Home Statewide Politics Pete Kelly and the Return of the “Holier-Than-Thou” Caucus

Pete Kelly and the Return of the “Holier-Than-Thou” Caucus

Image courtesy of GavelAlaska, 360north.org
Image courtesy of GavelAlaska, 360north.org

Senator Pete Kelly (R-Fairbanks) is back in national headlines. This time, it’s due to his announcement of a ‘War on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder’; a worthy cause, but the manner in which he proposed it, during an interview with Anchorage Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins, is turning heads.

In a four-and-a-half minute interview, posted on Youtube, Kelly proposed making pregnancy tests available in bar bathrooms to combat FASD.

“Literally, you can go into the bathroom at the bar and test,” Kelly told Hopkins. “So, if you’re drinking, if you’re out on the big birthday celebration, and you’re kind of like, ‘gee, I wonder if i…’ you can just go into the bathroom and there should be a plastic, plexiglass bowl in there.”

The theory, of course, being that should a bar patron test positive, she would then pour out her drink, bring the child to term, and mom and child would live happily ever after. That’s how it works, right?

Hopkins asked if birth control would be offered alongside the state-funded bathroom-stall-pregnancy-tests, to which Kelly shook his head: “No, because the thinking is a little bit opposite. [Providing free pregnancy tests] assumes that if you know, you’ll act responsible. Birth control is for people who don’t necessarily want to act responsibly.”

Following up, Hopkins asked: “Isn’t the act of using birth control, in itself, acting responsible?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” Kelly answered, later adding, “That’s a level of social engineering that we don’t want to get into.”

The Fairbanks Republican’s inclination to attach personal morality to adjudicate what is or isn’t a constitutional right is not something new. Over ten years ago, former Anchorage Daily News reporter and state legislator Mike Doogan awarded Kelly the not-so-affectionate nickname “Pious Pete,” the “leading member of the Holier-Than-Thou Caucus, a group of religious right lawmakers who won’t rest until they replace the Alaska Statutes with the Bible.” [1]

This moniker came after a 2001 Alaska Supreme Court ruling in State of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services v. Planned Parenthood. The court found, unanimously, that state regulations barring payment for abortions defined as medically necessary along economic lines were unconstitutional.

“Once the state undertakes to fund medically necessary services for poor Alaskans, it may not selectively exclude from that program women who medically require abortions,” Chief Justice Dana Fabe wrote in the decision, finding that such exclusivity violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause.

She made clear that Alaska’s strong constitutional right to privacy was not open to legislative redress.

At the time, Kelly was sponsoring a bill which sought to limit that very right in the very manner — legislatively — explicitly denied by the court, to exclude “benefits based on a person’s domestic partnership with another person that is not a legal marriage to the other person” (read: the gay) and state-funded abortions.

Kelly was less than enthused about the court’s ruling, and he’s been on a legislative warpath since then.

”You may have a constitutional right to a lot of things (including abortion), but that doesn’t mean I have to subsidize it,” Kelly was quoted as saying in the same 2001 ADN editorial. If the state has to pay for abortions, ”does that mean we have to pay for braces too?”

And again, the following year, he said: “I am not sure why the Centers for Disease Control is not up here with gas masks and rubber suits trying to figure out why women in this state can’t be pregnant here without having some horrible medical problems.” [2]

A month later, he complained again: ”You go into a doctor and say, ‘Gee, I’m feeling stressed out about this baby’ and bingo — you have elective abortions.” [3]

Ten years later and he’s still trying to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision, and he’s quite content using any Machiavellian strategy he can dream up.

”These people seem not to be able to read our constitution,” he told ADN’s Molly Brown after the court ruling, referring to the Supreme Court justices. ”I guess we’ll have to amend it and make it more clear.” [4]

This session, Kelly has decided to put the three-quarters Republican majorities in the house and senate to work on those amendments. He’s the primary sponsor of SJR21, which would double the public membership on the state’s Judicial Council, the body responsible for submitting qualified nominees to the governor for judicial appointments.

As I wrote last month:

At the heart of the matter is not Kelly’s objection to the Judicial Council. It’s an objection to abortion, and to a court that keeps upholding women’s reproductive rights.

Kelly is expanding the legislature and governor’s power over the last check and balance to the GOP left in state government. He’s trying to create an ideological imbalance in order to tip the scales in his favor. The overtly political tactic, generally and rightfully abhorred by conservatives in particular, is Kelly’s prescription to get around the rule of law.

In addition, Kelly supports SB49, which once again seeks to define what constitutes a medically necessary abortion, and severely limits a physician’s ability do reach that conclusion. SB49 would strip a doctor’s current ability to declare the termination of a pregnancy for medical reasons relating to a mental condition, instead restricting the term to 22 black and white physical conditions. That bill passed the senate last session, and resurfaced this year when the House Finance committee stripped out a family planning amendment offered by Senate Democrats.

The language, as it stands, would have an uphill battle if challenged by the court.

So Kelly, moral indignation and awkward Youtube exchanges in tow, is looking to make sure that the legislature can make political, ideological appointments to the bench to prepare for when that challenge comes. Checks, balances, the separation of powers, and the rule of law be damned. Just like he’s been doing for more than a decade.

Friday evening, Senator Kelly responded to criticisms of his most recent ADN interview by taking to Facebook:

Most Democrats I know are highly supportive of our War on FASD, and I count on and appreciate their support. But of course there are always going to be people who can only criticize. They have no vision, no answers, nothing. Instead they take pot shots at those who are actually trying to do something. Turing an attempt to deal with the tragedy of FASD into such disgusting politics is pathetic.

None of the criticism I’ve seen have anything to do with Kelly’s legitimate goal of combating FASD. The objections, more accurately, are to his unorthodox methodology and strange understanding of the concept (and price) of birth control. The two shouldn’t be confused or lumped together, nor should Kelly’s views be seen as something isolated to his office in Juneau. These are distinctly Alaska Republican Majority problems.

I’d encourage Kelly to look again at the family planning amendment his caucus stripped from SB49. He could also look at Rep. Geran Tarr’s (D-Anchorage) bill, HB233, aimed at requiring school districts “to develop age-appropriate sexual abuse and assault awareness and prevention education in grades kindergarten through 12.”  It’s a travesty that Tarr’s bill was featured on CNN before the legislature held a hearing on it.

Those don’t seem like examples of a lack of vision or “disgusting politics”; they seem like ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies, and are in line with requests from the Alaska Association of Student Governments.

And maybe they would result in fewer bar patrons pissing on state-funded plexiglass bowls in bathroom stalls.



1: “Is the Constitution too complex for Pious Pete? Or just in his way?” Mike Doogan, Anchorage Daily News, 8/3/2001.

2: Alaska Ear, Anchorage Daily News, 5/12/2002.

3: “Legislature says it’s pro-life, but it endangers lives of women,” Anna Franks, Anchorage Daily News, 6/20/2002.

4: “Unaminous justices find abortion rule unconstitutional,” Molly Brown, Anchorage Daily News, 7/28/2001.