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Welcome party planned for Obama in Anchorage -- but will he be there?

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 22, 2015

Packing a sports arena with 5,000 fans and rolling out a red carpet would typically be enough to guarantee the presence of most out-of-town guests at a welcome celebration.

But things are a little different when you're dealing with the leader of the free world.

The Alaska Federation of Natives and a broad group of nonprofits and religious institutions are hosting a "rising together" welcome ceremony for President Barack Obama at the Alaska Airlines Center at the University of Alaska Anchorage Aug. 31 — the day he's expected to arrive in town for a visit lasting several days, with a focus on climate change.

Whether the president will actually be in attendance for the presidential welcome remains uncertain. Organizers have nonetheless issued invitations and are hoping to lure Obama with the prospect of addressing thousands of Alaskans.

"We have no commitment from the White House that he's going to be there," said the Rev. Alonzo Patterson, pastor of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, who chairs the event's welcoming committee. "They haven't committed to a whole lot of anything in Alaska except global warming."

Organizers have made clear on the event's Facebook page that Obama may or may not show up. That hasn't stopped 1,100 people from saying they'll go, with several publicly registering their enthusiasm.

"I have been waiting so long to meet and talk to the president. I am ready to miss two days of (work) without pay to attend," posted one Facebook user, Celia Helen Cash. "Please, President Obama, don't ignore me."

The White House press office didn't respond to a question Saturday about Obama's attendance.

But the organizers want to make the event "so good that he'll want to come by and say hello," Patterson said in a phone interview.

They want to show off Anchorage's ethnic and demographic diversity to Obama and welcome him with a "friendly face," Patterson added — alluding to, but not specifically mentioning, the more tepid greeting expected for the Democratic president from Alaska's all-Republican congressional delegation.

"We were not hearing, when he was coming, that there was a lot of interest in terms of red-carpeted service from the state," Patterson said. "We want to let him know that there are some people who appreciate what he has done for America."

"I'm 78 years old — I waited all my life to have an African-American president in the United States. Am I supportive of him? You bet I am," Patterson added.

Patterson said organizers have been connected to the White House through AFN President Julie Kitka. While the president has not confirmed, some "White House personalities" are expected, as well as Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, Patterson said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has also said she will attend.

Kitka didn't respond to a voicemail Friday.

In addition to AFN, co-hosts include Bridge Builders of Anchorage, Congregation Beth Sholom, the local Mexican consulate, Grace Ministries and the NAACP's Anchorage branch.

Tickets will be distributed through those different organizations, and the event is scheduled to start at 6:30. There will be a cultural performance, with Nicole Borromeo, AFN's general counsel, and Mao Tosi, the community activist and former professional football player, as masters of ceremonies.

Tosi, in a phone interview, suggested the event could be Obama's best chance to address a broad cross section of Alaskans. The president is otherwise expected to deliver a speech at a high-level State Department conference on the Arctic and to travel in rural parts of the state.

"I think it would probably be the only of the opportunities while he's here to reach a majority of Alaskans," Tosi said. "Even if he stopped in to say a few words, that would be enough for us that are there, just to see him."

Organizers are hoping to arrange a video connection through Skype if the president can't appear in person, Patterson said.

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