percent," Metcalfe said.

The latest polling by Alaska Dispatch News found 12.6 percent of registered voters planning to vote for Metcalfe. Sen. Lisa Murkowski was 37.7 percentage points ahead.

"The people that control the party purse strings are knee deep in pay-to-play games," Metcalfe charged. Donors are the people "they depend on to give them money, and that's the source of Kay Brown's salary," he said. He said that Brown doesn't like him and it's because of his anti-corruption efforts against Democrats.

"Here's my whole point: Because I refuse to leave out crooked Democrats (in anti-corruption advocacy), that really ruffled some Democratic Party leaders," Metcalfe said.

Metcalfe has taken swings at Brown, former Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, Fairbanks Democrat Jill Yordy — a member of the party's governing committee and the staffer who ran Sanders' Alaska primary campaign — and others. Metcalfe started his campaign by sending an email to Democrats that included a link to a 2013 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article about a fourth-degree misdemeanor assault charge against Yordy stemming from a domestic incident.

"It was definitely personal, which is interesting because it's also the first fundraising email that he sent out," Yordy said.

Metcalfe talks a lot about an anti-corruption rule that he said Yordy and Brown helped keep out of the party platform at the convention earlier this year.

And the candidate accused Yordy of posting a near-daily "barrage of insulting, nasty comments" on Facebook about Metcalfe: "Ray Metcalfe is a horse's ass; he's no good; he's rotten," Metcalfe said. Such comments weren't visible on Yordy's page, though she did lob criticism at him as primary results were rolling in, but before he was officially the party's nominee.

"Since I will not be allowed to say this once the primary votes are certified if I want to keep my position as a district chair (because of language in the Democratic Party Plan): I denounce Ray Metcalfe as a candidate for US Senate," Yordy wrote on Aug. 16.

Yordy said she prefers to support Stock, and that she thinks that engaged Democrats should be "more loyal to the party ideals," rather than "the party name."

Incumbent Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Lisa Murkowski participates in a candidates forum at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention Friday at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Yordy didn't have anything to say about Metcalfe.

But George Sookiayak did.

Until last month, Sookiayak was the Young Democrats chair for House District 25, which meant he was on the Alaska Democratic Party's governing committee. In September he turned 36, effectively aging out of the position, which he turned over to someone else.

That means there are no repercussions if he advocates against the party's nominee.

And he had plenty to say about Metcalfe. He called him lazy and accused him of taking up the mantle of Bernie Sanders only to advocate for himself.

"Ray doesn't help himself out by being this old cranky bastard," Sookiayak said.

Sookiayak said that Metcalfe never took his candidacy seriously until Joe Miller entered the race as a Libertarian, and he could suddenly see a path to winning the general election.

"Ray's not shaking hands. He's not meeting with people. He's not going out to different communities in Alaska," Sookiayak said.

Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate Joe Miller participates in a candidates forum at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention Friday at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Talking on the phone from Juneau recently, Stock said that there, "people are actively campaigning and Ray is nowhere to be found."

Metcalfe said he hasn't done any campaigning far from Anchorage, though he did go to Fairbanks this week for the Alaska Federation of Natives convention.

On the last day to drop out of the campaign, in September, both Stock and Metcalfe said she called him to suggest he drop out. Metcalfe declined.

"She called me up and said, 'Ray, today's the last day you can drop out.' Like, Ray, what are you doing, why haven't you dropped out yet?"

Metcalfe pointed out that despite Stock's campaign spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, he is polling twice her support: "Why would I think about dropping out?"

"He wasn't campaigning, and I called him up and said, 'Ray, if you're not going to campaign, you probably ought to drop out,' " Stock said. When she asked why he wasn't at the state fair in August, he "told me he was installing a hot tub at his house instead," Stock said.

Stock, to the contrary, has been courting Democrats' votes since early this year. She campaigned at the Democratic Party caucuses in March. And she recently landed an endorsement from Begich.

That's a sore spot for Metcalfe.

His latest campaign moves have remained personal, and occasionally give the impression that he's running against the Democratic Party more than he is opposing a Republican, a (sort of) Libertarian and an independent.

Last Sunday, after a television debate, he struck out at Stock for accepting Begich's endorsement.

Metcalfe objects to real estate deals involving Begich before he ran for Senate, which he says amount to corruption. Begich disputes that there was anything improper.

Begich and Metcalfe faced off in the 2008 primary, which Begich won, taking 84 percent of the vote.

Talking to Metcalfe, you might think he was still running against Begich. Or that he considers the race a chance for a redo of 2010. Metcalfe has previously said that he regretted not getting in the race then, when Joe Miller suddenly won the Republican primary and defeating Murkowski seemed more possible.

Democrats didn't mount much of an opposition that year, with many on the left instead focusing their efforts on defeating Miller by electing a more moderate Republican.

"If Begich gave me an unsolicited endorsement, I would feel like I had been slimed," Metcalfe said. He accuses Stock of violating the West Point Code of Conduct. Stock received degrees from Harvard, Harvard Law School, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the U.S. Army War College. She taught at West Point from 2001 to 2010.

"Getting dirty money out of politics and ending the pay-to-play game has been my No. 1 priority for 30 years and will remain so when I represent Alaska in Congress," Metcalfe said.

It's his mission statement, and his messaging never strays far.

Metcalfe had no plans, with weeks to go in the election, to run any paid television or radio ads.

And he said he didn't begin planning his campaign until after he won the primary, "over a worthy opponent." Up until then, he hadn't spent more than the $100 filing fee, he said.

As of Tuesday, Metcalfe had no official endorsements. His website has an "endorsements" page but his only endorsements are from an unexplained "Progressive Fund" and the site's webmaster, who left the comment, "All the way with Disco Ray."

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