Republican Sen. John Torgerson violated his party's rules when he publicly backed a Republican Moderate candidate running against a Republican incumbent in the November election, a top party official said last week.
Prior to the Nov. 5 general election, Torgerson, R-Kasilof, announced his support for Thomas Wagoner of Kenai, who chose to run for the Senate District Q seat as a Republican Moderate. That pitted him against two-term Republican Party incumbent Sen. Jerry Ward of Nikiski.
Wagoner narrowly won the election.
Torgerson's transgression could have led to his ouster from the party's central committee had he not been due to leave office in a matter of weeks, said Randy Ruedrich, head of the Republican Party of Alaska.
Party rules are clear. Members of the central committee are not permitted to back any candidate other than Republicans running on the Republican ticket. Doing so is grounds for removal from the committee. Because the party rules state that all sitting Republican lawmakers automatically are members of the central committee, Torgerson was a member, Ruedrich said.
But Torgerson did not seek re-election and was a lame duck lawmaker at the time of his endorsement for Wagoner. He will be out of office in mid-January with the sitting of the 23rd Legislature.
As a matter of course, Torgerson was replaced on the central committee when the panel met Dec. 7 with newly elected Republican lawmakers, Ruedrich said.
Nevertheless at that meeting, a resolution submitted by Kenai Peninsula Republicans from Districts 33 and 34 raised the question of whether the rule regarding support of candidates should be applied uniformly or tossed out altogether. It did not name Torgerson.
"There was a discussion, but nothing official has ever been filed" seeking Torgerson's ouster, Ruedrich said. With Torgerson off the committee anyway and about to leave office, no formal complaint is anticipated, Ruedrich added.
Still, the question of supporting candidates outside the party begs to be answered, said Debra Holle, a peninsula party official who serves as an assistant to Doug Blossom, of Clam Gulch, chair of the District 34 Republicans. Holle said it was frustrating to see Republicans switching parties and a sitting senator backing a non-party candidate.
"At the time, it was a clear breach of party rules," she said.
Now that Torgerson is on his way out, Holle said she's less concerned about his decision to back Wagoner than she is whether the rule should remain a rule. The party must be clear on this, she said.
According to Holle, Ken Jacobus, an Anchorage attorney, whom she said acts as a kind of party parliamentarian, is researching the issue. She has yet to see a recommendation.
Jacobus said Friday he has not had time yet to study the issue and is not ready to make any recommendations.
Torgerson said he heard rumblings about his decision at the time he endorsed Wagoner, but he reacted strongly to any suggestion he should be disciplined by the party and promised to fight any formal move to do so. He would view it as defamation of character, he said.
"Anyone who tries to do something now will find themselves in lawsuits," he said earlier this month.
"I consider myself a Repub-lican," he said.
He acknowledged never attending a central committee meeting. Torgerson also said he isn't a chapter-and-verse party member, but he said he's given speeches on why he joined the Republican Party and ran as a Republican during his legislative political career.
"It would sure be nice to hear that speech now, after he's violated the rules," Holle said. "There were a lot of people who were hugely disappointed and discouraged that he was going to support a Republican Moderate candidate."
She said the Republican Moderate Party was formed for little other reason than to "prevent Republicans from being elected."
As for Wagoner, who has re-registered as a Republican, Holle said he could have run as an independent or even as a Green Party of Alaska candidate.
Given that Wagoner sought election outside the party to which he professes to belong, Holle said she wonders what he might do as a seated Republican legislator when a candidate of another party appeals to him more than someone running as a Republican. That's why the party must address the issue, she said.
"How are we going to handle that?" she said.
Wagoner said the decision to back one candidate over another might come down to a matter of conscience.
"What John Torgerson did, John Torgerson did in clear conscience," Wagoner said. "He endorsed me believing I was the best candidate for the seat. If I were in his position, I would have to look long and hard at a rule that required me to go against my conscience and just vote because the party told me I had to vote that way as far as an endorsement. When you think about it, there are reasons for party rules. But when rules restrict somebody who, in good conscience, wants to do what they think is right, you have to weigh the two."
As for running as a Republican Moderate, Wagoner said his reasons are a matter of record. In any case, he said, he has re-registered as a Republican.
Holle said she values the party rules and platform because they help define Republican candidates.
"If a Republican senator is not going to follow the rules, and then if we have a lot of party switching, is it going to mean the parties don't mean anything anymore to anyone out there?" she said. "Perhaps that's the plan -- to destroy the integrity and value in the party system."
Holle added, however, she doesn't think the demise of the political parties is likely in Alaska anytime soon.
Wagoner said he decided to seek public office because he thought the Senate District Q seat should be held by someone with longer residency on the Kenai Peninsula than Ward had. But he also recognized that he was unlikely to win a Republican primary fight against the popular incumbent.
Wagoner filed as a Republican Moderate, though he stated publicly during the campaign that he was a Republican. His campaign focused on Ward's residency.
Following the 2000 census, reapportionment changed Senate boundaries across the state. Ward chose to move to the peninsula and run in the new District Q, rather than remain in Anchorage and run for re-election there.
Ward had lived in South Anchorage, which was coupled with Nikiski and the northern Kenai Peninsula in Senate District E, a political subdivision that will cease to exist with the 23rd Legislature. His move to Nikiski in May 2001 established his residency on the Kenai Peninsula, meeting Alaska Division of Election residency requirements.
After his apparent victory in November, Wagoner reregistered as a Republican. But his election is still up in the air.
Ward supporters filed suit claiming Wagoner failed to complete financial disclosure statements required by Alaska election law. The Alaska Public Offices Commission has fined Wagoner $150 on the recommendation of the APOC staff and considers the matter settled. However, arguments regarding Wagoner's candidacy and his win are to be made before an Alaska Superior Court judge in early January.
If the court rules Wagoner ineligible, and that decision is upheld in a likely appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court, Ward could be declared the winner of the Senate District Q race because he was the second-place finisher in the Nov. 5 general election.
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