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Feds miss 2nd deadline for congressional tribal safety bills

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 09:49

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - U.S. officials tasked with carrying out federal public safety policy for tribes missed a deadline to provide input on legislation to curb violence against Native American women for a second straight month.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, had set a July 8 deadline for Interior and Justice Department officials to offer positions and guidance on a slate of bills that aim to stem domestic violence, homicides and disappearances of Native Americans on tribal lands.

Hoeven, who chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, had set the deadline for both departments after criticizing officials for filing late testimony and saying they arrived at a hearing in June unprepared to fully discuss the merits of legislation.

A week after the new deadline passed, a spokesman for Sen. Tom Udall said Monday that Justice officials had yet to provide positions on the legislation, while the Interior only provided "partial comment." Udall, D-New Mexico, is a co-chairman of the committee with Hoeven.

An Indian Affairs committee spokeswoman said in response to inquiries from The Associated Press that the Interior's guidance on bills had been sent after the July 8 deadline, though she did not say which day. She and Interior officials would not release the documents that had been sent to the committee.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Justice Department told the AP late Monday that the department is working as quickly as possible to provide positions on the bills, and had provided a status update to the committee chairman's office.

"I was deeply frustrated when DOI and DOJ showed up completely unprepared to our committee's hearing on these critical bills," Udall said in an emailed statement. "Weeks later, the administration still has not delivered on its promised 'renewed commitment' to tribal public safety, failing to meet this deadline even after being granted an extension."

Lawmakers need feedback from the Trump administration in their effort to take legislative action to address public safety for Native Americans, Udall said.

In recent months, a wave of bipartisan legislation in Congress has sought to boost coordination for crime-fighting among federal agencies and expand tribes' ability to prosecute non-Native Americans in sex assault cases and crimes against law enforcement and children.

The bills come in response to a national movement to build awareness of the deaths and disappearances of Native American women, who are victimized at alarming rates.

The most recent federal figures show more than half have encountered sexual and domestic violence at some point during their lives, with advocates saying the population is left vulnerable in part because their safety has been disregarded or ignored over the years.

In May, Attorney General William Barr visited Alaska, where tribal representatives told him about the lack of law enforcement in villages and slow response times to calls.

At last month's committee hearing, Tracy Toulou, director of the Justice Department's Office of Tribal Justice, said that visit had led the department's leadership to express a renewed commitment to public safety among tribes and Alaska Native villages.

Toulou also apologized to senators for the late testimony, explaining that the bills are complex and require wide review within the Justice Department. The review and clearance process can be lengthy and span multiple agencies.

Charles Addington - the director of the Office of Justice Services, which falls under the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs - also apologized for the late filing of testimony at the hearing. He said at the time that his comments had been held up during a clearance process.

The Senate's Indian Affairs committee has been seeking immediate comment from federal officials on five specific bills, including Savanna's Act.

It proposes to increase tribal law enforcement's access to criminal databases, increase data collection on cases for missing people and set new guidelines for law enforcement's response to reports of missing Native Americans.


Associated Press writer Rachel D’Oro in Anchorage contributed to this report.

Swan Lake fire may have ruined a weekend, but there is relief that it finally happened

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 09:28

Boss explores a lake shore with Swan Lake Fire smoke behind him, July 3, 2019. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

I was loading our small duck boat with camping gear, preparing for an annual trip to a lake nestled in the mountains. Years ago while exploring the lake, Christine and I had come across a small island near the far shore. It was close enough to the bank that identifying it as an island was near-impossible until we came upon it. Few people accessed it, making it a secluded hideaway, a place for a break, even if only for a night.

There are fish in the lake, and the shallow, secluded water invited settling dry flies on the placid waters. A small inlet on the lee side of the island invited the parking of a small boat. When we first stepped ashore, we found a fire pit, free of the usual human-made garbage one often finds in such things.

It had been made from granite found along the shore. It was butted against a massive slab of granite that grew out of the soil and provided a windbreak and heat reflector.

The lake is situated out of the flight line of commercial aircraft, the silence of the place broken only by the gulls that nest on the cliffs on the backside of the island. The shore across the small bay is a wide stretch of beach, where mornings and evenings we would see black bears, moose, coyotes and the occasional lynx using the beach as respite from the dense brush around the lake.

It’s one of those places that when you sit in the silence of the night around a campfire, you fret a bit about intruding at all. A place that demands infrequent use, lest your presence changes it. So as not to deprive others of finding it themselves, I’ll neglect saying where it is.

There are some trees, a few mature spruce and birch as well as alder brush, but little in the way of burnable firewood. We always take firewood for the night and it wasn’t until I was loading a bundle of split spruce into the boat that it occurred to me that a burn ban was in place.

“Never mind the island,” I said to Christine when I called to tell her.

“What?” she demanded.

“Burn ban.”

In immediate understanding, she said, “Oh, duh.”

For us, camping without a fire is about as pointless as hunting upland birds without a setter. It just isn’t done.

It seems not everyone would agree. Years ago, a friend and I were planning a moose hunt that would include camping for a week or so. I mentioned that I would bring a hand ax and a wood saw for the firewood. He then revealed he didn’t have campfires on hunting trips.

He allowed that he was going to hunt, not sit around a fire, and that campfires scare away game. Up to that point I thought he was -- except for a preoccupation with his fingers and his nostrils -- normal. Rather than argue the point that we couldn’t hunt in the dark, or that I would be more concerned that the foul air escaping from a tent first thing in the morning would scare more game then the naturally occurring smell of wood smoke, I suggested he find another partner.

A helicopter crew fights the Swan Lake wildfire on July 6, 2019. (Steve Meyer photo)

My life experience in the outdoors leaves me knowing the rejuvenating, soul-soothing wonders of a simple campfire. That the fire may also preserve one’s life is a constant comfort.

Some years back, Christine and I were on a remote float trip. For two days, a series of events had left us and all that we owned soaked. With no end of the choke-a-toad level of rainfall in sight, it demanded that one way or another, we would have a fire.

