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Senate Democrats' spokesman quits, accuses them of complacency

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 27, 2015

The press secretary for Alaska's Senate Democratic minority is leaving his job and has sent his five bosses a 2,200-word resignation letter accusing them of complacency and cowardice.

Frank Ameduri, a veteran Democratic staffer who started as press secretary in July, sent his letter last week, saying his job was more suited for an entry-level employee.

It urged the minority caucus to act more boldly and find a message it can stand behind, rather than spend its time "griping about the Republicans" who control the Legislature.

"The key to messaging is not to think of the blandest thing you can say and hope you don't get an opponent," Ameduri wrote. Later, he added: "Every time someone asks a D(emocrat), 'What would you do?' I cringe, because that's when the mealy mouthing starts."

In a phone interview Wednesday, Ameduri said the letter was intended to be a "family matter."

"I'm kind of disappointed and embarrassed it was leaked outside the caucus," he said. Of the Democrats, he added: "They are dedicated public servants; I agree with a lot of their positions. We just had a disagreement about what the job was supposed to be."

Anchorage Sen. Berta Gardner, the Democratic leader, refused to discuss the substance of Ameduri's letter, calling it an "internal caucus deliberation."

"We as a caucus are sorry to see Frank Ameduri leave," she said. "We are all on good terms — we will continue to work together to promote Democratic values."

The four other members of Ameduri's minority caucus — Johnny Ellis and Bill Wielechowski of Anchorage, Donny Olson of the Western Alaska community of Golovin, and Dennis Egan of Juneau — were once members of a bipartisan coalition that controlled the Senate for six years.

That reign came to an end in 2012 when Republicans, with help from new districts drawn by the state's redistricting board, unseated four Democratic coalition members and a moderate Republican.

Since then, most Senate Democrats have been relegated to a tiny minority. In the current Legislature, they lack even the six members needed to block the Republicans on certain procedural and budget votes, based on rules set by lawmakers themselves and by the state Constitution.

But Ameduri isn't the only Democratic ally to argue the Senate minority could be a more vocal and effective opposition through a stronger vision and platform. Kevin McGee, vice president of the Anchorage branch of the NAACP, said he thought the Democrats "have a problem with sticking together."

"I would appreciate a unified voice consistently — not just Sen. Ellis or Sen. Gardner, every once in a while one of them coming out," McGee said in a phone interview. "I mean, stand together and be consistent about it."

The state Republican party, by contrast, is more disciplined in its message and in its voting, McGee added.

"Right, wrong or indifferent, they stick together," he said. "The Democrats keep on going off on left field — they don't know how to stick on a subject and hammer it."

Ameduri has been a press secretary for both House and Senate Democrats, and he worked for former Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, for two years. Last year, before returning to the Legislature at an $87,000 annual salary, he ran the now-shuttered Alaska Budget Report, a high-priced newsletter for lobbyists, lawmakers, staffers, reporters and other Juneau insiders.

In his resignation letter, which he described as "constructive criticism" and "heartfelt recommendations from someone who wants you to succeed," Ameduri argued that minority caucus members have substituted criticism of Republicans for developing their own firm policy positions. He cited, four times, a quote from Ellis in a Juneau caucus meeting: "The future belongs to the bold."

"And if that's not true, at least your seats should belong to the bold," he said.

Ellis didn't respond to a request for comment. Neither did officials from the state Democratic party.

Ameduri also said Democrats' solution for Alaska's $3 billion budget deficit can't be simply to change the state's oil-tax regime. "That doesn't get you there, and you all know it," he said.

But Wielechowski, an outspoken critic of the tax system, said in a phone interview that Ameduri's argument was "wrong" and "factually inaccurate."

Lawmakers, Wielechowski said, should be considering his proposed oil-tax reforms that could save more than $750 million annually.

If put in place, they would close less than half of the deficit. "But you don't have to get to $3 billion right away, because we have so much savings," Wielechowski said. "You stretch out your savings for years."

Ameduri's broader argument about Democratic complacency, Wielechowski added, was "completely false."

"We have offered numerous ideas, amendments, bills," he said. "How many years have I had legislation to fix oil taxes?"

One problem for Democrats in Juneau is that the Republican majorities rarely collaborate with them openly, or even allow hearings on Democratic bills.

The 28th Legislature, from 2013 to 2014, didn't pass a single bill introduced by the Senate Democratic minority, while House Democrats got just six out of a total of nearly 200.

To get their ideas into legislation, Democratic legislators have to be "stealth and strategic in how you articulate an idea in order not to be simply destroyed," said Jim Ayers, chief of staff to former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, and who has worked with Ameduri at the environmental group Oceana.

"Alaskans have a vision, and Democrats know what that vision is. But they can't challenge the Republicans in public because then it will never see the light of day," Ayers said.

Those limitations didn't appear to sit well with Ameduri, Ayers added.

"He's got big ideas, he'd like to talk about them — he'd like to get something moving," he said. "And that's not something that the Republicans are going to give them."

Ameduri acknowledged in his letter he's the "wrong fit for this job," largely because the work being asked of the Democratic press secretary could be done by an "entry-level person," he said.

He expressed little interest in the menial tasks expected of him, like posting to Twitter and Facebook "so we can get two likes and a comment from an insane person."

As for photos, he added: "You already have enough of those."

"You could use old ones and nobody would know the difference," he said. "Plus, you'd look YOUNGER!"

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