Standing inside the Alaska Heritage Museum at the Wells Fargo Building in Midtown Anchorage, a group of city leaders took on last week's controversial remarks by School Board candidate Don Smith -- without mentioning him by name.
Smith said last week that the city's changing ethnic makeup had been causing problems for the Anchorage School District, and that a local program to resettle refugees was placing a financial burden on city residents.
On Friday, Mayor Dan Sullivan, along with several business and civic leaders, called a news conference to "affirm that Anchorage is a welcoming community made rich and vibrant thanks to the diversity of its residents," as the invitation from his office described it.
The idea for the gathering came from Rasmuson Foundation President Diane Kaplan, according to a spokeswoman for Sullivan.
"There was a general sense around a lot of people that there was some unfortunate rhetoric," Kaplan said, citing discussions at her Rotary Club. "It was a, 'Yes, let's do something.'"
The mid-day event drew about 90 people, including local politicians and nonprofit and business leaders, who packed themselves between glass cases containing Alaska Native artifacts.
Both Sullivan and Kaplan spoke -- with Sullivan noting that "all are welcome in Anchorage, Alaska, even the Irish -- along with Anchorage School District Superintendent Ed Graff, Anchorage Chamber of Commerce President Andrew Halcro, Father Fred Bugarin, a local pastor who emigrated to Alaska from the Philippines, Aaron Schutt, the president of Doyon, Ltd., and Joe Everhart, the regional president for Wells Fargo.
Afterwards, Sullivan addressed Smith's comments.
"Are there challenges when non-speakers come into a community?" he asked. "Yeah, but that's always been the case in America. We're an immigrant country."
Asked about his own comments on diversity given his 2009 veto of an ordinance to ban discrimination against gay people, and voters' subsequent rejection of a similar measure in 2012, Sullivan responded that "you're talking about lifestyle, versus somebody's culture."
"I think they're different," he said.
Smith, in a phone interview, said Friday afternoon that he had not been informed about the press conference, but responded "absolutely not" when asked if the local response would make him reconsider his comments.
"I'm a little, obviously, disappointed in our leaders that think we've got to bring half the world to Anchorage to take care of, and they never think of the people who are having to pay taxes," he said.
Smith noted the number of voters who had supported him in Tuesday's election -- close to 42 percent, with more than 7,000 ballots still to be counted -- was not far off from the 45 percent he got in his losing re-election campaign in 2013.
"That might signify that there are some people in this community that are pissed off at what's going on," he said.
Reach Nathaniel Herz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4311.
By NATHANIEL HERZ