Constructing a lean-to from a nylon tarp, we started the arduous task of procuring dry wood from the rain-soaked brush. It took a couple of hours to scrounge up wood from the underside of dead logs and other naturally occurring dead sticks and limbs along the river. The effort occupied us and began the rejuvenation process that comes with seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

It took a while to build the pile of coals that would burn less-than-dry wood. Eventually, it became a rather glorious blaze that allowed us to dry some of our clothes and get warm. We didn’t bother going to our tent that night. We sat up nursing the fire all night long and by morning, our spirits were lifted and we were excited to continue the adventure. The restorative qualities of a campfire revealed yet again.

You might infer that we were upset with the Swan Lake Fire that precipitated the burn ban that ruined our plans. No, more like relief that the long-anticipated burn of the northern Kenai Peninsula, after many years of knowing it would happen without knowing when or where it would start, had arrived in sort of a perfect storm, considering all that it could have been.

No reason to be upset over something that is a part of the natural way of things. When you choose to live in country surrounded by millions of acres of remote forest that ultimately becomes tinder, wildfires are the norm. There are dozens of wildfires burning across Alaska as of this writing.

The inconvenience of gagging down smoke for a summer is what it is. We’ve been wandering the mountain valleys of the Peninsula since the fire started, hoping to climb above it, to no avail, until yesterday when we caught a break and climbed above 4,000 feet and had a magnificent, almost prehistoric view of Southcentral Alaska shrouded in smoke.

The fire is part of a wondrous life cycle in a land that retains the wild qualities we embrace, a reminder that no matter how important we like to think we are, nature will have the final say.

A quote attributed to noted fire scientist E.V. Komarek says it well: “The earth, born in fire, baptized by lightning, since before life’s beginning has been and is, a fire planet.”

Steve Meyer of Kenai is longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter.

Body of missing Kentucky angler found in Susitna River

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 09:10

PALMER -- The body of a 76-year-old Kentucky man missing since late June was discovered last week in the Susitna River by a boater, Alaska State Troopers say.

William Hartlage, 76, from Louisville, Kentucky, went missing on June 27, 2019 during a fishing trip in Willow Creek. (Photo courtesy Alaska State Troopers.)

William “Bill” Hartlage was last seen June 27, when a family member reported him overdue after he’d gone flyfishing on Willow Creek at the Susitna. Boat crews left Deshka Landing just after 11 that night to look for him, with a helicopter flying overhead, but found no sign of him. A ground search was also unsuccessful.

The boater contacted troopers the afternoon of July 9 to report a body partially submerged in the Susitna about a mile upstream of Deshka Landing, troopers said in an update Tuesday. State and wildlife troopers responded.

The Alaska Medical Examiner Office has confirmed the body was that of Hartlage, troopers spokesman Ken Marsh said.

Willow Creek, and its confluence with the Susitna, is a popular trout and salmon fishing area that draws locals and visitors to its easily accessed banks off the Parks Highway in Willow. A 71-year-old fisherman from Missouri died while fishing Willow Creek in 2014. Jerry Warner went missing in August of that year. His body wasn’t discovered in the creek until September 2015.

‘Game of Thrones’ earns a record-breaking 32 Emmy Award nominations

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 09:04

This image released by HBO shows Emilia Clarke, left, and Kit Harington in a scene from the final episode of "Game of Thrones." On Tuesday, July 16, 2019, the program was nominated for an Emmy Award for outstanding drama series. (HBO via AP)

LOS ANGELES — HBO’s “Game of Thrones” slashed its way to a record-setting 32 Emmy nominations Tuesday for its eighth and final season, leading HBO back to dominance over Netflix, the streaming service that bumped it last year from atop the increasingly crowded television heap.

The bloodthirsty saga's total eclipsed the all-time series record of 27 nods earned by "NYPD Blue" in 1994.

If "Game of Thrones" defends it best drama series title and claims a fourth trophy, it will join the quartet of most-honored dramas that includes "Hill Street Blues," ''L.A. Law," ''The West Wing" and "Mad Men."

Series star Emilia Clarke's decision to seek a best actress nomination after a series of supporting actress bids paid off. She's competing in a category that's notable for its diversity, including past winner Viola Davis for "How to Get Away with Murder" and repeat nominee Sandra Oh for "Killing Eve," who has a second chance to become the first actress of Asian descent to win the trophy.

Last year's best comedy series, "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," led the comedy pack with 20 bids, including for its star and defending champion Rachel Brosnahan. She'll vie with Emmy record-holder Julia Louis-Dreyfus of "Veep," who didn't compete in last year's awards because her breast cancer treatment delayed production of the political satire.

Louis-Dreyfus, who with Cloris Leachman shares the record for most Emmys won by a performer, eight, has a shot at solo glory if she wins again.

Other top nominees include the nuclear disaster miniseries "Chernobyl" with 19 nominations and "Saturday Night Live," which regularly employed Robert De Niro to play Robert Mueller last season, with 18. "When They See Us," the miniseries that dramatized the Central Park Five case and its aftermath, received 16 bids.

The 71st Emmy Awards will air Sept. 22 on Fox, with the host yet to be announced.

Is it OK to laugh at Florida Man?

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 08:04

Sporting a buzz cut, prison blues and a chin-strap beard, the slim 24-year-old Floridian Brandon Hatfield leans sideways in a rolling office chair inside the St. Johns County Jail. With a warm Southern drawl and a crooked smirk, he says, “I remember half of what happened ... and half of what didn’t.”

Hatfield finds it hard to separate the fact from the fiction of what took place on the night of Nov. 5, 2018, for a few reasons. That night, at a Best Western not far from the Fountain of Youth theme park in St. Augustine, Florida, America's oldest city, he was drinking Jack Daniel's. He's sure the bourbon led to smoking weed, but he's not as clear on how that led to fentanyl, Ecstasy and whatever else ended up in his toxicology report.

He remembers the rest of the night in "blackout splatches," which have since mixed with the stories he's heard about himself: how he jumped into a crocodile pool at a local zoological park after hours, got bit by an American crocodile, and barely escaped with his life - but not his Crocs shoes, which were found floating in the water the next day. Next thing he knew, he was waking up "at the hospital shackled to a bed with my foot gnawed off."

Another reason Hatfield finds it hard to separate the "half of what happened" from the "half of what didn't": When he woke up, he wasn't himself anymore. Much as an arachnid bite changed Peter Parker into Spider-Man, that crocodile chomp transformed Brandon Hatfield into Florida Man. His tale was being retweeted around the world: "Florida Man Wearing Crocs Gets Bitten After Jumping Into Crocodile Exhibit at Alligator Farm."

