Human Rights Commission appointment draws conservative ire

Drew Phoenix in 2012. Gov. Bill Walker appointed him to the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights. (Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA)

The Senate voted Wednesday to delay a joint session on whether to confirm Gov. Bill Walker’s appointments.

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When the hearing does happen, one of Walker’s appointments to the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights potentially faces a close vote.

Conservative lawmakers are raising questions about the appointment of Fairbanks resident Drew Phoenix to the Human Rights Commission.

The commission drew concern from conservatives in November, when it raised the possibility of interpreting the state ban on sex discrimination to include gender identity and sexual orientation.

Senate President Pete Kelly said the commission is wrong to include protections that lawmakers didn’t intend.

“It seems they’re planning to usurp the Legislature’s authority,” Kelly said during a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “I just want to know if we’re going to add another person to the Human Rights Commission that holds views that are out of step with the rest of Alaska.”

Phoenix, a transgender man, has served as executive director of the LGBT advocacy organization Identity Alaska and a fundraiser and spokesman for the ACLU of Alaska Foundation. He said commission members apply existing state law and he would do the same.

“I’m a firm believer that the better able we are to eliminate any threat of discrimination for individuals, the better off our entire state will be in terms of peace and safety and economic and healthy well-being,” Phoenix said.

Phoenix is sympathetic with the commission’s position on who’s covered by sex discrimination.

And all four members of the public who testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Phoenix’s appointment supported him.

The Rev. Martin Eldred, pastor of Joy Lutheran Church in Eagle River, said Phoenix is able to reach out to those on both sides of disputes. Phoenix is an ordained Methodist minister.

“I think Drew does a good job of educating in a gentle way,” Eldred said. “He’s a good friend. He’s a colleague. I think he could only help our state.”

It’s not clear when the confirmation session will occur.

While state law says the session should end on Sunday, the state constitution allows it to continue until May 17.