Murkowskis’ Appointments With Destiny

Posted April 20, 2004 at 6:11pm

The Republican Party of Alaska has an image problem.

But how much effect it will have on GOP candidates, especially Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), remains to be seen.

Most of the controversy centers on Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) and his political appointees.

The party chairman, Randy Ruedrich, is under investigation by the state for ethics violations allegedly committed while he served on the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission — a regulatory body.

Ruedrich has released e-mails showing him conducting party business on state time.

“There’s pretty damaging stuff here,” Andrew Halcro, a former Republican state legislator, said. “How it plays out depends on how angry people get” at the party.

As for Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed to the Senate by her father to finish his term when he became governor in December 2002, the fallout cannot be good, Halcro said.

“It certainly does not help her,” he said. “Lisa’s biggest albatross has certainly been her father.”

Frank Murkowski (R) appointed Ruedrich to the oil and gas commission over the objections of Democratic lawmakers who said his selection posed an inherent conflict of interest because he would be regulating a business that Republicans rely heavily upon for campaign contributions.

“What the Republican Party chooses to do with this will show how they view this kind of behavior,” state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz (D) said. “It’s another example of Frank Murkowski showing a lapse of judgment.”

Beyond Ruedrich, some Alaskans wondered if Frank Murkowski’s appointments of former Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin and former state Senate President Mike Miller to state positions were political payoffs after he promoted his daughter to the Senate, to keep them from challenging her in the Republican primary.

Both have already resigned from the administration — Palin left the oil and gas commission after blowing the whistle on Ruedrich last year, and Miller left his job as commissioner of administration earlier this month to run against Lisa Murkowski in the Aug. 24 Senate primary.

“That was always the speculation, that [I] was ‘bought off,’” Palin said. “I don’t want to believe that.”

Wev Shea, who served as U.S. attorney in Alaska under former President George H.W. Bush, said those allegations are bunk.

Palin’s name was not on the list of about 25 people the governor considered before appointing Lisa Murkowski to the Senate, he said. And some people were on the list as a “courtesy,” Shea said, noting that Republicans were “coming out of the woodwork” looking for that appointment.

“Lisa is as qualified as any of those people,” Shea said, referring to the entire list of potential Senators. The younger Murkowski had previously been a state Representative.

But while the nepotism question will continue to dog Lisa Murkowski throughout her tough re-election battle with former Gov. Tony Knowles (D), some of Frank Murkowski’s other appointments could prove equally damaging to the GOP.

Murkowski, as governor, also fills vacancies to the state Legislature. And two of those have generated controversy.

One, Jim Elkins, lost the governor’s support after he suggested that his contributions to GOP candidates, including Frank Murkowski, helped secure the appointment. He then accused Murkowski of lacking compassion because he vetoed a bonus for Alaska’s seniors. The governor then chose someone else to fill the vacancy.

Another appointee, Nick Stepovich, raised eyebrows when it was revealed that the now-state Representative had been arrested — charges were later dropped — for drinking and driving, and had been found guilty of “failing to assist a peace officer,” and plead no contest to a negligent driving charge in two separate incidents.

Murkowski may have broken the law when he named state Sen. Robin Taylor to a job with the state Transportation Department that had not previously existed — before Taylor left the Legislature, The Associated Press reported.

The Ruedrich investigation is being conducted by the office of Attorney General Gregg Renkes, though Renkes himself is not involved in order to avoid conflict-of-interest charges. Renkes, besides being a Murkowski appointee, worked with Ruedrich on Murkowski’s gubernatorial campaign.

Democrats have said Renkes’ recusal is not good enough and have called for a special investigator to take over the Ruedrich matter.

“It’s time to get someone other than the fox investigating the murders in the hen house,” said Matt McKenna, spokesman for Knowles.

For her part, Lisa Murkowski has said state Republicans should wait for the investigation to wrap up before acting, but she acknowledged that the allegations have cast the party in a poor light. She stopped short of calling for Reudrich’s resignation, however.

“I think we, as Republicans, need to be looking at this issue very carefully, very closely. If it puts a cloud over the party, if it puts a cloud over our Republican candidates, we should be concerned about that,” she told KTUU-TV in Anchorage.

McKenna accused Sen. Murkowski of dodging the issue.

“As one of the top Republican officials in the state she has a responsibility to weigh in on the issue,” he said. “Either call on him to resign or endorse his actions.”

Some Republicans say a cloud has already formed over the GOP and if party leaders are not careful, it will soon rain down on all of its candidates.

“Ruedrich’s conduct reflects on everyone,” Shea said. “It has the potential to hurt how Frank’s leadership is viewed and certainly could hurt how people perceive Lisa; the longer this guy stays [chairman], he’s going to taint everyone in the party.”

David Dittman, whose Anchorage-based firm is doing polling work for Lisa Murkowski’s campaign, says he thinks these predictions are too dire.

“I don’t think it has any effect on Lisa at all,” he said.

The repercussions for Frank Murkowski could be far greater, others contend.

The governor expressed disappointment with Ruedrich’s actions but stopped short of calling for his ouster as party chairman.

The pressure on Gov. Murkowski to appoint an independent investigator is likely to intensify after last week’s revelation in the Daily News that a political action committee linked to Murkowski and run by Renkes, the attorney general, has been fined by the Federal Election Commission for illegally receiving $19,000 in corporate contributions.

“I never thought there would be this many problems,” Berkowitz said of the Murkowski administration. “I fully expected to combat them on philosophical issues, but at the end of the day I fully expected them to act professionally and competently.”

Whether Democrats can translate these GOP problems into votes remains to be seen, as Republicans dominate in state politics. The GOP controls the state’s Congressional delegation as well as the governor’s mansion and the state Legislature, and other than Knowles there are few prospects for significant pick-ups this cycle.

“Whether Democrats are going to be able to capitalize on that depends on whether the Democrats get organized and field candidates,” Berkowitz acknowledged.