Since Florida Man was first defined on Twitter in 2013 as the “world’s worst superhero,” many men (and it’s almost always men) have assumed the mantle. He is a man of a thousand tattooed faces, a slapstick outlaw, an Internet-traffic gold mine, a cruel punchline, a beloved prankster, a human tragedy and, like some other love-hate American mascots, the subject of burgeoning controversy.

Twitter screen grab

Most memes - from planking to Tide Pods - fizzle fast. Florida Man has only grown stronger. There are so many stories about men like Hatfield that a “Florida Man Challenge” went viral this March, in which millions of people Googled their birth dates and “Florida Man,” finding a near-endless list of real news headlines for all 365 days of the year:

"Florida Man Steals $300 Worth of Sex Toys While Dressed as Ninja."

"Florida Man Tries to Pick Up Prostitute While Driving Special Needs School Bus."

"Florida Man Drinks Goat Blood in Ritual Sacrifice, Runs for Senate."

The meme has grown beyond the inside jokes of Twitter and Reddit, spawning scores of late-night comedy routines, queues of podcasts, multiple band names, an episode of the FX show "Atlanta," an "X-Files" comic book, a documentary and, soon, a docuseries from the producers of "Get Out."

At its most comical, the Florida Man phenomenon encapsulates the wildness of both America and the Internet. At its most salacious, it's a social-media update on the true-crime TV of "America's Dumbest Criminals" and the gallows humor of tabloid headlines. At its most insensitive, Florida Man profits by punching down at the homeless, drug-addicted or mentally ill. Florida Man has become an American folk hero with all the contradictions of his predecessors, who, from John Henry to Buffalo Bill, were always a mix of what Hatfield calls the "half of what happened" and "half of what didn't." What those old folk tales and our new viral memes have in common is that they tend to reveal more about the kind of stories we want to share than the people they're ostensibly about.

I've laughed at headlines like "Florida Man Arrested for Calling 911 After His Cat Was Denied Entry Into Strip Club." I've gawped at stories like "Florida Man Removes Facial Tattoos With Welding Grinder." But over the years I've also started to get a queasy feeling of complicity when I click on headlines that play up the quirks of horrific crimes for Web traffic, like "A Florida Man Beat His Daughter For 40 Minutes While Listening To Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines,' " a 101-word BuzzFeed story that found room to tastelessly embed the supermodel-studded music video.

This past April, I set out to meet a few Florida Men behind the clickbait and answer some questions, like: Is Florida Man a hero, a villain or a victim? And is it still OK to laugh along?

- - -

The biggest question I get is: What were you thinking?" Brandon Hatfield continues, from his seat inside the St. Johns County Jail. "Every time, my answer is: I wasn't." Hatfield is telling his entire Florida Man story for the first time, and in much more detail than the thousands of versions told without his input. The details matter: Take the two Croc-like shoes found floating in a crocodile enclosure, which prompted jokes and led the zookeeper to suspect a prank.

Hatfield is, on this April afternoon, wearing the same style on his scarred left foot, the one the crocodile attacked. (Five months and six surgeries later, doctors have barely managed to save it.) The pair of shoes found floating in the park had also been issued to him in jail, after his first drug conviction at age 23.

#BREAKING: I’ve obtained surveillance footage of #FloridaMan in St. Augustine Alligator farm in crocodile exhibit. @ActionNewsJax @WOKVNews

— Ryan Nelson (@RyanANJax) November 6, 2018

On Instagram, Hatfield has claimed to be a descendant of “Devil” Anse Hatfield, the wildcat outlaw who sparked the Hatfield-McCoy feud: Rebelliousness, he bragged, is in his blood. He grew up on his father’s nearby dairy farm, herding cattle, fishing, hunting and “doing crazy stuff, especially anything to do with animals.” When Hatfield was 10, he says, he captured a rattlesnake and hid it in an aquarium in his bedroom closet, until it killed his pet boa constrictor and terrified his mother, a nurse. After that, his amused stepdad stuffed the rattler - “so we’d always remember,” Hatfield says. From then on, Hatfield bounced between his divorced parents’ homes.

In middle school, Hatfield says, he started using marijuana. Then, at "15 or 16, I got into prescription medication: opiates, benzos, stuff like that." When a friend died of a cocaine overdose in 2012, he says he stopped using, but "I crept back into it."

"After pharmaceuticals, I graduated to cocaine, methamphetamine, everything." He got high to party and deal with social anxiety. He compares himself to "Adam Sandler in that movie 'Click': It's like you hit pause on life. Before you know it, you wake up and you're grown."

On Nov. 2, 2018, Hatfield was convicted of grand theft auto and possession of a schedule II substance. He tells a convoluted story about how the car was his own and the methamphetamine was his ex-girlfriend's; the judge sentenced him to two years of parole. When Hatfield showed up for his first parole appointment, he panicked, certain that if he went inside, he'd be sent to state prison, since he'd already violated parole by leaving the county. Wearing his jail Crocs, Hatfield sneaked out to the parking lot and called some friends, figuring, "If I'm going to prison, I'm going to do it big for the weekend - and then turn myself in."

A few days later, well into his bender at the Best Western Bayfront hotel, Hatfield boasted to friends about how he grew up wrangling alligators from one pond to another on his papa's land, to "balance the ecosystem." Nobody believed him. "I said, 'I'll catch an alligator right now!' My friend said, 'I know a perfect place ...' " The friends drove two miles to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, the world's only home to all 24 crocodilian species, with a main pen holding 210 alligators. When Hatfield saw it, he nearly chickened out. "But I got girls behind me," he told me. "So I go in."

News channels and sites told Hatfield's story through video clips stitched together from four hours of night-vision security-cam footage, in which he is the zoo's acrobatic attraction: Florida Man, in his native, ersatz habitat. He climbs onto a corrugated metal rooftop about 12 feet above a shallow pool occupied by large American crocodiles. He leaps in and thrashes as he's bit. But what most news videos missed is that Hatfield escaped, unscathed, after his first jump. Then he jumped back in, turning himself into literal clickbait. "The whole thing was, I dropped my phone inside the pit," he says. "A brand-new iPhone. That's whenever he death-rolled me. It de-sleeved the bottom of my foot, until it looked like a chicken breast; I'd wiggle my toes and you could see my tendons move."

