A pair of high-profile Christian conservatives have waded into Anchorage's nonpartisan mayoral election, saying they want a chief executive who will serve as a firewall against a possible city ordinance protecting LGBT residents' rights.
Two local Christian leaders said in interviews Tuesday that they feared the Anchorage Assembly was ready to enact an ordinance modeled on a failed 2012 voter initiative to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation. One of the two candidates, Amy Demboski, has said she would veto such a measure, while the other, Ethan Berkowitz, has said he would sign it.
But others involved in Anchorage politics -- including the current mayor, Dan Sullivan -- say social issues are peripheral to a campaign that should instead be focused on the city's nuts and bolts, from crime to taxation to fiscal responsibility.
The recent discussion about LGBT rights "could be an effort to distract and divide Anchorage," Berkowitz said in a phone interview Tuesday.
"It's a sign of desperation and it's very disappointing," he said. "The job of the mayor is to bring the city together, to grow the economy, and that's going to be the focus of what I do."
Demboski's campaign did not respond to an interview request.
Berkowitz's response comes after he was attacked in a Facebook post Sunday by a prominent local pastor, the Rev. Jerry Prevo of the Anchorage Baptist Temple, a frequent supporter of Republican candidates. In the post, Prevo referenced a recent opinion piece published by Louisiana's Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, headlined: "I'm Holding Firm Against Gay Marriage."
"This is the kind of mayor we need for Anchorage on May 5," wrote Prevo, using all capital letters and referencing the date of the runoff election. "Not one like Ethan Berkowitz who supports same-sex marriage and ordinances that will take away the rights of those who do not agree with him."
Berkowitz, a Democrat and former state legislator, is pro-choice and has said he would support an ordinance like the 2012 voter initiative, Proposition 5. The measure would have added protections for city residents against discrimination based on "sexual orientation or transgender identity," but voters rejected it.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Prevo said his Facebook post was "not a distraction" and added that measures like Proposition 5 "take away religious liberties of people." He said bakers, for example, should have the right to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
"Any time we're going to lose religious liberty -- which this country was founded upon -- that's more important than any other issue," Prevo said.
But any city ordinance would have to conform to the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment and the Alaska Constitution, both of which guarantee religious liberties.
Another conservative Christian group, Alaska Family Action, has raised some $20,000 for a campaign in support of Demboski. The group's leader, Jim Minnery, said that figure could grow to $50,000 before the election -- some of which could be used for attacks on Berkowitz.
Minnery said in a phone interview that his group has been watching recent battles over religious freedom laws in places like Arkansas and Indiana and expects the Assembly to take up a new ordinance modeled on Proposition 5.
"The Assembly is going to be definitely introducing that again," Minnery said. "And so we want a mayor that is aligned with us, to be able to prevent that from happening."
Two Assembly members who have supported equal rights measures, however, said they were unaware of an effort to resurrect Proposition 5.
Assemblywoman Elvi Gray-Jackson, who represents Midtown, said in a phone interview Tuesday that she had "no idea" about such a push. And Assemblyman Patrick Flynn, who represents downtown Anchorage and Mountain View and sponsored an equal rights ordinance that Sullivan vetoed in 2009, said he hasn't heard a "whisper" about a new equal rights measure.
Efforts by conservative Christians to raise the profile of social issues in the mayoral election amount to a "political and fundraising tool," Flynn said in a phone interview.
"Those issues have great symbolic importance to a certain segment of the population," Flynn said. "But they fundamentally have no significant effect on the economics and management of the city."
Anti-discrimination legislation, however, hasn't been invoked solely by religious groups. The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce picked it as one of three topics at a mayoral debate Monday, with Demboski citing political fights over similar legislation elsewhere around the country and referring to a "war on Christianity."
Sullivan, the current mayor, said his own campaigns were more focused on "bread-and-butter stuff" like energy, taxes, and fiscal responsibility. He added that the chamber "blew it, quite frankly," by choosing to focus on anti-discrimination legislation, as well as a labor ordinance Sullivan pushed through the Assembly that voters rejected at the polls last year.
"I just think the public deserves a more focused debate on what's really important to Joe Citizen," Sullivan said in a phone interview. "And I think that's getting good services, keeping property taxes under control and making sure we keep our status as one of the top cities in the world."
Andrew Halcro, who came in third place in the first round of mayoral balloting earlier this month, promoted tolerance and equality in his former job as president of the Anchorage chamber.
He said similar issues are relevant to the mayoral campaign, like equal access to housing. But the recent focus by Christian conservatives and some Republicans on social issues, he added, are "a bunch of scare tactics" stemming from fears about their preferred candidate, Demboski.
"When the party nominates a candidate that has really questionable qualifications, or little or no business history, they tend to migrate towards the culture wars," Halcro said in a phone interview. "The mayor has really no ability to impact same-sex marriage rights or abortion rights -- a mayor has as much to do with these policies as they do with the price of tea in China."
Prevo, the Anchorage Baptist Temple's chief pastor, said Halcro's argument was inaccurate.
"This is a legitimate issue that concerns enough people in this town that they voted it down," he said, referring to voters' strong rejection of Proposition 5 in 2012, 57 percent to 43 percent. "This is not an issue to sidetrack the key issue."