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City union dispute dominates meeting on state issues

Casey Grove

A battle between city union workers and Mayor Dan Sullivan, who recently proposed an ordinance limiting union powers, overshadowed state issues at a meeting called by Anchorage state legislators Saturday to hear from their constituents.

The Anchorage legislative caucus met at the Anchorage Assembly Chambers in the Loussac Library. Outside the library, dozens of people carried red-and-blue signs that said, "We proudly support Anchorage's city workers." Union workers, their supporters and family members filled the Chamber's seats and lined its walls hoping for a chance to testify.

Several people told legislators they feared what they described as Sullivan stripping city unions of their rights. Caucus co-chairs Reps. Charisse Millett and Chris Tuck asked those who had signed up to testify to limit their comments to state-level, legislative issues. The mayor's proposed rewrite of city labor laws was not a state issue, Millett said.

"There's just not much we can do about it," she said.

Dan Ducharme, wearing an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers shirt, said it was unfortunate Sullivan -- who was suffering from laryngitis, his spokeswoman said -- was not in attendance and that the rights of his union "means everything to us."

Ducharme's 11-year-old daughter, Rivers, also testified.

"This really affects families. All these people wouldn't be here for nothing," she said, ending her statement moments later to booming applause.

"It's a city issue today. It could be a state issue tomorrow," firefighter Justin Mack said a short while later.

The legislators also heard testimony from many people hoping for increased education funding from the state. Recent cuts to Anchorage School District staff and services irked many attending the meeting, several of whom wanted to "inflation-proof" the base rate the state funds schools per student and increase teacher salaries and benefits.

One of those was Jake Todd, who described himself as a fourth-generation teacher working with at-risk youth. A graduation-support coach position in Todd's program was recently cut, he said, leaving the students with the most need with less help.

"I'd just like to take the opportunity to say -- that sucks," Todd said. "Who really loses? The kids. It really sucks for them."

"I went through the public education system here in Anchorage, and my kindergarten teacher taught me something that I love: You're either part of the solution or part of the problem," Todd told the legislators. "I see a lot of you guys not taking active steps to be part of the solution. Thus, are you part of the problem? Be the solution."

Several people spoke out for increasing marriage and civil union rights for same-sex couples. Some brought up an incident in Juneau at a House Majority press conference during which a reporter asked if the Republicans had discussed rights for same-sex couples. The majority members laughed at the question, then apologized later. At the Saturday caucus meeting, Millett apologized and said responding to the question with laughter had been disrespectful.

Martin Eldred testified that he is a pastor in Eagle River and the father of a gay son. Eldred said he was glad his son would be getting married soon but said it was unfortunate the nuptials would have to take place in Washington state and that the couple would not enjoy the same benefits of marriage in Alaska as heterosexual couples.

"They have no civil rights in this state," Eldred said. "That is a moral travesty."

Outside the meeting, a small contingent hoping to recall Rep. Lindsey Holmes -- who, just days before the legislative session convened, switched party affiliation from Democrat to Republic -- held yellow signs and asked Holmes' constituents to sign a recall petition. Wigi Tozzi said 40 to 50 people signed the petition Saturday.

"It's just not right to represent yourself to the voters in one way and then act in your own self-interest and not in the interest of your district and make that kind of a change," Tozzi said. "This just reeks of a sleazy deal."


Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@ or 257-4589.