On crutches at his first court appearance, he heard the bailiffs and others "cracking jokes and calling him Crocodile Dundee," says his defense attorney, Jill Barger. She took his case pro bono because she pitied him, and also - "I'm not gonna lie," she admits - because Florida Men get valuable media attention.

His new convictions of criminal mischief and trespassing compounded his early charges. Judge Howard Maltz, who saw Hatfield on TMZ the night before meeting him in court, sentenced him to 364 days in county jail, plus two years of community control. At Hatfield's sentencing, Maltz told him, "You should not be alive. God has a plan for you. We may not know what it is, but God has a plan for you."

"I hear it all the time," Hatfield says with a shrug. "Daniel in the lions' den." In the Bible, Daniel was thrown into a den of carnivorous beasts but found "blameless" by his god and saved for a higher purpose. Hatfield likes this idea. He vows to get clean and do outreach. He says he'll warn Floridians not to follow in his bloody footsteps and become a Florida Man like him, because he wishes he'd done the same for his stepbrother, who died of a heroin overdose while Brandon was in jail. He's lost three relatives in the past year to drug-related deaths, he says. "My little brother, Bo, passed away on heroin at 17. He was probably looking up to me. I went to jail and left him out there by himself."

There's nothing funny about this part of Hatfield's viral story. It's the "half of what happened" in most Florida Man stories that doesn't fit in a tweet - the bummer half that has to do with how people end up doing reckless things, and what follows viral infamy. "We laugh at these stupid things," Maltz tells me in his chambers. "But there are tragedies behind many of them."

I came to the jail to see how Hatfield ended up in that crocodile pit, but also to ask how the media attention had affected him. I assumed that he would be mortified to go viral on the worst day of his life - that the retweets would only add shameful insult to actual injury. But that's not how he saw it. "At first I was embarrassed," he says. "But I'm prone to do stuff like this anyway, so it was just a matter of time before something blew up."

Hatfield talks about his newfound Internet notoriety like he's Brer Rabbit, thrown into the digital brier patch where he was born and bred. "I was always on the Internet: I go live on Facebook. I live on Instagram." Drugs have been Hatfield's escape from the real world, but social media is where he feels most honest: "It's the real me."

In jail, he's enjoying his notoriety (although he "can't wait to get my phone," he says). "There ain't nobody in this jail who don't know who I am," he says. Especially since the whole cell block saw him on "Inside Edition." He estimates he's signed at least 60 autographs for inmates with his various nicknames: Gator Boy, Croc Boy or his favorite, Crocodile DunGotti - "John Gotti mixed with Crocodile Dundee." He reads fan letters, including some from people who "think I'm like an animal activist or something." He's considering a clothing line with a Gator Boy logo of himself "wrangling or riding a gator like it's a bull." The only problem, he says, staring at his hands, is this: "I'm meant to be a superhero. Nobody ever sits down, says: 'You doing all right?' "

- - -

Before leaving St. Augustine, I visit two of the town's most popular attractions. At the Old Jail, built in 1891, I watch tourists hang their heads and arms through the old oak public stocks, like shamed Florida Men of yesteryear. At the Medieval Torture Museum, a goth-y tour guide tells me that her museum's stocks and punitive masks don't terrify her nearly as much as the thought of becoming a Florida Woman. "If my mug shot got out there? Oh God, I'd have to leave town!"

Her fear makes sense, because there is always another Florida Man or Woman. Within days of Brandon Hatfield's arrest in November, the Internet moved on to "Florida Man Dressed as Fred Flintstone Pulled Over for Speeding." It's been this way every day since the meme's birth in 2013.

By then, Florida's pop-culture reputation for drugs ("Scarface"), crime ("Miami Vice," "CSI: Miami"), partying (MTV's "Spring Break") and craziness (James Franco in "Spring Breakers") was well established. The 2000 Bush-Gore recount had made the state a punching bag for comedians like "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart, who once called Florida a "giant cockroach-choking, hazard-infested, Hooters-dining, reptile-abusing, Everglades-draining, election-ruining, stripper-motorboating, ball-sweat-scented, genitalia-shaped, 24-hour mug-shot factory." Pick an issue, any issue, and Florida, the state with the most lightning strike fatalities, has become a lightning rod for it - whether that's climate change ("Florida Man Jumps in Canal of Toxic Blue-Green Algae"), immigration ("Here Is Trump Loving a Florida Man's 'Joke' About Murdering Immigrants"), or poverty ("Florida Man Tries to Pawn His Baby.")

On May 26, 2012, a homeless man named Ronald Poppo became patient zero for Florida Man's viral outbreak, when a carwash employee named Rudy Eugene attacked him on Miami's MacArthur Causeway. "He just ripped me to ribbons," Poppo, who barely survived, later told a news crew. "He chewed up my face, he popped out my eyes." Eugene was shot dead on sight by police, and, though his toxicology report was ultimately inconclusive, he became a bogeyman for the drugs collectively known as bath salts. He went viral as the Causeway Cannibal and the Miami Zombie. According to Google Trends data, this is when the term "Florida Man" first peaked.

Nine months later, the @_FloridaMan Twitter account debuted with the tagline, "Real-life stories of the world's worst superhero." The first tweet set the tone: "Florida Man Arrested After Pocket-Dialing 911." Within weeks, the account had gone viral and was covered by legit outlets like NPR and Slate. Over the past six years, the account has grown to over 400,000 followers, but its creator remained anonymous - partly at first because he didn't take it all that seriously, he tells me, and more recently because "I feel like I created a monster."

Florida Man's Dr. Frankenstein is Freddie Campion, 33, who finally agreed to step out from behind his face-tattooed Twitter avatar after a series of long off-the-record phone calls, in which he shared his growing unease with what he'd created. "The irony is not lost on me that I thrust some people into the spotlight when they didn't want it," he says by phone from his backyard in Los Angeles. "I was asking for the courtesy that wasn't afforded to a lot of other people."

