Last Saturday, from within a thick cold-medicine haze, I had a pretty intense “Is this real life?” moment while viewing that week’s Alaska House Majority Press Availability. The presser is generally a lively back and forth between lawmakers and those tasked with covering them.
It’s a nice distraction from otherwise having to think about all the stuff that’s likely to pass this year.
Alaska’s state legislature is currently very red. The Governor is Republican. The 20 member Senate features a majority caucus of 14 Republicans and one Democrat. The 40 member lower body has the same three-fourths split in the form of a majority caucus comprising 21 Republicans and four Democrats (including one Democrat who switched parties after securing reelection).
This particular session highlighted the release of what the majority caucus called their “Guiding Principles.” Juneau Empire reporter Mark Miller asked the final question of the hour.
I’m looking at a recent Public Policy Polling survey of Alaska that found that only 30 percent of respondents believed there should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship in Alaska. I’m just curious — would the caucus support the idea of having domestic partnerships or civil unions open to same-sex couples?
It was unexpected. What happened next was more unexpected. Even in Alaska.
The House Majority chose to respond by laughing. Speaker of the House Mike Chenault thumped his fist on the table. Representative Craig Johnson (as Jeanne Devon pointed out) threw his head back and roared. Bob Lynn’s beard bounced as he giggled. As the chuckles rolled on, Majority Leader Lance Pruitt sarcastically said, “I don’t know if I saw that in our Guiding Principles.” A voice from off camera joked: “I didn’t see it in there.”
The laughter faded and Mr. Pruitt realized that there was a microphone in front of him. Clearly no one else wished to respond. He offered an uncomfortable minute long answer, which included: “I think what’s important about this caucus is that we focused on the things that really allow people to have a great life.”
I blinked. I sneezed. I blew my nose. My wife told me to go back to bed. I acquiesced. But, before retreating to the comforts of under-blanket-land, I posted the video on our youtube page and onto this site.
A lot of people watched it.
By the next day, House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt and Speaker Mike Chenault apologized in a written statement. Pruitt said:
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. It was a serious question; it is a serious issue – and it is not something the Caucus has taken a position on.
And he’s right. Laughter was not an appropriate response. And I’m glad that he acknowledged that the question Miller posed was a “serious question” about a “serious issue.”
I also think it’s important to note that last part, that “it’s not something the Caucus has taken a position on.”
As the Advocate noted in their coverage of the video:
LGBT people are not included in the state’s hate crimes law, or with an anti-discrimination law for the workplace or housing. No law addresses LGBT needs from the foster care or adoption system. And the law explictly limits recognition of couples to “one man and one woman.”
Despite coming very close to protecting LGBT in anti-discrimination laws two times in the past five years in Anchorage, the state has been silent.
Mark Miller’s question never got a sufficient answer. Not when it was asked, not when it was laughed at, and during the apology for the laughter.
The Caucus has now officially recognized that this is a serious issue and, also, has admitted that they have not yet taken a stand on it, one way or the other, or anywhere in between.
At the start of the press conference, Speaker Chenault introduced the caucus’s Guiding Principles’ by announcing that their intent was to “address some of the issues that we believe are important to Alaskans and some that are important to us and certainly there will be more legislation introduced at different times to try to address some of these needs.”
The session thus far has been flooded with bills about improving the quality of life for industry. Committees are arguing over how much money we should give back to oil companies and how much poop and copper we should green light cruise ships to dump in our waters. A nullification law, which would empower state officials to arrest federal agents enforcing nonexistent gun restrictions, found time to pass out of committee this week. We’ve had time to reintroduce the Stand Your Ground Law, a Voter ID law, an “Arm the Teachers!” law, and a proposed constitutional amendment that would open up public education funds to private and religious schools.
All before the end of the first month in a 90-day session.
Shouldn’t support of basic civil liberties – like domestic partnerships – rank somewhere above poop in the water?
There is plenty of model legislation out there. Ten states – plus DC – already have laws that can light the way for us. If Representative Mark Neuman can cut-and-paste ALEC legislation for Stand Your Ground Laws, surely a brave Alaskan officeholder can step up to the plate and find appropriate language to sculpt our own law granting same sex couples their due rights.
Support for the idea polls at 67 percent! Wouldn’t it be neat, for a change, to pass a law that was popular?
To the House Majority Caucus, I thank you for the apology. But, as a body, you chose to broach the topic by laughing in its face, and now the entire nation is watching. Apologies are easy. We need more than that. Our LGBT community deserves more. Take up the issue. Show us how you really feel. Don’t expect us to forgive you for embarrassing all of us, and yourselves, just because you sent us a card.
What was Governor Sean Parnell’s campaign slogan again? Oh, that’s right: “Actions, not words.”