Story last updated at 3:31 p.m. Thursday, October 10, 2002

Senate hopeful keeps low profile

Perennial candidate seeks end to 'fascist conspiracy,' Stevens' reign

by Sepp Jannotta
Morris News Service-Alaska

HOMER -- With the air of old-West mountain scouts looking for animal tracks in a little-traveled territory, Alaska's political pundits tell us there is a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. They've seen the evidence -- a Web posting here, a scrap of correspondence there.

As for actual sightings, most of those have been made in Homer, because that is where the elusive Frank Vondersaar is mounting his third attempt to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Stevens.

So who is this mysterious Don Quixote of Alaska politics?

Thoughtful and soft-spoken, Vondersaar stands over 6 feet tall, with broad shoulders and serious eyes that peer from behind his 1960s-era black-framed glasses. His road into politics has been marked by his intense desire to rid the country of what he calls "fascist criminals within the government."

Vondersaar said that among these alleged criminals, Ted Stevens is at the top of his list -- a spot he once reserved for Ronald Reagan.

A lifelong Democrat, Vondersaar has a resume that lists degrees in law, civil and nuclear engineering and business. Following 13 years of service in the U.S. Air Force -- Vondersaar's discharge was apparently related to issues of mental health -- he found himself in Homer in the late 1980s, and he says he has been a political prisoner here ever since.

Vondersaar runs his campaign solo out of his modest house a few blocks off Pioneer Avenue. Because of what he claims is near-continuous surveillance and harassment by agents of the federal government, he does not keep a phone at his place, meaning that almost all communications go through his e-mail.

"Basically, they make my life miserable," he said of those he believes to be persecuting him. "The idea is to keep me from making a viable living ... to keep me living at a bare minimum subsistence level."

Vondersaar said his life has been disrupted by the government's campaign of psychological harassment, which has included midnight telephone calls (when he had a phone) and agents breaking into his house and rearranging his possessions.

The fact that he believes himself to be under attack from his own government is the overriding motive for his repeated attempts to unseat any member of Alaska's congressional delegation who happens to be running -- in election years when Stevens is not running, Vondersaar has set his sights on Sen. Frank Murkowski or Rep. Don Young. He's been at it every two years since 1990.

Vondersaar said that after being thwarted in legal and other attempts to protect his civil rights, public office is his last way to fight back. He also said he believes it is his patriotic duty to expose the fascists and to restore the "rights of majority rule."

"If you leave politics to unsavory characters, you're going to wind up getting what you don't really want," he said.

Vondersaar has repeatedly said he believes Stevens is involved in the criminal conspiracy against him, the proof of which he believes is demonstrated in letters he has from Stevens and a U.S. Air Force officer. The letters date back to the mid-1980s, when Vondersaar, a major with a high-level security clearance he said related to nuclear weapons, began to complain about being under military and intelligence agency surveillance.

As an Alaska resident, he wrote to Sen. Stevens, asking for help in calling off the surveillance and harassment operation he believed was "generated primarily based on information from my rather vindictive ex-wife and a psychiatrist, of questionable reputation, which she had hired in her attempts to prevent me from visiting with my daughter."

Stevens, for his part, inquired with the Air Force's congressional liaison office and forwarded its eventual findings on to Vondersaar with "best wishes."

The Air Force's Office of the Inspector General inquiry concluded, after investigating Major Vondersaar's claim, that he was paranoid.

What Vondersaar said was a listening device found in his apartment, the military said was a cable television "splitter."

Shortly thereafter, Vondersaar was remanded to a psychiatric ward at Elgin Air Force Base for evaluation and was subsequently discharged.

Vondersaar said he continued to press his case through Congress. On the heels of what he characterized as fruitful correspondence on the conspiracy with several Democratic senators, Reagan administration Cabinet members Caspar Weinberger and Elizabeth Dole resigned their offices.

Unfortunately, Vondersaar said, the letters implicating the Reagan White House were stolen.