In early 2013, Campion, now a video producer and writer, was an associate editor at GQ, "desperately anxious to impress everybody" in an office where the best way to do it was to make top editors laugh. (I was a senior editor at GQ but didn't overlap with Campion.) As a culture writer, he loved the Onion's character Area Man, which spoofed local news, and the "South Park" action figure Alabama Man, which spoofed macho toys. "The face-eating zombie story had happened, and I was just thinking: Florida's a crazy place," he says. "I don't really know what my reason was, beyond: This doesn't exist, so why don't I make it?"

To Campion, who was raised in the United Kingdom, Florida was pure, undiluted Americana. "I never thought I was making fun of Florida because Florida is America," he says. "It's made up of people who moved here five years ago. Even when I think of Florida Man as a character, he moved to Florida after he faked his death in another state."

For Florida Man to evolve from the primordial swamp-gas of the Internet, the environmental conditions had to be just right. Florida is the third-most populous state, so it naturally has a lot of everything - good, bad and weird. The state's sunshine laws, passed in 1995, make public records - mug shots, arrest reports, video evidence and 911 calls - available to anyone, with the ease of one-click shopping. Then there's the state's strange geography: swampland infested with alligators and pythons, the most sinkholes in the nation. As for law and order, the state counts about 2 million concealed weapons permits, 1.4 million felons, and "stand your ground" laws. Thanks to the temperate climate, there's no offseason for criminals or pranksters or nudists. And, as local writers from Carl Hiaasen to Dave Barry to Lauren Groff have noted, the water table of weirdness is just naturally high in Florida. Strangeness seems to bubble to the surface.

The perfect Florida Man tweet always seemed to get at the state's reputation for being, as comedian John Mulaney said on an episode of "Late Night With Seth Meyers," "the Costco of upsetting people. ... It's just everything at once." Campion's funniest tweets seemed to pile one gag, or clickable keyword, on top of another, like a Marx Brothers routine. "Other states have heat, lax gun laws, lack of regulation - even alligators - but not all at once," says Campion. As an example, he singles out a Floridian who was arrested for illegal foraging. "Then you find out he's foraging for magic mushrooms," Campion says. "That probably wouldn't happen in Minnesota. And he's on magic mushrooms. And then they open his backpack and there's a baby alligator in it. Any one detail isn't a big deal. But combine them: That's a Florida Man story."

The success of Florida Man parallels the rise of smartphone video, and a generation of people "trying to go viral in their own little networks," says Campion, "and then it working too well." He points to the Florida Men who filmed their pranks, went viral and then got arrested for, say, riding manatees (they're endangered) or throwing an alligator through a Wendy's drive-through (animal cruelty). Not to mention digital freak-show pranksters like Alisha Hessler, aka Jasmine TriDevil, who tried to convince the world she had surgically added a third breast.

Campion says he didn't so much create the meme as popularize it - largely because, as soon as he launched the account, it took on a life of its own. At first, he was just thrilled to get direct messages "from cool people on Twitter." Then spoof news sites and clone accounts popped up, screen-grabbing his tweets. A subreddit exploded to over half a million members. All over the Internet, sites began doing "best Florida Man" listicles. Journalists began sliding into his DMs and pitching him their stories, thirsty for retweets. In 2014, Seth Meyers began hosting a late-night "Fake or Florida" trivia quiz.

In the beginning, Campion had to rewrite headlines from local crime blotters. But before long, he says, even "local news channels in Utah" and international tabloids were adopting his style and chasing high-traffic keywords - broadening the reach of Florida Man to include politicians, celebrities and YouTubers. Indeed, if aliens were to arrive in Florida - a state that ranks third in UFO sightings - they could tell a pop history through the way the Florida Man virus grafted itself onto other trending topics: "Florida man shoots at Pokémon Go players outside house." "Florida man changes name to Bruce Jenner to preserve name's 'heterosexual roots.' " "Florida man says it's okay to grope woman on flight because Trump says it's okay."

When Campion's Twitter account hit the front page of the New York Times in May 2015, "Book agents were DM-ing me, telling me if I write a one-paragraph treatment they can sell it that afternoon," he says. "But I didn't want to write a toilet book."

By 2016, Campion began to worry. At this point, he says, he realized his little face-tattooed boy had grown up and left him behind. Soon, Campion was noticing that, while people were still sharing harmless or satirical tales, "90% of the stories people were sending me were mean-spirited."

Moreover, as cash-strapped media brands laid off journalists, Florida's sunshine laws, combined with Florida Man's viral appeal, enabled outlets to efficiently feed the Internet with a high volume of sensational crime stories, at minimal expense, and with relatively little legwork. Since Florida Man is cheap news, and his search-engine-optimized popularity is self-reinforcing, he's more likely to be shared than some random Kansas Man. Now Florida Man seems to have become the whole Internet's local news.

Initially, the account was like Florida Man Mack Yearwood, who posted his "Wanted" photo on Facebook, never suspecting it would lead to his arrest. "If I was to start this whole thing again, I'd be thinking about it in a very different way, because now we think about the Internet in a different way," Campion says. The big difference is that, "in 2013, we didn't think what happened on the Internet could affect real life."

Like many of us, Campion gradually became more aware of social media's real-world consequences and downsides: election interference, Internet bullying and privacy concerns, for starters. He saw the way the Florida Man meme immortalized even misdemeanors and seemed to overlap with the pay-to-redact mug shot publication industry, which the American Bar Association has dubbed an "online extortion scheme" and which Florida only recently regulated, in July 2018 (though many newspapers still host for-profit, ad-supported microsites devoted entirely to searchable mug shot databases). Campion also began to worry that Florida Man reinforced the simplistic good-cops-and-bad-robbers narratives of reality entertainment like "Cops" and "Live PD," and cut against the grain of movements like Black Lives Matter.

In 2017, Campion briefly stopped posting to the account. The comedy felt stale, but he was also asking himself, " 'How much do I want to be a party to essentially making fun of people on the worst day of their lives, even if they have done something wrong?' Like, who gave the Internet the right to add to someone's punishment?" After a several-month hiatus, Campion returned to the Twitter account, determined to "steer it in a better direction." He began alternating funny tweets with social-justice petitions and news stories about police abuse and reform. After little more than a smattering of retweets and signatures from his near half-million followers, he decided that @_FloridaMan should meet the fate that greets so many in Florida: This March, he marked the account "RETIRED."

