5 former Anchorage mayors back gay rights initiative

Michelle Theriault Boots
Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News

Five former Anchorage mayors on Friday endorsed an April ballot measure to extend legal protections against discrimination to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents of the city.

If passed, the Anchorage Equal Rights Initiative would expand municipal code to prohibit discrimination on a basis of sexual orientation or transgender identity. Anchorage residents will vote on the initiative on April 3.

Former mayors Rick Mystrom, Jack Roderick, Matt Claman, Tony Knowles and U.S. Sen. Mark Begich all spoke in support of the One Anchorage campaign, which backs the initiative, at a press conference held in South Anchorage. Begich appeared by video phone link from Washington, D.C.

"This isn't a Democratic thing or a Republican thing, it's just simply the right thing," said Mystrom, who served as mayor from 1994 to 2000.

Roderick, who served from 1972 to 1975, said that to him, the issue was a simple matter of fairness.

"In order to have a great community, everyone should be treated the same," he said. "That's the essence of democracy and I think, still, the essence of Anchorage."

The last time the former mayors had gathered was for the swearing-in of Mayor Dan Sullivan in 2009, said Claman, who served as interim mayor that year.

The living former mayors not in attendance at Friday's press conference: Tom Fink, mayor from 1987 to 1994, and George Wuerch, who served from 2000 to 2003. Both were caught up in controversies involving gay and lesbian rights during their terms.

In 1993, Fink vetoed a narrower ordinance protecting city employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Reached by phone at his home Friday, Fink said he wouldn't vote for the ordinance and didn't feel discrimination was a problem in the city.

In 2001, Wuerch ordered city workers to remove a gay-pride exhibit from a public library.

Jim Minnery of the Alaska Family Council, a conservative Christian group that opposes the initiative, said he wasn't surprised by the lineup.

"Typically this gets divided down political affiliations," he said.

Mystrom is a Republican; Roderick, Begich, Knowles and Claman are Democrats, although candidates for city office in Anchorage don't run on partisan tickets.

Minnery's group has been lining up support among Alaska legislators and Anchorage Assembly members and had plans to hold a "pastors' briefing" for local church leaders, he said.

"We're working with a number of elected officials who will come out and endorse us at some point," he said.

"The current mayor is probably the most popular mayor we've had in a long time," Minnery said. "And he has obviously not endorsed it. And I think that speaks volumes."

Mayor Dan Sullivan wasn't immediately available for comment Friday afternoon.

Campaign organizer Amy Coffman said Sullivan's office had been informed that the gathering would be taking place.

The Anchorage Equal Rights Initiative is similar to another city ordinance passed by the Assembly in 2009. It was vetoed by Sullivan.

Sullivan has said he believes a ballot initiative is "appropriate" because it allows citizens to weigh in on the subject.

Coffman said bringing current and former elected officials together in support of the campaign would be a powerful and public affirmation of the campaign's view that the status quo needs changing.

"It's encouraging to have former lawmakers and leaders saying yes, it's true, this needs to happen," she said.

She was surprised by some of the former mayors' responses.

"It's one of the most beautiful things about the Alaskan resident," she said. "We make assumptions all the time, but until you have the conversation, you never know what the answer is going to be."

Anchorage Daily News