Gov. Sean Parnell is dispatching commissioners and other top state officials to villages, towns and cities around the state next week for marches and other events intended to focus attention on what he calls an epidemic of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken is headed to Cordova, and Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan is going to Nome. Larry Hartig, environmental conservation commissioner, will lead the effort in Glennallen, and Attorney General Michael Geraghty got the Barrow assignment.
Every state commissioner is scheduled to go someplace March 29 for a "Choose Respect" event. Many other communities are doing something without a high-powered state official in charge. Even Labor Commissioner Click Bishop, who is retiring Friday, is leading an event in Tanana, according to the governor's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow.
Parnell and First Lady Sandy Parnell are heading up the rally in Fairbanks, and Anchorage gets two commissioners: Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus, of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, and Cora Campbell, Department of Fish and Game, who is scheduled to be in Anchorage anyway for a fisheries meeting.
Asked on Tuesday about sending his commissioners out for events that seem to be more show than substance, Parnell said anyone who thinks that has it wrong.
"You need only talk with survivors who have seen those marches and figured out that people actually care about them and are willing to help them," Parnell said.
Two years ago, 18 communities participated in "Choose Respect" rallies or other events, and last year more than 60 took part. This year, the community count is 120.
Parnell launched an initiative in 2010 to fight sexual assault and domestic violence, and he says it remains one of the highest priorities for his administration.
"It's the thing you are going to see me doing until the day I end my term," Parnell said.
He's requesting almost $12 million from the Legislature, including funding for 15 new village public safety officers and $1.3 million to provide housing vouchers for victims of violence. That's up from $7.7 million approved by lawmakers two years ago for programs under the "Choose Respect" banner.
The rallies do more than gather people together in support of a good cause, said Katie Tepas, a special assistant to Parnell who heads the initiative. The state provides communities a "march in a box" that includes loads of resources, including handouts on child advocacy centers, bootlegging, human trafficking, and where to get help, she said. Organizers include a copy of a read-aloud children's book called "The Right Touch" that teaches how to prevent sexual abuse. Some communities set up tables in a community room and host an informational fair on preventing violence along with their marches.
Throughout the year, a local point person -- maybe a teacher, a health aide, or a village public safety officer -- gets weekly e-mails with opportunities for training and other help. "They are not just doing an event for us on this one day," Tepas said.
Luiken, the transportation commissioner headed to Cordova, said he wasn't taken aback when he was asked to work on an issue far removed from his regular world of roads, ferries and bridges. Alaska has such high rates of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse that it makes sense for Parnell to enlist all of his top aides, he said.
Last year Luiken went to Galena. He remembers talking about the need to bring the violence issue into the open, funding for village public safety officers, and help for the community to get men to step up and be leaders.
"It was rewarding, in my estimation," Luiken said. "I would say to a person on the Cabinet, we would feel privileged that he would ask us to do that."
In Cordova, he expects also to discuss some transportation issues, including concerns local residents have about a bridge. He's flying there and taking the ferry back.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.