Florida Man is a microcosm of the way so many of us are struggling with the ethics of how to behave on the Internet, and how easily an ironic joke, multiplied by millions of shares, can begin to feel like freak-show mockery or viral cyberbullying. As isolated jokes, Florida Man riffs seem harmless enough; in aggregate it feels as if they've become part of a larger culture that reduces people in the criminal justice system to villains or punchlines, while stripping away the context of systemic problems. The Reddit forum moderator has asked contributors to remember that Florida Man "doesn't do dark and overly morbid things" - to no avail. Craig Pittman, author of "Oh, Florida!," a loving compendium of Floridian shenanigans, told the Columbia Journalism Review that he had begun to be more selective about the stories he promoted. "Is the person homeless?" he said. "If that is the case, I won't post the story."

Campion says he hopes people, as he is, are learning to be more responsible about what they share online, but he doesn't seem too optimistic. With the air of a disappointed father who loves his wayward son but doesn't know how to help him, Campion adds, "I'd still love to see Florida Man have a happy ending."

For now, some Florida Men are taking matters into their own hands, figuring they shouldn't be the only ones who aren't profiting off the meme - like Lawrence Sullivan, who tattooed his entire face to look like the Joker from "The Dark Knight," and has been releasing disturbing shock-rap videos, or Charles McDowell, who went viral in the fall. Propelled to infamy by an Escambia County Sheriff's Office "Wheel of Fugitives" TV segment, McDowell was mocked relentlessly for his extremely thick neck. With the help of a Florida-based crew of social-media strategists called the Shrimp Gang and an MMA fight promoter, he flipped it around, rebranding himself as @DamnWideNeck. He gained 1.3 million Instagram followers, including DJ Khaled and Snoop Dogg, and teamed up with scrawny white YouTuber Daddy Long Neck for the goofy racial-harmony-and-babes music video "All Necks Matter," which scored over 10 million views across platforms. After McDowell's recent rearrest, his management posted, "He will be out in the Neckst 4-6 months."

- - -

Recently, the storm of controversy over Florida Man has been upgraded to perhaps a Category 4, after a high-pressure surge of criticism in outlets like the Guardian and the Columbia Journalism Review. The podcast "Citations Needed" created a browser plug-in that substitutes the term "Florida Man" with "Man Likely Suffering From Mental Illness or Drug Addiction." On Facebook, the otherwise sunny page Feel Good Florida has been pushing the hashtag #deathtofloridaman. It seems Florida Man is, to quote a Batman film, one of those heroes who lives long enough to become a villain. Or maybe, like Brandon Hatfield, he can be an instructive example: a focal point for a conversation about what we're doing when we share funny news on the Internet.

Any such conversation, however, has to account for the redemptive side of Florida Man - the simple fact that a lot of people don't just mock him as a villain or exploit him as a victim. Two of Reddit's 10 most popular Florida Man stories are actually exposés of police corruption, including "Florida Man arrested for possession of laundry detergent - not heroin - among 11 freed after deputy allegedly faked drug tests." What's more, many Floridians embrace their native son as an it-coulda-been-me populist hero, standing up for the state's stubborn strangeness. In Tampa, Florida, Cigar City Brewing has named its Florida Man IPA after "a hero who's forgotten more about amateur taxidermy and alligator rasslin' than you'll ever know." In Miami, a drag performer named Florida Man has gone viral for performing an Ariana Grande hit in a Voldemort costume. In Orlando, Florida, there's been a Florida Man Music Festival and a "Florida Man" one-man play. In Tampa, a tour guide leads Florida Man walking (and drinking) tours, and writer Tyler Gillespie has published an empathetic book of poems about Florida Man, including one inspired by his own DUI.

In Jacksonville, Florida, Mike Alancourt, a white-bearded, 43-year-old teacher's assistant, went viral this winter as "Florida man wins the internet with hip-hop dance routine." He ended up on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and in an official Post Malone music video, and though he describes himself as "technically the antithesis of Florida Man ... a gay bearded hippie who belongs in Seattle," he's since embraced the label. "I can't necessarily get with everything Florida Man has done, but I get with the part that says we should all be who we are," he says. "That little bit of weird you have? Florida Man says: Embrace it. The redeeming quality of Florida Man is he don't give a f---."

Per Google Trends data, the meme has never been more popular. Particularly in his home state, many people reject the idea that Florida Man should be Internet-canceled. Since he's on the verge of becoming an unofficial state mascot, it's appropriately absurd that the proper way to honor him is being seriously debated by Jacksonville's goofy minor-league baseball team, the Jumbo Shrimp. In late July, the team will host a Florida Man Night, featuring a jorts-clad Florida Man bobblehead, a performance by at least one actual Florida Man and the breaking of "weird Florida laws." The night's advertising sponsor is the law offices of John M. Phillips, an attorney who says he's become "Florida Man as a lawyer."

It's not just because Phillips has represented a Florida Man who shot off his own penis, and five Florida Women - in separate instances - who were run over by vehicles while sunbathing on the beach. Online, you can find a clip of Phillips on "Let's Make a Deal," dressed up like Alexander Hamilton as he wins a Sea-Doo watercraft. He has sued Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, defended a man who made Super Bowl-inspired "Left Shark" figurines against copyright claims by Katy Perry, and represented Omarosa Manigault Newman.

Phillips understands the contradictions of Florida Man more than most. He grew up in Alabama and hung a Confederate flag in his white fraternity's dorm room. "Everything changed for me," he says, when he represented the family of Jordan Davis, the unarmed black teenager murdered by a white man, Michael Dunn. As Phillips explains in a TEDxJacksonville talk, the case caused him to reconsider his racial privilege and reorient his career around civil rights.

I ask Phillips the obvious question: How can you celebrate the meme's comical side, knowing that it also makes light of horrific crimes? "I would never call Michael Dunn a Florida Man, because Michael Dunn was a murderer, and to associate him with Florida Man minimizes what he did," says Phillips carefully. Then he sighs and concedes: "But that's how the article would be written: 'Florida Man flees after shooting three teenagers, claiming Stand Your Ground.' "

Phillips says he recognizes that the joke often isn't funny, "because of the mental health issues and drug dependency that do sometimes cause the quote-unquote Florida Man syndrome." He cites the problems facing military veterans and the homeless, the opioid epidemic and the country's most concealed carry gun permits. "In the Gunshine State," he says, "Florida Man can turn on you real quick." He knows the meme is messy and often offensive and cruel. But he also thinks Florida Man can be admirable. With lawyerly precision, he defines Florida Man as a person who embodies "free-spirited recklessness" and "doesn't put other people in harm's way."

