Alaska News

Alaska conservatives target Human Rights Commission appointee

JUNEAU — Social conservatives are questioning Gov. Bill Walker's appointment of a transgender activist to the Alaska State Human Rights Commission, saying they're worried he'll boost an existing commission effort to add legal protections for gay and transgender people.

Drew Phoenix, the former director of Identity, a statewide lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group, faced a hostile round of questioning by Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing last week.

And social conservative group Alaska Family Action this week launched a campaign against Phoenix's nomination, calling him the "wrong person for the job" and rallying lawmakers to oppose him Thursday when the state House and Senate meet in a joint session for confirmation votes.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Phoenix said he's "happy and honored and excited to possibly be confirmed as commissioner."

He declined to talk about the senators' questions, though he answered them before the committee. He also said he wouldn't address Alaska Family Action's campaign against him. But he added that he supports a November move by the Human Rights Commission to advance new prohibitions on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity — a move that's drawn opposition from social conservatives.

Alaska law currently bars discrimination in employment, commerce, housing and banking based on race, religion, sex or physical or mental disability — but not based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Human Rights Commission, which enforces the state's human rights law, approved a resolution last year calling on the Legislature to add such protections. And it also asked its staff to examine whether it could add those protections without a change in state law, using existing law banning discrimination on the basis of sex — a move that would parallel a step taken by a federal agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation to add such protections in the past several years, but the bills have stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. Anchorage and Juneau have adopted ordinances barring discrimination on the basis of sexual identity, and the courts have upheld the right of same-sex couples to marry.

Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, said at Phoenix's confirmation hearing Friday that he thought the commission was moving to "usurp the Legislature's authority."

"And I just want to know if we're going to add another person to the Human Rights Commission that holds views that are out of step with the rest of Alaska," Kelly asserted.

Kelly asked Phoenix about his position on abortion restrictions created by a citizens initiative that were voided as unconstitutional by the Alaska Supreme Court. The Alaska branch of the ACLU, where Phoenix used to work, had brought a legal challenge to the initiative.

Kelly subsequently sent Phoenix a list of written questions, including one about his position on a hypothetical situation in which a professional wedding photographer refused to work at a gay couple's wedding.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said at the hearing that he thought the abortion questions were "completely irrelevant," adding in a subsequent interview that he thought Phoenix was being singled out because of his gender identity.

"If anyone questions that there is not still discrimination against the LGBT community, all you need to do is look at that committee hearing," Wielechowski said.

But Kelly rejected Wielechowski's assertion in a brief interview Tuesday, noting that he'd also asked another appointee, David Barton, questions about the commission's resolution during a Monday hearing — though Barton, at the same hearing, acknowledged that he didn't get the same written questions that were sent to Phoenix.

Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole, another social conservative, said he planned to vote against Phoenix's confirmation, saying he "lost confidence" in him based on Phoenix's support of the commission's recent resolution.

Coghill described the commission's effort to block discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation as a "moral position" that should be debated in the Legislature.

"If we don't debate it, and we leave what is standing now, to me that's part of the answer," Coghill said.

Another nominee who could face opposition is Walker's attorney general, Jahna Lindemuth. Kelly and other Republicans have criticized her handling of settlement talks with an Alaska Native corporation over access to a remote road to a recreational lake.

Lindemuth's final confirmation hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, less than 24 hours before the vote.

Republicans have also questioned Walker's appointment of Hollis French, a former Democratic state senator, to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which acts as a steward for some of the state's natural resources and a safety regulator of oil and gas drilling.

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.

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