Monday, July 21, 2008

The Real "Straight Talk Express": Democratic U.S. Senate Candidate Ray Metcalfe's "Magic Bus" Is In Mark Begich's Rear View Mirror

You may recall that the term "Straight Talk Express" originated during John McCain's 2000 Presidential campaign to describe his campaign bus, when McCain's gruff, unflowery style earned him a reputation as someone who didn't mince words. Of course, once McCain flip-flopped on the Confederate battle flag issue in South Carolina, his bus was redesignated the "Double Talk Express".

Alaska has its own humbler version of a "straight talk express". And it's driven by Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Ray Metcalfe, who is competing for the Democratic nomination against party favorite Mark Begich and perennial candidate Frank Vondersaar. The Democratic Party has already officially endorsed Begich, even though the primary isn't until August 26th. Click HERE to find out about other Alaska candidates for Federal office.

As described July 21st, 2008 in the Anchorage Daily News' Alaska Politics blog, Metcalfe uses his "straight talk express" to conduct tours of Anchorage - namely, a three hour tour of alleged "dirty deals" narrated by Metcalfe. He calls his bus the "USS Minnow". He drives people around to various sites in Anchorage where questionable real estate deals went down. And he claims that Mark Begich was involved in or benefited from many of the deals. It is the centerpiece of Metcalfe's unorthodox campaign for the Senate, which is largely based on accusing his opponents of corruption. Although the tour is free, he is looking for donations (Metcalfe hasn't raised much campaign money). Metcalfe doesn't schedule tours that far in advance; visit his official campaign website to find out if a tour is scheduled, and, if not, how you can arrange a tour. Here's a YouTube video of Metcalfe's latest ad advertising the tour, cross-posted from the Alaska Politics blog:

During the tour, Metcalfe talks about his allegations against Begich and Stevens, which he's posted in detail on his campaign web site. Through this specific portal, you can access Microsoft Word documents entitled "Base Housing To The National Archives" and "Parking Lease Appraisal" which further quantify Metcalfe's allegations. The bottom line message of Metcalfe's tour can probably be summed up in his statement that "if you are one of the mayor's friends you wind up with all the gold and if you are not you wind up holding the bag".

One of the things Metcalfe asserts during his tour is that Begich has not satisfactorily resolved questions about his interest in the Calais Towers in Midtown. Begich received the stake from developers Jon Rubini and Leonard Hyde in 2002. Metcalfe alleged it was a way to "mask what really is a bribe" with developers giving Begich an interest in the building and later buying him out.

In response, Mark Begich characterizes Metcalfe as a "rock-thrower" and says his claims are false and outrageous. This issue was previously addressed on Alaska Politics in August 2007. Begich received the stake from developers Jon Rubini and Leonard Hyde in 2002, before he was elected mayor. According to Begich campaign spokeswoman Julie Hasquet, the Calais Towers interest was part of Begich's commission for acting as a real estate agent for the developers in their purchase of downtown land that eventually became the National Park Service building. This story is further chronicled in an August 4th, 2007 report in the Anchorage Daily News.

She said Begich agreed to take a lower commission to make the sale go through and the buyers agreed to work with him on another project. The Calais buildings four months later was "the next opportunity for the buyers to include Mark in a project, and that is how he received the small ownership in the building. Hasquet said the commission went through the broker that Begich was working for, Realty Executives, as was required. Begich has said that his stake in the buildings was worth about $25,000 in 2002.

The Rubini/Hyde-led Calais Partnership then bought back his interest four years later for a gross of about $52,000. Begich said the partnership bought back his share because an investment group or retirement fund (Begich said he did not recall the name) came in to buy out all the small holders like himself. They came in and bought an interest in the buildings and then they got rolled out of the deal.

Ray Metcalfe has prior political experience. He served in the Alaska State House from 1978-1982 and had a hand in constructing Alaska's Permanent Fund program. In 1986, he bolted the Republican Party and created the Republican Moderate Party, seeking a political environment that preserved Republican respect for free market principles, but not hogtied to the so-called "religious right". However, the RMP never outgrew its founder, so despite the presence of a few responsible, sober-minded candidates for office, it remained a marginal party, and was finally dissolved in 2006. You can also visit Metcalfe's VoteSmart page for more information.

Metcalfe is often thought of as a gadfly because of his relentless pursuit of officials who do not exemplify proper ethical standards. His most noted target was former State Senator Ben Stevens, who chose not to run for re-election in 2006 rather than subject himself to Metcalfe's continued scrutiny. This derailed Ben Stevens' long term intent to become the heir apparent to his father Ted Stevens. But Metcalfe gained fresh credibility after the VECO scandal and others broke in 2007; now that Tom Anderson, Pete Kott, and Vic Kohring are in jail, many look upon Ray Metcalfe with new respect. Unlike Frank Vondersaar, Metcalfe is more than just cannon fodder; he can give Mark Begich a run for his money.

And I hope he does.

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