"There's a level of Florida Man in all of us," Phillips says. "The question is how you channel it."

- - -

Is it OK to laugh at Florida Man? In the comedy business, the answer to such a question is always an unsatisfying "It depends." When you're joking about real people, it mostly depends on whether you're laughing at someone, in a dehumanizing kind of way, or if you're laughing with someone - often because, even (or especially) in their worst moment, they remind you of yourself. The once-absurdist Florida Man meme has undoubtedly curdled into callous jokes at the expense of the vulnerable. But plenty of people laugh with Florida Man, knowing how easy it is to become one. Ultimately, many of these stories aren't as extraordinary as the headlines; they just have that one odd detail - or one memorable mug shot - that, if spun correctly, might turn one person's DUI into another's LOL.

Like a lot of memes, Florida Man's popularity doesn't exactly prove or disprove the inherent wisdom of the crowd so much as it highlights our collective contradictions. We like to cheer on the underdog and revel in someone else's pain. We enjoy mocking and empathizing with the unfortunate, partly because clickbait-or-bust social media is essentially built to multiply one superficial behavioral extreme or the other.

So when the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp planned their Florida Man night, they looked for a family-friendly mascot who represented the best of Florida Man without dragging along the worst of his baggage: a Floridian who hadn't hurt anyone, who wasn't being exploited, and who was happy to have people laugh along with him. They found Lane Pittman, a multiple-time Florida Man who rallies the crowd at Jacksonville Jaguars NFL games, waving flags and firing T-shirt cannons as part of the Jax Pack hype team.

At the Jumbo Shrimp's Florida Man Night, Pittman will play the national anthem on electric guitar because, the first time he went viral, he was "Florida man arrested after playing national anthem on July 4." In the video seen everywhere from BuzzFeed to Fox News, Pittman, wearing jorts and an American flag tank top, shreds like Hendrix on a Neptune Beach sidewalk until hundreds of people gather around and he is arrested for obstructing traffic.

"I was like: This is American as crap! Freedom, baby!" Pittman reminisces. "I had everybody dabbing me up, high-fiving me. I had one old lady kiss me on the face. Then two cops came over."

The second time he went viral, he uploaded a nine-second video of himself - no shirt, no shoes, just board shorts - headbanging and holding an American flag against the torrential wind and rain of 2016's Hurricane Matthew, to the blare of Slayer's "Raining Blood." The video was viewed nearly 4 million times. His rock gods, including Slayer, retweeted him. Foo Fighters simply tweeted: "LANE PITTMAN." Frontman Dave Grohl posed in Billboard, wearing a T-shirt with Lane's flag-waving, headbanging caricature.

When I meet Pittman at a hard-rock music festival in downtown Jacksonville, the lean 26-year-old surfer dude with long red hair is wearing jorts and an American flag tank top - what he calls "my Hurricane Lane persona." Amid the roar of speed metal, Pittman hypes up fans at a pop-up advertising space, where a long line of autograph seekers wait on members of Korn and Evanescence.

Pittman's hurricane videos have become a hurricane-season YouTube ritual - a rain dance in defiance of the weather. In some ways, the original video is - like frozen Florida orange juice - the most concentrated and syrupy example of what it means to be a Florida Man: a wild man who stands firm against propriety, the forces that threaten to destroy this strange paradise, and common sense itself.

Pittman's career path as a professionalized Florida Man began in high school, when he was elected class clown. He honed his theatrics while working a $10-an-hour gig as a roadside sign spinner with Big Guy Moving, Velcroed into a muscle suit in the 90-degree heat. These days, Pittman, who fronts a metal band and does social media consulting, is the most clean-cut Florida Man you can imagine, despite being a metalhead icon embraced by Slayer. He doesn't curse or drink. He's a devout youth leader of his Baptist church, an assistant lacrosse coach and a substitute music teacher who asks to "bless it up real quick" before eating his egg biscuit at Starbucks. He embraces the mantle of Florida Man, though he doesn't sympathize with some of his more disreputable brethren.

"On Facebook somebody tagged me alongside a guy who ran through a convenience mart with a gator, like, 'Y'all should be friends!' " says Pittman. "I'm like: I don't want to be his friend!"

Listening to Pittman, I can't help but think of my own mixed feelings about the meme, which bundle up my fairly conventional anxieties about social media: I worry that this miraculous, unprecedented amount of information and connection is making us less empathetic toward people we see and meet online, and I suspect that it's only going to get worse. Given how quickly falsehoods spread online, I ask Pittman if it bothers him that people probably do confuse the real Florida with the meme.

In between selfies with fans, Pittman brushes back his sweaty hair and tells me that his take on Florida Man and the Internet is simpler, and more optimistic: Every state has its idiots, criminals and problems; it's unfair that his home state takes so much flak. But people generally know what's right. And, besides, it's not going to stop him, or any other Florida Man, from acting crazy if they feel like it.

"People throw shade at Florida. Like, a lot." A brief cloud passes over his upbeat mood, then the Florida Man smiles. "But you can't put shade on us. We're the Sunshine State!"

- - -

Hill is a writer who has contributed to New York magazine, “This American Life,” Wired and others.

After days on the loose, alligator that shut down Chicago park is caught by Florida man

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 06:55

An alligator floats in the Humboldt Park Lagoon, Tuesday, July 9, 2019, in Chicago. Officials couldn't say how the creature got there. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune via AP) (Armando L. Sanchez/)

After shutting down half of Chicago’s Humboldt Park and evading capture for a week, an alligator who had been spotted lurking in the park’s lagoon has been captured, police said Tuesday morning, ABC 7 Chicago reported.

In this image provided by Chicago Animal Care and Control, a person holds an alligator, Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in Chicago. Police say an expert from Florida captured the elusive alligator in a public lagoon at Humboldt Park early Tuesday. (Kelley Gandurski/Chicago Animal Care and Control via AP) (Kelley Gandurski/)

The alligator, nicknamed Chance the Snapper, had drawn dozens of visitors since last week and earned a spot on T-shirts and in song lyrics as fans rooted for its survival in the most unlikely of habitats. After a local volunteer spent nearly a week trying to trap the reptile without luck, the city flew in an expert from Florida on Sunday and shut down the park to try to catch the gator.

