Alaska News

Sullivan vetoes gay rights ordinance (8/17/09)

A long, grinding, contentious political and social struggle hit a major bump Monday when Mayor Dan Sullivan vetoed the Assembly's latest attempt to ban discrimination against gay people in Anchorage.

In a written statement, Sullivan said weeks of loud public hearings in which hundreds of people on both sides argued, sang hymns and told painfully emotional personal stories did not convince him discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation exists here.

Supporters of the effort said they aren't giving up, but it was not immediately clear what direction the movement will take now. A demonstration at City Hall late Monday afternoon drew dozens of people waving rainbow flags and chanting, "Override now." Several later took the protest next door to the sidewalk outside the mayor's pub, McGinley's.

"The first step is to take it back to the Assembly," said Jackie Buckley, a spokeswoman for the pro-ordinance coalition Equality Works.

The Assembly mustered seven votes to pass a compromise version of the ordinance last week, but eight are needed to override Sullivan's veto. The panel has 21 days to take up the issue again. The first opportunity will be at its next meeting, Aug. 25.

Two members who authored slightly different versions of the anti-discrimination measure said they doubt that an eighth vote will emerge.

Assembly Chairwoman Debbie Ossiander, a surprise vote against the measure last week, said she hasn't changed her mind.


Ossiander said she doesn't believe it's right to discriminate against gay people. But she said last week she feared that some language in the compromise might force businesses to create special facilities -- unisex bathrooms, for example.

"My position hasn't changed," she said Monday. "I believe I made the correct vote. ... Parts of this ordinance, I feel, were wrong."

Ossiander said, however, that it's possible the Assembly could at some later point decide to revisit the issue with a new ordinance that she could support.


In his statement, Sullivan said he had studied the ordinance passed last week and fielded almost 2,500 e-mails, calls and other messages about it.

"My review shows that there is clearly a lack of quantifiable evidence necessitating this ordinance," Sullivan said. "My review also shows that the vast majority of those who communicated their position ... are in opposition.

"As elected officials, we are charged with reflecting the will of the community in our decisions, particularly in the absence of compelling data that would supersede that will."

Buckley, however, called the veto "a giant step backwards."

"Equality Works is very disappointed that the mayor has failed to allow the good work of the Assembly to proceed," she said in a telephone interview minutes after the veto was announced.

"This was an opportunity. It was good for business, so Anchorage could attract and retain the best employees and customers. This is a giant step backwards by the mayor, not seeing that.

"Civil rights are not a popularity contest," she said. "This is not the sort of thing (where) you can say, 'I've had 500 phone calls, so this is a bad idea.' "

But the Rev. Jerry Prevo of the Anchorage Baptist Temple said Sullivan did the right thing.

"I am happy to see that the mayor realizes that the majority of the people of Anchorage do not feel that this is a necessary ordinance, which it is not," said Prevo, an ardent foe who has been fighting against gay rights protections since the 1970s, when Dan Sullivan's father vetoed the city's first attempt to add sexual orientation to the city's equal rights laws.

Dan Sullivan listened to his constituents, Prevo said. "He felt like the people elected him and that he ought to push the will of the people rather than any personal agenda that he might have."


Two of the strongest Assembly supporters for the equal rights revision, Matt Claman and Patrick Flynn, said Sullivan is wrong if he thinks discrimination against gays doesn't exist here. More than 20 hours of public hearings over several meetings since early June produced ample evidence that the legislation is needed, they said.

"I'm disappointed, primarily for the several thousand Anchorage residents who are disenfranchised by his decision," said Flynn, who authored the compromise measure that was ultimately approved by the Assembly.


Claman said he heard "compelling evidence from many people who came and testified that they had been discriminated against."

It was Claman who pushed the issue onto the table during his six months as acting mayor this year. Had it followed a more typical route to an Assembly vote, the measure would likely have become law before July 1, when Sullivan became mayor.

But more than 700 people signed up to testify about the measure, including some who don't live in Anchorage, and the Assembly's hearings stretched on until well after Sullivan was sworn in.

"I did not think the testimony would go on into July," Claman said.

"Somebody observed that the opponents of the ordinance had essentially engaged in what you could call a public filibuster" until Sullivan became mayor, Claman said. "I think the right to do that is protected under the charter."

Don Hunter can be reached at 257-4349. Daily News reporter Julia O'Malley contributed to this report.


Timeline on Anchorage's issue of banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.


• 1975-1976: The issue arose twice. Both times the Anchorage Assembly approved an anti-discrimination ordinance. Both times Mayor George Sullivan vetoed it. Both times the Assembly tried but failed to override the veto.

• 1993: In January, the Assembly passed a narrower ordinance protecting city employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, Mayor Tom Fink vetoed it and the Assembly overrode the veto. Courts blocked an effort to have a public vote to repeal the law, saying the repeal language was flawed. But in May, newly elected Assembly members helped repeal the new law.

• 2009: After more than 20 hours of public hearings during June and July, the Assembly voted 7-4 on Aug. 11 to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. On Monday, Mayor Dan Sullivan vetoed the ordinance. The Assembly has three weeks to override the veto.