Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan is finding himself in the hot seat this week after two very public comments about two very different issues, comparing union membership to slavery and disparaging teachers' career choices.
Both comments came during forums being held to hear from Sullivan and other candidates for lieutenant governor. When asked about right-to-work legislation at a Monday event in Anchorage, Sullivan -- the main proponent of hotly contested Assembly Ordinance 37, limiting city unions' bargaining powers -- lashed out on the topic of union dues.
“Nobody should have to basically pay someone else to get a job in this state -- I mean, we got rid of slavery a long time ago," Sullivan said. "We should never have to encumber yourself out of your wages in order to work in this state.”
Sullivan later called the question of union membership a freedom issue, but his comments were enough for the NAACP and labor unions to demand an apology for comparing the historical evils of slavery to current political issues.
“When you refer to slavery in any way, shape or form, it’s the last thing that I think you can compare it to, which is stand up for workers and workers banding together to improve wages and working conditions,” said Vince Beltrami, president of the Anchorage chapter of the AFL-CIO.
When asked about the initial "slavery" comment at a Wednesday press conference, Sullivan clarified his comments but stood by his use of the word.
“Economically, if you have to pay somebody else that you don’t want to associate with just to have a job, that’s a form of economic slavery,” Sullivan said.
In a follow-up statement -- issued not by his campaign but his municipal spokesperson as mayor, Lindsey Whitt -- Sullivan apologized if he offended anyone with his comments.
“To me, the term has no racial connotations except that people of all races may be prohibited from holding certain jobs unless they pay tribute to an organization,” Sullivan said in the statement. "I do however; understand the sensitivity that the term slavery connotes and I apologize if the use of the word offended anyone.”
The "slavery" comment came days after a separate controversy, which began when Sullivan was speaking about teachers' work options at a Juneau forum Saturday.
“In America, it’s oftentimes the second-degree choice is not the first-degree choice,” Sullivan said.
According to the Anchorage Daily News, when Sullivan was asked to clarify his comment, he also suggested that teachers had been frustrated in pursuit of more difficult positions before they turned to education.
“Maybe they went to go into engineering or something and realized, ‘OK, that’s harder than I thought it was; I’ll get a teaching degree,'” the ADN quoted Sullivan as saying.
That response wasn't taken lightly by educators.
“Generally, earning a good living is certainly a desire to everybody, but student success and helping students achieve the best they can in the world is just top among people,” said Andy Holleman, president of the Anchorage Education Association.
When Sullivan was asked for a comment about the remarks concerning teachers, Whitt sent an email saying the mayor has worked for five years promoting teachers and encouraging enhanced education. She included a list of his education accomplishments.