JUNEAU -- The Alaska Legislature voted 35 to 23 on Thursday to reject the confirmation of Wayne Anthony Ross, Gov. Sarah Palin's pick for attorney general.
According to Legislative Research Services, it was the first time in state history a head of a state agency has failed to be confirmed by the Legislature. All the Democrats in the Legislature voted against Ross and were joined by nine Republicans, including the Senate president and House speaker.
"I think he is too controversial for the state of Alaska. We've got in some people's mind a controversial governor, and I think that he just has too many controversies out there," said House Speaker Mike Chenault, a Nikiski Republican.
Even Ross' opponents in the Legislature had said just a few days ago that he had enough support to be confirmed despite widespread opposition from Alaska Native groups, his calling gays "degenerates" in the 1990s, and allegations that he made offensive comments about women. But a tipping point appeared to come this week when Ross gave what lawmakers called bad and politicized legal advice to Palin about a fight she's having with lawmakers over a state Senate appointment.
Palin suggested lawmakers who voted no were turning their backs on voters. They rejected an attorney general, she said, who strongly supports the issues important to Alaskans -- gun rights, constitutional rights and developing resources to the maximum benefit of residents.
"I think there was a lot of politics of personal destruction involved in this and that's a shame. ... I am surprised that, for some of what I believe are personal petty political reasons, some lawmakers chose not to support a candidate who fit that bill," Palin said in a telephone interview.
Palin said the "hypocrisy" is that the state House last year unanimously passed a citation praising Ross as a distinguished Alaskan and a vocal proponent of free speech whose career has been dedicated to defending individual rights.
"The hypocrisy there is quite glaring. I believe they need to be called out on that," Palin said. The legislature passed the citation to honor Ross' 65 birthday.
Palin said there were lies spread about Ross. One highly publicized accusation against him was a letter written to legislators by Leah Burton, a Palin critic who used to lobby in Alaska on family issues, saying she heard Ross make offensive comments about women at a meeting in 1991. It was a claim that Ross angrily denied during his confirmation hearings.
Ross said after the vote rejecting his nomination that he would have been a good attorney general but will now go back to private practice as a lawyer.
"I got up this morning, I said 'Lord, whatever you've got in mind is fine,' and he let us know what he had in mind," he said.
"I had a neat office for two and a half weeks and I was attorney general under the law for two and a half weeks for the state of Alaska. And the big question I have now is whether they will put my picture up with the other (former attorneys general) for only two and a half weeks' service," Ross said.
Sitka Republican Sen. Bert Stedman, who voted against Ross, said Palin should have stayed in town to help round up votes for her attorney general nominee. The Republican governor was in Indiana on Thursday to speak at a Right to Life event.
Senate President Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, said Ross' involvement in the fight between Palin and lawmakers over the open state Senate seat had an impact. It was also a case of lawmakers hearing an increasing public opposition to Ross in recent days, said Stevens, who had indicated just a day earlier that he would vote for Ross but didn't.
"It's a massive response from the Native community, tremendous opposition," he said.
Legislators debated Ross for more than an hour in a joint session of the House and Senate before the vote. Ross' Democratic opponents in the Legislature said their first sign he was truly going down came when Kenai Republican Sen. Tom Wagoner surprised them by standing up during the debate and saying that he was a no vote.
Wagoner said Ross got involved in his contentious election race against former Sen. Jerry Ward, sending out a mailer to National Rifle Association members in his district falsely suggesting the NRA was endorsing Ward.
"It took us a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of work to take the truth to the electorate in my district," Wagoner told other lawmakers.
Anchorage Democratic Sen. Hollis French gave his own speech saying "to me the most damaging" thing Ross did for his confirmation was how he handled the bitter fight over the open Juneau state Senate seat.
Ross signed off on Palin forwarding three names to the Senate Democrats to consider for the single seat (two of whom the Senate Democrats had already rejected). The Legislature's legal division declared that an illegal move. In response, Ross told a reporter Wednesday, "it seems to me the most important thing that can be done by the Senate is not argue with legal or illegal but to appoint somebody to represent Juneau."
French said that was an important test of how Ross would be as Alaska's attorney general, and he flunked. "I (also) think it removes any doubt on whether Mr. Ross will be standing up to the governor on legal issues," he said.
'SUBSTANCE, INTEGRITY AND COURAGE'
Several Republican legislators stood up to defend Ross. Many said they've known Ross for decades. They said he is generous, protective of women and children, speaks his mind and has great integrity.
Wasilla Republican Sen. Charlie Huggins said Ross is a throwback to an earlier era -- a plain, tough guy who will stand up for individual rights.
"I think of hunting, I think of fishing, I think of family man, the NRA," he said.
Ross supporters said that he would fight hard for Alaska and could be just the kind of man the state needs to look out for its interests. "We have to be careful here to differentiate between style and substance. I think this is a man of substance, integrity and courage," said Eagle River Sen. Fred Dyson.
But Ross opponents talked about his comments against gays from the 1990s and his refusal to say during his confirmation hearings whether he still holds those views. They also brought up the low rankings from fellow lawyers that he received when he applied to be a judge.
Alaska Native legislators gave speeches saying that Ross is a hugely divisive figure with his past aggressive statements against a rural preference in subsistence hunting and fishing rights, and against tribal sovereignty.
"The people who have spoken for Mr. Ross are quite convincing, and he's convinced them. The problem is Mr. Ross has been in this state for decades and during those decades he has not been able to convince the Native people he will look out for their interests," said Bethel Democratic Sen. Lyman Hoffman. "I think that is a very, very important point."
The vote: 35 no, 23 yes
REPRESENTATIVES YES (16) REPUBLICANS: COGHILL, DAHLSTROM, FAIRCLOUGH, GATTO, HARRIS, HAWKER, JOHNSON, KELLER, KELLY, LYNN, MILLETT, MUÑOZ, NEUMAN, OLSON, RAMRAS, STOLTZ DEMOCRATS: NONE NO (23) REPUBLICANS: AUSTERMAN, CHENAULT, JOHANSEN, SEATON, THOMAS, WILSON. DEMOCRATS: BUCH, CISSNA, CRAWFORD, DOOGAN, EDGMON, GARA, GARDNER, GRUENBERG, GUTTENBERG, HERRON, HOLMES, JOULE, KAWASAKI, KERTTULA, PETERSEN, SALMON, TUCK EXCUSED: FOSTER (D) SENATORS YES (7) REPUBLICANS: BUNDE, DYSON, HUGGINS, MCGUIRE, MENARD, MEYER, THERRIAULT DEMOCRATS: NONE NO (12) REPUBLICANS: STEDMAN, WAGGONER, STEVENS DEMOCRATS: DAVIS, ELLIS, FRENCH, HOFFMAN, KOOKESH, OLSON, PASKVAN, THOMAS, WIELECHOWSKI
By SEAN COCKERHAM
Anchorage Daily News
Alaska Dispatch Publishing