Alaska Legislature

After weeks of waiting, Legislature OKs most Walker appointees

JUNEAU — Alaska lawmakers on Tuesday voted to confirm 97 of Gov. Bill Walker's 98 appointees to executive branch positions — with the sole exception of Drew Phoenix, a transgender man appointed to the state commission that protects human rights.

A downcast Phoenix, reached by phone afterward, said the 35-24 vote against him in a joint House-Senate session was a case of "transphobia."

"Discrimination has once again reared its ugly head," said Phoenix, a man who was born female. "I'm just sad the Legislature isn't in touch with Alaskan values — treating people like they want to be treated."

Lawmakers approved the rest of Walker's appointees — even those who faced criticism during the confirmation process. Those confirmed include Walker's attorney general, Jahna Lindemuth, his natural resources commissioner, Andy Mack, and nominees to the state boards of fish, game and marijuana control.

One particularly close vote came when Hollis French — a former Democratic state senator — was being considered for a seat on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the watchdog and steward for some of the state's most valuable natural resources.

Walker named French to the commission seat — a $140,000-a-year job filled by Sarah Palin before she was elected governor — nearly two years after French agreed to end his candidacy for lieutenant governor.

That move allowed Walker, a Republican-turned independent, to merge his gubernatorial campaign with French's former running mate, Democrat Byron Mallott, who's now lieutenant governor.

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French, an attorney, was mentioned in accounts at the time as Walker's possible choice for attorney general, but he couldn't be immediately appointed under an anti-corruption law that makes legislators wait a year for holding an administrative post.

On Tuesday, when French's name came up for consideration for the AOGCC position, Nikiski Republican Rep. Mike Chenault made a motion to postpone the vote until all the other appointees had been considered — a move some Democrats took as a sign Republicans wanted to adjourn the joint session without voting on French's appointment at all.

The motion failed by a 29-30 vote, and French was ultimately confirmed 35-24 with votes from several of his former Senate GOP colleagues.

"The whole thing was fairly nerve-wracking — let's put it that way," French said in a brief phone interview afterward.

Phoenix, who Walker appointed to the Alaska State Commission on Human Rights, had faced tough questioning in confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Social conservatives ran a campaign opposing him, calling him the "wrong person for the job."

[Alaska conservatives target human rights appointee as confirmation vote looms]

A final email from Alaska Family Action President Jim Minnery came less than an hour before the start of the joint session, urging readers to contact senators and representatives "one more time" to register opposition to Phoenix, who Minnery described as a former employee of the American Civil Liberties Union and a "transgender activist."

The 35-24 vote against Phoenix was mostly along party lines. Republicans who voted against him questioned his past work for the ACLU and his support for an effort by the human rights commission to add legal protections for gay and transgender people.

While Phoenix may have felt discrimination in his own life, North Pole Republican Sen. John Coghill said during debate, "that's no reason to put discrimination on somebody else if they don't agree with you."

Coghill argued afterward that adding protections for gay and transgender people — like allowing them to use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, or requiring businesses to serve customers regardless of their sexual orientation — could infringe on others' rights.

"It is the human rights, not the special rights commission," he said.

Another Republican, Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak, said she had "no issues" with Phoenix but voted against him after getting a deluge of 150 emails from constituents.

"If I were voting for him myself, I would have voted for him. But the problem is, I wasn't," she said. "The people that I represent said, 'Don't do it.' So, that's my job."

Walker issued a prepared statement thanking appointees who "stepped up to serve," and pointed out lawmakers confirmed 97 of the 98 nominated — though he didn't mention Phoenix by name.

A spokeswoman for Walker, Grace Jang, said the governor was disappointed by the vote.

"He appointed Drew because, like all the governor's nominees, he was the most qualified for his position," Jang said.

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com

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