Before he went to Yale Law School, Joe Miller LAW ’95 went rogue.
An underdog who beat the incumbent Republican to win the nomination for U.S. Senate in Alaska, Miller began his educational career at West Point and went on to serve as a tank commander in the Gulf War, where he earned a Bronze Star. His military service — and his staunch conservative views — won him support from such Tea Party titans as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, but both neglected to mention in their endorsements that Miller earned a degree from America’s most selective and, as critics might say, elitist law school.
In a recent interview with the News, however, Miller distanced himself from the Tea Party.
“The Tea Party has endorsed me, but I don’t see myself as anything other than a constitutional conservative,” he said. “I look at this country as being at a crisis. The entitlement state is broken, and I think we’ve got to get a different answer to where we are today.”
Throughout Miller’s recent but conspicuous arrival on the national stage, little attention has focused on his time at Yale, a law school at once known for being overwhelmingly liberal and also for producing prominent conservative minds. While Miller’s Ivy League credentials may seem to clash with the Tea Party movement’s populist ethos, Miller identified his law school years as a formative stage in his life, just as he suggested that the Tea Party might not best define his political persona.
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Miller, for his part, also refuted the notion of the Tea Party movement as anti-intellectual.
“That’s a misperception of the [Tea Party] movement across the United States,” he said. “Even though some people might say it’s a move against intellectualism, I think it’s a commonsense movement. … People recognize that fiscally, the country can’t continue in the way it’s going.”
Miller said his conservative beliefs were tested while he was at Yale, given that most of his classmates were more liberal than he was. Confronted by these different views, Miller said he only became more certain of his views.
Cory Wilson LAW ’95, a fellow member of the Federalist Society and now the deputy secretary of state of Mississippi, said he remembers Miller as both a serious student and conservative. He said he remembers that Miller’s views were very similar to the way they are today, adding that Miller showed an interest in the world of politics.
But classmate Jason Chen LAW ’95 said he was surprised to find Miller’s name in headlines as a political candidate closely associated with the Tea Party movement, since he didn’t strike his classmates as a political activist while in law school, or even as that conservative.
“If you were to ask me to list the dozen or so people who came to Yale Law School with overt political ambitions, he certainly would not have been on that list,” Chen wrote in an e-mail.
Whether or not Miller was vocal about his beliefs on campus, he found camaraderie in his right-wing views by getting involved in the Federalist Society, a Law School group for conservative and libertarian students, though family restraints prevented him from ever taking on leadership roles in the group.
Miller was only 25 when he entered the Law School, but as a newlywed, he had a very different set of priorities from most of his peers, he recalls. He said he turned down Harvard and the University of Chicago law schools, partly because he thought Yale would offer a better setting in which to raise a family. Chen said while Miller was both social and well-liked, he was never found at Thursday night happy hours. Miller and his wife, Kathleen, decided not to live in New Haven, but rather in neighboring Hamden.
Miller was also set apart from his classmates when, forgoing potential jobs at law firms in New York or Washington, he decided to practice law in Alaska after graduation, heading to the Last Frontier for what he has called a love of the outdoors. In law school, Miller had spent an “intensive semester” working under the tutelage of Professor George Priest ’69, helping on a case with the attorney general’s office in Alaska against a North Slope oil company that wasn’t paying full royalties.
“He was an adventurous guy,” Priest said of Miller. “I certainly didn’t have any sense that he was ultimately going to become a politician. He was different than a lot of our students that are easily placed in Wall Street law firms. He was interested in public service, but I didn’t have a sense it was politics.”
Current polls show Miller at least six points ahead of his main opponent, Democratic candidate Scott McAdams. The race could become more complicated, though, if incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Republican Miller knocked out in the August primary, decides to mount a write-in candidacy — a prospect on which Murkowski has said she will announce a decision by Friday.