Legislature approves all but one of Walker’s cabinet picks

Hollis French addresses a joint session of the Alaska Legislature in 2014. The former senator was approved for an Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission seat at a similar session Tuesday. (Photo by Skip Gray/Gavel Alaska)

The Legislature approved Gov. Bill Walker’s appointment of Hollis French to serve on the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Tuesday. French, who served on the commission since July, was confirmed by a 35 to 24 vote.

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Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara said he couldn’t imagine a more qualified commissioner.

“He’s served with honesty for much of the past year,” Gara said of French, a former state senator and oil worker. “And he’s served with perhaps more experience than any public member who’s ever been recommended for the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.”

Eagle River Republican Sen. Anna MacKinnon voted against French’s appointment. She said French wrongly tried to get the commission jurisdiction over a recent gas leak in Cook Inlet.

“He should not be advocating for additional jurisdiction from his position,” she said. “He should bring a concern to the Department of Law and let the administration move forward if they believe through the legislative process that there should be additional responsibilities given to AOGCC.”

MacKinnon also said French wrongly claimed that energy companies Hilcorp and Armstrong endorsed his appointment.

The Legislature approved 100 other Walker appointments, including Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth.

Drew Phoenix (Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage)

The only rejected appointment was Drew Phoenix for the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights. Phoenix has served as a member of the State Commission for Human Rights since February. He’s also a transgender man.  His appointment was defeated, 35 to 24.

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Phoenix said the vote is disheartening.

“Sadly, I think today it’s obvious that I was discriminated against because I’m a transgender man — based on that and not on my qualifications,” Phoenix said.

Phoenix thanked Walker for having faith in his qualifications, and said the vote doesn’t reflect on most Alaskans.

North Pole Republican Senator John Coghill voted against Phoenix.  He cited Phoenix’s history as an advocate. Phoenix has worked for the ACLU of Alaska Foundation and LGBT advocacy organization Identity Alaska.

“When you’re an advocate, you’re pushing for a policy call,” Coghill said. “When you’re within that commission, you’re looking out for people more evenhandedly. And I couldn’t get the comfort level that that would be the case in the Human Rights Commission with Drew.”

Anchorage Democratic Representative Ivy Spohnholz supported Phoenix.

“To see people vote down a very strong candidate for such thinly veiled reasons today was nothing short of, just, discrimination,” Spohnholz said.

Conservatives expressed concern about the commission in November, when it raised the possibility of interpreting the state ban on sex discrimination to include gender identity and sexual orientation.

Phoenix said the vote shows there’s much work left to do. He says people change their ideas about transgender people when they get to know him.

“Transgender ceases to be a word and becomes an individual, who has values like they have. I’m a religious person, I’m Christian, they’re Christian,” Phoenix said. “You know, I love my family, I believe in working hard and contributing to the community. And we all share the same values, and that’s how we learn to connect and learn to relate.”

All but two Republicans voted against Phoenix: Kodiak Senator Gary Stevens and Homer Representative Paul Seaton. Democratic lawmakers voted for Phoenix, with the exceptions of Golovin Senator Donny Olson, Bethel Senator Lyman Hoffman and Kotzebue Representative Dean Westlake. House independents Jason Grenn of Anchorage and Daniel Ortiz of Ketchikan voted for Phoenix.

Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.

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