Ross had drawn fire for characterization of gays as ‘immoral,’ ‘degenerate’
JUNEAU, Alaska — A man praised by some for his integrity and denounced by others for his intolerance will not be Alaska’s top lawyer after the state Legislature on Thursday, April 16, in an unprecedented move, rejected Gov. Sarah Palin’s nominee Wayne Anthony Ross for state attorney general.
The 35-23 vote of the joint House and Senate was the first time in the state’s 50-year history that legislators have failed to confirm a governor’s cabinet appointment. It’s the latest clash between lawmakers and the governor since she became a national figure as the GOP’s vice presidential nominee last year.
"I think right now he’s too controversial," said House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, one of nine Republicans to vote with all 26 Democrats against Ross. "Alaska doesn’t need more controversy. We need a steadying influence."
Ross, the current director of the National Rifle Association, drew fire in part for his past characterization of gays as "immoral" and "degenerate" and opposition from Alaska Native groups because he opposes the federal law granting a rural preference for subsistence hunting and fishing.
"The governor honored me by choosing me and I would have done a good job. I would have enjoyed representing the people of the state of Alaska," Ross said following the vote. "I got up this morning, I said ‘Lord, whatever you got in mind is fine’ and he let us know what he had in mind."
Palin was traveling to an anti-abortion fundraiser in Indiana on Thursday and was not present for the vote.
"I believed I knew what Alaskans wanted when I selected an individual who is a strong backer of Second Amendment rights, a staunch supporter of the state Constitution and a defender of life," Palin said in a statement.
"I’m surprised that legislators in this case really did not seem to represent their constituents and allowed themselves to be swayed by side issues," Palin said.
Since his appointment last month, Ross also ran into trouble with some lawmakers when he waded into the fray between Palin and Senate Democrats over filling Juneau’s vacant state Senate seat. He said Democrats should fill the seat without arguing about whether it was legal or illegal.
Ross declined to speculate if his most recent actions tipped the balance against him but flashed his trademark sense of humor as he looked back over his short tenure with the Department of Law.
"I had a really neat office for two and a half weeks," Ross said. "The big question I have now is whether they will put my picture up with the others for only two and a half weeks service."
Ross is a former two-time candidate for governor and served as an honorary co-chairman of Palin’s successful 2006 gubernatorial bid.
Almost two dozen lawmakers, many of them friends and neighbors of Ross, rose to speak to his confirmation.
Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said Ross may be "much too candid for his own good" and suggested he add the initials T.S. to the license plate on his red Hummer that sports his initials, W.A.R.
But Huggins concluded that "with a little more restraint and a little less candor, he’ll probably be a very good attorney general."
Anchorage Republican Rep. Mike Hawker praised Ross for the zeal he has shown in his decades-long private practice, "the same zeal that has made him bigger than life, has drawn fire and defended fire, that zeal will now be directed at pursuing the interests of the state of Alaska," Hawker said.
But that zeal was troubling to Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, who said Ross’ past comments, such as describing attorneys in the state’s Office of Child Services as "a frightening group," were offensive.
"The people who are tasked with protecting our kids from getting raped, from getting abused, and this nominee is calling them a frightening group," Wielechowski said.
Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, pointed to the near universal condemnation of Ross by the Alaska Native community.
"The problem is Mr. Ross has been in the state for decades," he said. "And during those decades, he has not been able to convince the Native people that he will look out for their interests."
Those opposing Ross also pointed to his recent comments on the flap between Palin and the Senate Democrats over the vacant seat.
Ross told the Alaska Public Radio Network on Wednesday, April 15 that "the most important thing that can be done by the Senate is not argue what’s legal or illegal but to appoint somebody to represent Juneau."
But in a letter to lawmakers later that day, Ross said it was just rumor that he advocated or implied that the law should be ignored and said the rumor is "totally false."
On Thursday, just ahead of his confirmation vote, Ross told The Associated Press that he did not argue that he made the statement, which was posted on the APRN Web site, but he said his point was that lawmakers should not get wrapped up in technicalities but move forward in filling the seat.
"Apparently there are different opinions on what the law is, and they ought to keep working to get the job done and we’ll get the law sorted out shortly," Ross said.
Ross’ advice to Palin on the matter was troubling to some lawmakers who wanted assurance that the attorney general would be an attorney for all Alaskans, not just the governor. Similar concerns had been raised about his predecessor, Talis Colberg, a central figure in Troopergate, the Alaska Legislature’s investigation into Palin’s firing of her Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan.
Colberg filed a lawsuit on behalf of seven of nine state workers challenging legislative subpoenas in the probe. The employees later testified after a judge rejected the lawsuit. Earlier this year, the Legislature found the governor’s husband, Todd Palin, and nine state workers in contempt for ignoring the subpoenas. Colberg resigned four days later.
Some lawmakers said Colberg’s actions were based on his allegiance to the governor and not the best interests of the state.
Ross also faced stiff criticism from Alaska’s major newspapers, in part because of his comments on gays and lesbians and his refusal to say at confirmation hearings if he had changed his opinion.
"My job is to represent all Alaskans. My personal opinions have no place," he said to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner said Ross "has not demonstrated the reserve and diplomacy needed by a person in that position."
Patricia Young with the legislative research office said Ross’ rejection is the first time in state history that a head of a state agency has failed to be confirmed by the legislature.
In 1991, lawmakers rejected Gov. Wally Hickel’s appointment of Jack Phelps to the Board of Education, which governs the Department of Education.