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House majority leadership apologizes for laughter

Response came to question from Empire on gay unions

Posted: February 19, 2013 - 1:10am

Two Alaska legislators Monday released a joint statement to apologize for and explain the reaction of many of their caucus’ members to a an unexpected question Friday about gay rights issues.

Several members of the House majority caucus, including Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, laughed Friday when asked a question by the Juneau Empire’s reporter about whether the caucus would support domestic partnerships or civil unions for same-sex couples.

That response — more than the answer from House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, that the caucus had not discussed the issue and does not consider it part of their “guiding principles” this year — caught the attention of local and national blogs — many of which showed a video clip of the question and response while suggesting the laughter demonstrated disrespect to the gay community or supporters of same-sex unions.

On Monday morning, Chenault and Pruitt released their joint statement.

“I would like to make two things clear: laughter was not an appropriate response under any circumstances, and we regret and apologize for the reaction to that question,” said Pruitt in the statement. “It was a serious question; it is a serious issue — and it is not something the Caucus has taken a position on.”

“I completely agree: laughter was inappropriate,” Chenault added in the statement. “However, it’s clear from the totality of the response and circumstances the laughter was in reaction to which legislator had to field the difficult question, and did not go to the merits of the issue. Regardless, laughter was not appropriate and for that we sincerely apologize.”

The Empire posed the question due to a recent survey by Raleigh, N.C.-based Public Policy Polling that found 67 percent of Alaskan respondents favor some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples — either marriage, which the poll also found a narrow majority oppose, or civil unions ­— and just 30 percent oppose legal recognition altogether.

The PPP survey was conducted on Feb. 4 and Feb. 5 and sampled registered voters in Alaska. The results on same-sex unions were released Feb. 8.

Pruitt said the statement was released Monday to clear up “misunderstanding” as to the legislators’ laughter.

“We felt that there was a misunderstanding in the public as to what took place last week,” Pruitt said. “We were trying to talk about our guiding principles, and I think that became a distraction from our guiding principles.”

Pruitt added, “Obviously, there’s times when you have to step back and go, ‘All right, if somebody took this not in the manner that it was (intended) and they misunderstood, well, we need to step up and apologize for the misunderstanding.’”

Pruitt also said the question was unexpected, which he said may have prompted some of the laughter.

“It caught everyone off-guard,” said Pruitt. “We were talking about our guiding principles. It was almost kind of out of left field. Everyone wasn’t expecting it. So I think there was a little bit of humor as well as, ‘All right, it’s a tough one. Who’s going to take a question?’ Because whoever answers it, it doesn’t matter which side of the issue you are, it’s always a tough question.”

As to whether the issue will be discussed in the caucus now, Pruitt said he does not know.

“We’ll probably talk about the meeting, especially if we’re going to probably address the issue of laughing,” Pruitt said. “I don’t know. If someone wants to bring it up, then we can have the discussion. But at this point, I don’t know.”

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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