Alaska House censures Rep. Eastman for comments about the economic ‘benefit’ of child abuse deaths

a man frowning
Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, sits in a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. Eastman was censured by the Alaska House of Representatives on Wednesday after a motion from Rep. Andrew Gray, D-Anchorage, at background. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

The Alaska House of Representatives voted almost unanimously Wednesday to reprimand Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, for speculating the state could financially benefit if child abuse victims died of their abuse.

Eastman’s remarks, which he said were intended to criticize some arguments in favor of abortion rights, spread on social media, contributing to a public outcry.

The House’s 35-1 vote to censure Eastman — the lone vote against the measure came from Eastman himself — marks the third time the controversial Wasilla Republican has been reprimanded by the House. The House previously censured him in 2017. One year later, the House Ethics Committee found he violated state ethics law.

A censure vote like Wednesday’s has no consequences other than putting a formal statement of disapproval or reprimand on the record.

“Censuring does nothing to discipline Eastman, or any other elected official,” said former Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, R-Wasilla, on Twitter, noting that Republican Party resolutions censuring U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and state Sen. Kelly Merrick had no effect.

But some sitting lawmakers said their vote should be considered an action, not mere words.

“Actions speak louder than words, and look at the board. I’m not much of a talker. I’m an act-er,” said Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, when asked why he voted in favor of censure.

 Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, sits beneath a voting board that displays the motion to censure him on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023, in the Alaska House of Representatives. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Wednesday’s action comes in response to comments during a Monday hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. Legislators there were examining how adverse childhood experiences – or ACEs – such as physical and sexual abuse, can affect people throughout their lives.

According to a presentation from Alaska Children’s Trust, that abuse creates millions of dollars in costs to individuals and society. 

Could a child dying from abuse actually benefit society, Eastman asked hypothetically.

“It can be argued, periodically, that it’s actually a cost savings because that child is not going to need any of those government services that they might otherwise be entitled to receive and need based on growing up in this type of environment,” he said.

Afterward, Eastman said he didn’t intend to seriously make that argument. His intent was to point out its ridiculousness and contrast it with economic arguments in favor of abortion. 

For parts of Monday’s presentation, the Children’s Trust discussed how conditions present in a family before a child is born can determine how many adverse childhood experiences that child will have.

Eastman said he believed the group was offering an economic argument for abortion.

“You have a group that’s come to the Legislature and argued that it’s in the best interest of society and the public and the state to prevent unwanted pregnancies … And now they come on Monday, and the same organization is arguing that, again, they want funding to prevent the very child abuse that they are empowered and focused on preventing. If we are to honor that request, then why is it that they are also asking for us to spend money to end the lives of the very children that they’re seeking to protect?” Eastman said.

The Alaska Children’s Trust has taken no position on abortion, and it has no plans to do so, said Trevor Storrs, its director.

Monday’s discussion was about how things like removing lead and asbestos from housing, things unrelated to children themselves, can reduce harm. 

“It had zero — zero to do about supporting and saying that abortion is a way of preventing ACEs, saving money, or anything of that nature. Abortion wasn’t even on the table,” Storrs said.

During Monday’s hearing, neither Storrs nor Eastman’s fellow legislators understood his comment because the issue of abortion never arose; Eastman never made the analogy he subsequently said he intended.

“He could have explained himself,” said Rep. Julie Coulombe, R-Anchorage.

She has an adopted son and was fired up about Eastman’s comment, but she said she also understands that sometimes, a legislator misspeaks or makes themselves misunderstood. 

In this case, there was no explanation, either in committee or on the House floor Wednesday, when Rep. Andrew Gray, D-Anchorage and a member of the judiciary committee, proposed censuring Eastman on the fourth anniversary of the day Gray and his husband adopted their son from foster care.

“He has brought great shame on this House. It is incumbent on all of us to do something. We cannot allow such atrocious, indefensible language to go undenounced,” Gray said. 

Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer and the chair of the judiciary committee, briefly objected to Gray’s censure motion. 

She called Eastman’s comments “messy and insensitive” but said the issue should have been addressed in committee and that legislators have the right to free speech.

Vance subsequently withdrew her objection and voted in support of the censure. Asked why she changed her position, she said, “They got what they wanted. I hope they’re happy.”

The actions on the floor speak for themselves, Speaker of the House Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, said through a spokesperson. 

Gray declined further comment after the vote, saying only that his next action would be to attend a meeting of the judiciary committee, where he sits next to Eastman.

 The voting board in the Alaska House of Representatives on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023, shows the tally of votes for and against a motion to censure Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

Previous articleAnchorage School Board passes a budget that largely relies on savings and one-time funds
Next articleAlaska News Nightly: Wednesday, February 22, 2023