Sarah Palin and Gay Rights: The Tom Fink Connection (Updated)
In Sarah Palin's recent vice presidential debate and Katie Couric interviews, she has gone out of her way to celebrate her own "tolerance" for gays, even invoking the old some-of-my-best-friends shibboleth.
When she debuted in Alaska politics in 2002, however, running unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor, her only television commercials featured an ex-mayor of Anchorage notorious for anti-gay actions so extreme that the Anchorage legislature -- no hotbed of liberalism -- twice reversed him.
Palin's pick for her campaign commercial was Tom Fink, mayor of Anchorage from 1987 to 1994, whose reputation largely comes from his vetoes on two bills in 1993 that banned discrimination against, and defunded arts programming by, the gay community. Both of those vetoes were overridden by the 11-member Anchorage Assembly, one unanimously.
Palin's responses about gay rights in the debate on October 8 were widely interpreted as indicating support for some form of civil union legislation. "No one would ever propose, not in a McCain-Palin administration, to do anything to prohibit, say, visitations in a hospital or contracts being signed, negotiated between parties," she said.
The first 1993 bill Fink vetoed was a municipal ordinance that prohibited "invidious discrimination in public employment on the basis of sexual orientation.” That same year, he proposed to cancel a $19,000 municipal grant for an arts company that housed a black gay theater group after he and the Assembly prohibited the group's ad from appearing on a bus.
Palin asked him to do her campaign ad, Fink said, because he'd been "mayor of the biggest city in the state for a good number of years."
However, Allison Mendel, an attorney from Anchorage who challenged the state in a case involving the denial of benefits to same-sex partners of public employees, laughed when asked about the relationship between Fink and Palin.
"I would not think that, in any time in history, Tom Fink had a lot of influence," she said. "He has been pretty outspoken about the non-rights of gays and lesbians."
Fink recalls that he called Palin first to say he was considering running for lieutenant governor, but would back out if she ran because "she would be a better candidate." When Palin decided to run instead, she called Fink and asked him to do the commercial. (Former lieutenant governor John Coghill also worked the project.)
As described by the Anchorage Daily News, the ad aired in July and showed Fink attacking the Democratic candidate for governor, Fran Ulmer ("Republicans! The goal is to beat Fran Ulmer in November!"). It was hoped that Palin's presence on the GOP ticket would counteract Ulmer's appeal to women voters.
Republican lawmakers had sued Ulmer in 1998, claiming her wording of a state referendum question on gay marriage was prejudiced -- Ulmer's text said it would amend the state constitution "to limit marriage" rather than "on marriage.” But Fink said he didn't speak out against Ulmer in Palin's 2002 commercial because of the gay-rights issue in particular. "I had no particular bone to pick with Fran," he said, "other than she is a liberal democrat."
Fink said he met Palin when she was mayor of Wasilla and "got to know her fairly well" because Anchorage and Wasilla were relatively close to each other. "I thought she had her feet on the ground," he said. "She is socially conservative."
Fink, who said he has been in touch with Palin "very little" since she was nominated, has contributed $800 to her campaigns.
Palin was new to politics when the 1993 anti-discrimination ordinance was first passed in January. Fink said he did not entirely recall the veto, but when looking over the documents from the Anchorage City Clerk files, he said, "I'm guessing that [I thought] it wasn't necessary."
Fink is forthright on gay issues. "I'm not in favor of expanding gay rights," he said. "I'm not in favor of gay marriage. I am very much opposed to it and I still am."
But he said there were no issues concerning fairness while he was mayor. "There wasn't discrimination [in Anchorage]," Fink said, adding: "We didn't have a problem -- why make an issue of it? That's my best recollection."
When Fink proposed to stop municipal funding to the Out North Contemporary Art House, it was featuring a show by the performance group Pomo Afro Homos called, "Fierce Love: Stories From Black Gay Life." The Assembly overrode the veto unanimously, even though they originally agreed with the mayor to prevent the group's advertisement on a bus.
"There was a time where they were putting on a gay production in a city owned building," Fink said about the issue. "I didn't look very kindly at that... I was not in favor of the city using tax money to support gay programs." He added that once the building was sold to Out North in 2004, they could "do whatever they want to do with it."
Out North Executive Director Mike Huelsman, who was appointed to his position by Fink in 1991, said the former mayor's position on gay rights is "actually more complex" than labeling Fink "anti-gay."
"It was clear to me that Tom Fink thought it was wrong to advertise a gay theater program on city busses," Huelsman said. "He never shied away from doing what he thought was right."
Palin first announced an opinion concerning LGBT rights when she -- and most Alaska voters -- supported a 1998 constitutional amendment to define marriage as between "a man and a woman" only. The vote led to a Supreme Court case brought by Mendel and representing nine couples. They won the case in 2005, granting health benefits to same-sex partners of city employees.
In 2006, the newly elected governor called for a $1 million special election to have Alaskans vote on the Supreme Court's decision, arguing she thought it was unconstitutional and against the "will of the people" because of the amendment, she told newspapers. In an April 2007 Juneau Empire article, Palin said, "I'll be voting for it."
Mendel said Palin's tolerant line in the VP debate and Katie Couric interview are news to her.
"There was no, no, no talk like she is talking now about tolerance and accepting other people's relationships," Mendel said. She added that Palin hasn't repudiated her former opinions, either.
"She never said 'Maybe I was wrong to support an anti-gay constitutional amendment,'" she said.
Oddly, Fink now says that he had "always suspected [Palin] would be in favor of civil rights" for the LGBT community. Afterwards he added, however, that Palin can speak for herself.
UPDATE: Tom Fink's assertion that there was no anti-gay discrimination in Anchorage while he was mayor is completely off the mark, according to gay-activist and co-founder of Out North, Jay Dugan-Brause. In 1989, while Fink was mayor, Dugan-Brause and colleagues led a study that showed there was a "high degree of prejudicial discrimination" in Alaska, he said. They presented their results to the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission in 1990 and later to the Anchorage Assembly, but their leverage was limited.
"The Equal Rights Commission was afraid to bring it out," Dugan-Brause said, adding that "the only thing [the municipality] could come forward with was just for city workers."
The 1989 study reported on "sexual orientation bias" in Anchorage housing and employment markets in addition to analyzing reports of discriminatory acts against LGBT Alaskans. It was the second study led by Dugan-Brause backed by a non-profit social service organization called Identity Inc. The first, "A Profile of Alaska's Gay and Lesbian Community," had similar findings in 1986 and was supported by the then-mayor's office under Tony Knowles, Dugan-Brause said.
Photo via asecondhandconjecture (cc)
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.