"Those letters were the only thing stolen by the secret police, in that particular burglary," Vondersaar wrote in a September letter to the Homer News.

Stevens said he is puzzled by the charges.

"The correspondence reflects that I had no connection whatsoever with Mr. Vondersaar," Stevens said in an e-mail. "I deny his allegations and have no knowledge of any such surveillance."

"I don't know him from Adam," the senator said of Vondersaar.

While the evidence implicating Stevens in some sort of plot against Vondersaar appears scant at best, Vondersaar's dislike of the senator is clearly defined.

Many political observers in Alaska joke that Sen. Stevens is the state's "senator for life," but Vondersaar put a slightly darker twist on that assessment of Stevens' grip on power, comparing him to Chile's now-fragile former-dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Pinochet came to power in 1973 during a bloody U.S.-backed coup. After 17 years of bloody repression, Pinochet drafted a new constitution and reinstated a democratic government, allowing for free elections in 1990. There was one simple catch -- Pinochet, who twice ran unsuccessfully for the Chilean presidency, would remain supreme commander of the military and would be appointed senator for life.

Despite his multiple advanced degrees, Vondersaar said his working life has taken on a piece-meal, catch-as-catch-can flavor, amounting to a variety of low-paying, often-temporary jobs. In recent years, Vondersaar has put in time slinging fish for Icicle Seafoods, serving up fast food at Burger King, and doing farm labor for a local rancher.

"He's a dependable, conscientious worker," said East End Road rancher Bruce Willard, one of Vondersaar's employers. "If he said he was going to be at work at a certain time, that's what time he showed up to work.

"But, we never got into politics too much. I'm a Republican and he's a Democrat, and that's probably why he just kept on working."

Vondersaar said federal harassment has made it impossible to keep a professional practice going, either in law or civil engineering, though he did not offer any specifics on how.

With no hope of amassing a campaign war chest to match that of his high-profile opponent -- Vondersaar expects to spend about $1,000 of his own money on the race -- Vondersaar said he knows he faces a near-impossible fight.

"The only chance I have, since I can't match his campaign spending, is to show that not only does (Ted Stevens) have skeletons in his closet, but that I'm one of those skeletons," Vondersaar said.

The most common tool used by Vondersaar to spread his message has been letters to the editors of Alaska's daily newspapers. The letters are typically not shy about labeling Stevens a fascist criminal conspirator -- "Why should the average Alaskan voter care if Stevens is an unconvicted felon?" he asks in one letter before answering: "If Stevens and his co-conspirators can keep Vondersaar a political prisoner, they can do it to you."

So, if you haven't heard much about this candidate, you are not alone. There have been no radio or TV ads. No newspaper ads. No rallies. No debates.

Though he will be on the Democratic Party ticket in November, his candidacy receives no funding from the party. According to Tammy Troyer, executive director of the Democratic Party, the party is concentrating its resources on important races it thinks it can win, such as Fran Ulmer's bid to keep the governor's seat within the party.

"The Democratic Party does support Frank Vondersaar in his candidacy for U.S. Senate," Troyer said. "He's been a Democratic candidate before, and we support him."

Vondersaar said he's not even sure the party has formally endorsed his candidacy.

Party officials admit that it's been typically difficult to muster a strong field of candidates for a race with Stevens, who as the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee boasts an unparalleled record of bringing federal money back to his home state.

"We're so busy here (in Washington, D.C.), that I haven't much time to concentrate on the campaign," Stevens said in a phone interview from his office in the nation's capital last week.

Stevens, who has been in office for 34 years and hopes to be elected to a seventh term, has said he would raise $1.5 million for his reelection bid.

Stevens also said that when he returned to Alaska from Washington, D.C., later this month he would begin campaigning in earnest, with a push to visit communities across the state, including Homer.

And that is where Frank Vondersaar will remain, tilting at windmills, doing his best to bring Ted Stevens' skeletons out into the light of day.

Sepp Jannotta is a reporter for the Homer News.