Native leaders, Juneau legislators and others rallied on the steps of the Capitol Friday to try to move a bill adding a second verse to the Alaska state song from committee.
The state song, the “Alaska Flag Song,” honors the state flag, while the long-sought addition of a second verse honors the flag’s designer, 13-year-old Benny Benson, and the contribution of Native people to the state.
A bill adding the second verse has been on the agenda of the Juneau legislative delegation for decades.
It appeared this session to be on its way to approval, with easy passage by the Senate last year, and strong approval by two House committees after that.
Then, House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, gave the bill an extra committee referral, to the Judiciary Committee chaired by Rep. Carl Gatto, a staunch opponent of the second verse.
Now, Gatto is fending off allegations that his actions were racially motivated.
Chenault said Friday he sent the bill to the Judiciary Committee to clear up copyright issues with the song.
The verse’s writer, Alaska poet laureate Carol Beery Davis, gifted the copyright for her lyrics to the University of Alaska Foundation so they’d remain public. Marie Drake wrote the song’s first verse.
Gatto said after the Friday rally that the referral to Judiciary was legitimate, as there are important copyright issues to be looked into. No hearing into those issues has been held since, Gatto said, because he wasn’t going go let it pass anyway.
“I could have a hearing, but I do not intended to pass it out of Judiciary,” he said.
Legislative committee chairs have wide latitude to decide which bills to move forward and which to hold, and sometimes use that to kill legislation unilaterally.
At the rally, Nancy Barnes, chief of staff to Sen. Albert Kookesh, D-Angoon, urged House leaders to allow a vote.
“We just want to get it to the House floor for a vote, up or down,” she said.
That’s a call that’s been made repeatedly by Juneau legislators over the years. Former Rep. Fran Ulmer, D-Juneau, first introduced second-verse legislation 26 years ago, as did Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, more recently.
“Growing up in Juneau you couldn’t help but support the second verse,” said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, and a co-sponsor along with Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau. Both spoke at the rally.
Munoz took music lessons from Davis all though her school years.
“She was a wonderful Alaskan, she was a great advocate for the community and she really shares the Native culture and history of this land,” Munoz said.
Both Ulmer and Weyhrauch succeeded in winning House passage, before it died in the Senate. This time, as has happened before, the second-verse bill won Senate passage but appears to be destined to die in the House.
Gatto acknowledged the bill isn’t stalled because of the copyright issues, but said it’s not because he’s racist either.
“That song is just a clunker,” he said.
It’s almost impossible to sing because nobody can reach the soprano levels that would make it beautiful, he said.
It is not in the best interest of Natives or anyone else to add it to the “Alaska Flag Song,” he said.
“You couldn’t want to honor Natives any more than I do, but this is a terrible way to do it,” he said.
Standing in the way of the bill has led to allegations he’s racist, he said.
“I’ve been called a racist, absolutely,” Gatto said, “I don’t care, I just ignore it.”
Gatto listed a number of Native friends he’s had since moving to Alaska and said none of them called him racist.
“Just give me an example, one example, where I’ve done something that’s anti-Native,” he said.
The Alaska Native Sisterhood’s Connie Munro told the rally that this was the year to adopt the second verse. Munro said the song was a gift to the state that was meant to recognize the first Alaskans.
Davis’ daughter, Connie Davis, was tireless in advocating for the second-verse, before her death earlier this year.
“Now is the time to pass this,” Munro said, “We have to get this through, we’re all Alaskans.”
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.