Legislature rejects transgender man for Human Rights Commission

Drew Phoenix was the only person rejected from more than 100 nominees by Gov. Bill Walker

In this March 30, 2012, photo, Drew Phoenix, left, speaks to a reporter in Anchorage. (Rachel D’Oro | Associated Press File)

The Alaska Legislature has refused to confirm the appointment of a transgender Fairbanks man to the state’s human rights commission.


The Legislature, meeting in joint session Tuesday, refused the confirmation of Drew Phoenix by a 24-35 margin. Phoenix was the only person among more than 100 gubernatorial nominees to not receive legislative confirmation during a marathon 4 ½-hour floor session.

While the state of Alaska does not keep statistics on such matters, the Empire believes Phoenix would have been the first transgender individual in an Alaska appointive or elective position. Human rights commission members are unpaid.

“Like all my nominees, Drew Phoenix was the most qualified for the position,” Gov. Walker told KTUU-TV through a statement by spokeswoman Grace Jang. “I thank him for putting his name forward, and for his willingness to serve.”

Phoenix’s appointment by Gov. Bill Walker was opposed by Alaska’s social conservatives, most notably the organization known as both Alaska Family Council and Alaska Family Action.

“AK Leg protects religious freedom and rights of conscience. Votes down transgender activist to sit on AK Human Rights Commission. Good job !” tweeted Jim Minnery, president of Alaska Family Action, after the vote.

Lawmakers who spoke on the floor said they didn’t oppose Phoenix because he is transgender, but because of his past work with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Rep. Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, said the “ACLU’s job is to sometimes push us beyond what we feel is in our laws and in our statutes, and to challenge.”

The mission of the Alaska Human Rights Commission, enshrined in state statute, is to “eliminate and prevent discrimination” within the law.

“I feel that those two are in conflict,” Johnston said.

Her comments were echoed by Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole.

“There’s no problem with being an advocate … until you get on that commission,” he said, adding that during confirmation hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Coghill didn’t feel he got a clear answer as to whether Phoenix would limit his actions to what the law specifically allows.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, rejected the arguments laid out by Coghill and Johnston and implied that opposition came specifically because Phoenix is transgender.

“Mr. Phoenix is trangender. Everybody in this body knows that. That’s the thing people don’t want to talk about. He makes no secret about it, and I don’t think we should judge him about it,” Wielechowski said.

Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, said opponents of Phoenix’s appointment don’t have a “legitimate” argument.

“I’ve had the most vile, the most reprehensible, the most intolerant conversations with people about this person, and it’s not because of his resume. It’s simply because they hate him,” Kawasaki said. “I find that incredibly wrong. I think a person should stand on their merits.”

Following the vote, the ACLU issued a statement calling the Legislature’s vote “troubling.”

“We sincerely hope these legislators do some soul searching and rethink their position on transgender issues going forward,” the organization said.

Entering Tuesday’s hearing, Phoenix’s appointment was expected to be a sidebar to a fight over the confirmation of attorney general Jahna Lindemuth. That fight never emerged; Lindemuth was confirmed by a 52-7 margin, and Walker’s appointees for the Department of Natural Resources (Andy Mack) and Department of Public Safety (Walt Monegan) were confirmed by even larger margins.

The Alaska Legislature needed 4 ½ hours to consider all of the governor’s nominees, but objections were raised to only 19, not counting the three cabinet appointees, for whom a vote is mandatory.

Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, was the lone objector to many of the opposed nominees. Asked about his objections to the three appointees to the board of barbers and hairdressers, he said he asked his constituents which nominees he should support or oppose, and he was happy to follow their wishes.

Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, raised objections to two of the three appointees to the Marijuana Control Board, while Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, objected to the third. All three were confirmed, though Kawasaki’s objection to Soldotna Police Chief Peter Mlynarik on the board was the closest vote, at 45-14. (Mlynarik has said he is supporting an effort to ban commercial marijuana sales in the Kenai Peninsula Borough.)

Former state senator Hollis French was confirmed to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in a 35-24 vote after a procedural move was defeated.

House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, alleged that the move ─ an attempt to move French’s nomination to the bottom of the agenda ─ was a political maneuver, and it was defeated by two votes. According to a legal analysis provided by the legislature’s nonpartisan legal department, any nominees not confirmed by the Legislature before the constitutional end of the regular session are considered rejected.

On the floor, Tuck said the Republican-led Senate Majority, in collusion with the Republican House Minority, was colluding to move controversial votes to the bottom of the agenda, then adjourn the joint session before they could be voted upon.

With the defeat of the procedural move, French received his confirmation vote, and the joint session proceeded to an end about 5:30 p.m.

Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com or call 419-7732.



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