Photo by Russ Reno, 2018.

Friday, April 6th, the math worked out for a campaign with history and precedent stacked against it. The 2018 Anchorage, Alaska municipal elections took place on the preceding Tuesday. And it would serve as the first time a bathroom bill, directly targeting the trans community and styled after controversial legislation signed into law by North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory two years ago, would be defeated by popular vote.

The municipal election was the city’s first vote-by-mail election; a Herculean switch that hit minor speed bumps – duplicate ballots, mail theft, and other setbacks – but ultimately not only worked: it broke every record on the books. Turnout to citywide elections, which generally hovers in the low 20-percentile range, surged to more than 36 percent. That edged out the previous record set back in 2012, when nearly 36 percent of voters cast ballots on a mayor’s race and a contentious ballot initiative attempting to extend equal protection under the law to LGBTQ residents.

The latter ended in a 15 point loss that continued government-sanctioned discrimination against Anchorage’s queer community. The former resulted in the reelection of Mayor Dan Sullivan, who vetoed an anti-discrimination ordinance passed by the Anchorage Assembly three years prior.

Sullivan followed in the footsteps of his father, former Mayor George Sullivan, who overturned the first and second anti-discrimination laws presented to, and passed by, the Assembly in 1975 and 1976. Both suffered the wrath of the veto pen. A third, watered down attempt came in 1993. That ordinance aimed to protect city employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation. It was vetoed by then-Mayor Tom Fink, overridden by the Assembly, and repealed after a conservative wave overtook the city’s legislative branch in the subsequent election.

In the time between, the state legislature passed a bill to add a constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality in 1998. It was adopted via a vote of the public the same year by a berth of 36 points. It wouldn’t be until a 2014 court case, Hamby v. Parnell, featuring five same-sex couples challenging the constitutionality of the prohibition, resulted in the ban being deemed unenforceable.

The issue largely remained dormant at the local level after a 2012 anti-discrimination proposal (Prop 5) crashed and burned via the popular vote. But, three years later, Sullivan was term-limited out of city hall. A divisive mayoral contest ensued between freshman Assembly member Amy Demboski, a conservative hailing from the conservative suburb of Eagle River, and Ethan Berkowitz, a former Democratic state legislator. LGBTQ rights became a campaign issue when a political action committee, the Alaska Republican Assembly Political Action Committee (ARAPAC), debuted pro-Demboski ads that pledged, “She WILL VETO ANY Homosexual Ordinance.”

The PAC’s chair, Daniel Hamm, defended the ads at the time, telling me, “Assemblywomen Demboski indicated to us that she supported traditional marriage and family as well as free religious expression and would be against such an ordinance that could be used by government to try to force people into adopting alternative lifestyles and simultaneously suppress free speech in churches.”

What’s a homosexual ordinance?” Berkowitz asked me during the campaign. I asked if he would support an anti-discrimination law. He said he would propose one, noting that he was in the state legislature when the constitutional ban was passed and vocally opposed it, adding, “I would like to be the first [Anchorage] mayor to officiate a gay wedding.”

He won the election by a handy 21 point victory and quickly made good on the campaign promise. The Anchorage Assembly passed Ordinance 96 in September of 2015, 9-2. Both dissenting votes were Assembly members from Eagle River, including Demboski. The bill also featured a new provision: the legal protections were expanded to recognize not only sexual orientation, but gender identity.

There was opposition. It was the same opposition that Prop 5 faced, and that the proposed ordinance in 2009 faced, and would be the same opposition that sponsored this year’s bathroom bill.

Jim Minnery is the president of the Alaska Family Council (AFC) – a conservative offshoot of Focus on the Family. AFC has been orchestrating a statewide opposition movement in Alaska since 2009. Minnery made his intent clear at the group’s annual fundraising dinner in 2015, when he said, Religious liberty is threatened by a new moral regime that exalts erotic liberty and personal autonomy and openly argues that religious liberties must give way to the new morality.”

Minnery’s wife, Kim, submitted a petition for a ballot initiative rolling back equal protections for trans residents of the municipality in April of last year. It was their third attempt, and it succeeded in fulfilling the requirements laid out in the Anchorage Charter. The language read, “Shall the Anchorage Municipal Code be amended to: protect the privacy of citizens by requiring that certain intimate facilities such as locker rooms, showers, changing rooms, and restrooms within municipal buildings be designated for and used only be persons of the same sex; and provide that private employers, public accommodations and other persons may lawfully choose to designate intimate facilities for use only by persons of the same sex?”

The municipal attorney, William Falsey, reluctantly approved the petition, noting that “The measure proposed in the application raises a number of significant legal and constitutional questions.”

It was nevertheless allowed to be added to the ballot, after the AFC-aligned backers acquired the needed signatures.

The ballot box has always been where the argument opposing equal rights for LGBTQ citizens wins. This time around seemed destined for the same fate. AFC resurfaced advertisements they had run during the 2015 Prop 5 debate, falsely stating that child care providers faced jail time for allowing cross-dressers to show up to work one day presenting as a man and the next a woman. In reality, there was never a threat of incarceration for offenders of any floated anti-discrimination proposals, and cross-dressing is in no way analogous with gender identity. But, it worked in 2015, so it was doled out once more this year.

Minnery also endured criticism for his last-minute campaign antics in 2015. He sent out an email to supporters falsely instructing them that Anchorage law permitted same-day voter registration and voting – which it has never.

Still, he benefited from an inarguable reality: There has never been a bill targeting a locality’s trans population that has been shot down by popular vote. It was supposed to be impossible.

Everyone told me that when I took the job,” Kati Ward told me. She was the campaign manager for Fair Anchorage, who opposed Prop One. “If you were going to leave it up to the polling, we were going to lose. If you left it up to the standards across the United States, and the fact that it has never won on a ballot, we were going to lose. But this was about the voice of the transgender community, and they just needed to be supported in a way that connected. And that’s exactly what they did.”

One of my closest friends came out to me in high school. I went to an extremely small high school [in Ohio] where we graduated with, like, 80 kids in a farm town where his mother told him not to come out because she was scared he was going to get the shit beat out of him,” she recollected. “There was just a connection there of recognizing a human for being a human, seeing their dignity, and just loving people for where they’re at.”

Despite the odds, she jumped at the chance to fight Prop One.

I thought I could help. I just really wanted to win,” she said.

The vote-by-mail change upended the tradition of the slow trickle of votes pouring in from all corners of the municipality. On Tuesday night, shortly before nine, 55,000 votes were posted online. And Prop One was down just short of 4,000 votes. By Thursday, 71,000 votes were processed, and the measure suffered a similar deficit. With 8,700 votes still to be counted, Prop One would have needed roughly 73 percent of the remaining ballots to turn the tide in their favor. Friday’s tally proved that impossible when the votes tally jumped to almost 78,000 and the opposition to the measure’s advantage.

“You probably know that initial results released last night show us falling short of our goal to pass Proposition 1,” Minnery responded in an email to supporters, noting that there were still ballots left to be counted, but conceding, “It’s not unreasonable to hope for that. But it’s also reasonable to think we may yet fall short.”

The municipality has yet to officially declare the results,” Ward countered in a press release. “But with the NO campaign leading by 40,378 vote, and the YES campaign trailing behind by 36,234 votes with approximately less than 1,000 ballots left to count, the campaign has declared it nearly impossible for Proposition 1 to pass.”

Anchorage Ordinance 96 stays intact. As do full legal protections for LGBTQ Alaskans living in Anchorage, while the state legislature avoids adjudicating a statewide anti-discrimination despite proposals being introduced every session for more than a decade. Ethan Berkowitz was reelected handily by 56 percent of the electorate, where he will continue to enjoy a 9-2 liberal advantage on the Assembly, including the first two openly gay members in the city’s history. And Anchorage just went on the record as the first jurisdiction to ever vote down a measure, by popular vote, specifically targeting transgender citizens’ rights.


About John Aronno

Posted: June 22, 2011 in Uncategorized
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John Aronno is a columnist at The Anchorage Press, a freelance writer, and was a co-founder, managing editor, and award winning political writer at Alaska Commons. Aronno has had his work featured in The Huffington Post, The Alaska Dispatch, and The Rachel Maddow Show, and is listed among the state’s top reporters on The Washington Post’s “The Fix.” He lives in Anchorage, Alaska with his wife, Heather Aronno, and a lot of pets.