Chance the Snapper will be turned over to a sanctuary or zoo where it will have a permanent home. Police are expected to reveal more details later Tuesday morning.

The alligator first appeared in the water on the morning of July 9, interrupting a Sweet 16 birthday photo shoot in the middle of Chicago's Humboldt Park.

It was first spotted lurking near the lagoon boathouse, its spiky head bobbing in the surface, so out of place that onlookers had to squint their eyes to make sure it wasn't an illusion or a log. "We thought, 'No way.' We thought it would be a toy or something," the birthday photographer, Ren Horst-Ruiz, told Block Club Chicago, a neighborhood news outlet whose initial report on the gator sent the city into a frenzy.

Soon dozens of joggers and dog walkers and curious Chicagoans arrived on the banks of the lagoon for their chance to see the unusual visitor. Thousands of Block Club Chicago readers voted on its nickname, gaining the approval of the city's Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist Chance the Rapper. Fans watched as "Alligator Bob," a volunteer with the Chicago Herpetological Society called in to help, laid traps stocked with chicken drumsticks and rats and fish, periodically venturing out into the water in his canoe to search for the gator.

But last week Chance the Snapper wasn't interested in Bob's bait, evading capture as authorities had difficulty spotting it beneath the murky water. On Sunday, city officials had announced they were closing the entire east side of Humboldt Park to rid the lagoon of all the gawking onlookers and reporters, saying the attention had probably scared the gator into hiding.

The new expert in capturing alligators who was flown in Sunday, Frank Robb, asked for peace and quiet as he worked, said Chicago Animal Care and Control Executive Director Kelley Gandurski.

"We are just letting the lagoon calm down," Gandurski told reporters during a news conference on Monday night. "What he wants to focus on now is letting the animal relax and decompress because we do think that all the crowds and all the commotion might have altered his behavior. He's in hiding. So we wanted to pull everything artificial out of the lagoon - let him decompress."

It remains unclear how Chance the Snapper got to Humboldt Park. But last week, Alligator Bob - who has declined to give his last name for privacy reasons - said the most likely explanation was that the gator had been someone's illegal pet that had been dumped in the water. The gator is believed to be between four and five feet long, but not a threat to humans since it's probably not used to living in the wild. In this new and foreign habitat, Alligator Bob said, the alligator is probably "scared out of its wits."

"The owner might have taken him out of a bathtub, grabbed him, tied him in a knot, threw him in a blanket, put him in a box, brought him here and dumped him," he said. "So he's in shock already. He's been handcuffed and arrested and dumped in an empty pond."

At the lagoon last week, everyone from teens on bikes to elderly men in wheelchairs could be seen idling along the shores, hoisting cellphone cameras as they looked for Chance or, at least, Alligator Bob. One man tried to attract the alligator by reeling a rotisserie chicken over a bridge on his fishing pole, to no avail. A police officer played the "Jaws" theme song from his police cruiser, amusing the people lining the shore. A Latin musician composed a song called "El Cocodrilo de Humboldt Park 2019." The craze over the instantly beloved animal recalled last year's frenzy over New York's "hot duck," a rare, colorful Mandarin duck who appeared out of nowhere in Central Park, attracting hundreds of people.

And just like the duck, before long, Chance had his own Twitter accounts, where he spent his time poking fun at Alligator Bob for failing to capture him.

"Gator Bob is giving up and I'm not surprised," the fake alligator wrote in one tweet, linking to a Chicago Tribune article quoting the volunteer as saying, "We're open to suggestions."

Within hours of the first sightings of Chance, Alligator Bob and Chicago conservation officers began looking for him by scoping out the area near the boathouse where the alligator was first spotted. The hope was that, if he'd been dumped there, he would be most likely to return in search of food, like a dog waiting at the door for its owner to come home. "We're hoping he smells the chicken," Bob said Wednesday on Facebook Live. In an interview with Block Club Chicago, he compared searching for the alligator to "looking for a baseball bat that's floating in the water some place that can submerge every time you look at it."

By Wednesday, as all the bait remained untouched, authorities assumed Chance just didn't want it, perhaps because he was feeling too scared to eat.

"If he was fed well before he was dropped into the lagoon, he doesn't have to eat for several weeks or even months," Gandurski said Monday. "They're highly resilient creatures. They've been around for millions of years. They can hunker down anywhere, and he may not need to eat for a while. He may not be hungry, and he may be very nervous. He may not want to eat."

Gandurski said all the traps have since been pulled from the water. The new gator tracker, Robb, arrived Sunday and began by surveying the area and searching for alligator tracks and tail drag lines on the shore, she said. His credentials are unclear, but Gandurski said he is a native Floridian who "has a special understanding of how the alligator thinks and where he might be."

A spokesman for the Chicago Police Department confirmed to The Washington Post late Monday that police are investigating how the alligator got there but have yet to find any suspects.

Alligator Bob did not have kind words for the supposed perpetrator, whomever he or she may be. In an interview with Block Club Chicago, Bob said he would "call the person who did it ignorant and stupid."

“These things get to 10 to 12 feet long. And they live 70 to 80 years just like a human being. And what do you do with that?” he said. “That’s something you have to realize.”

Judge recommends $14 million in damages to victim of neo-Nazi who unleashed ‘troll storm’

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 06:51

Tanya Gersh, a Montana real estate agent, embraces her father Lloyd Rosenstein following a hearing at the Russell Smith Federal Courthouse on Thursday, July 11, 2019, in Missoula. Gersh is the plaintiff in a harassment lawsuit filed against Daily Stormer publisher Andrew Anglin. Gersh, who is Jewish, said she and her family received hundreds of threatening messages, many of them anti-Semitic. (Ben Allen/The Missoulian via AP) (Ben Allan Smith/)

The call to arms appeared on the Daily Stormer, a well-known neo-Nazi website, in December 2016.

"Are y'all ready for an old fashioned Troll Storm?" publisher Andrew Anglin wrote. "Because AYO - it's that time, fam."

With that, Tanya Gersh, a real estate agent in the picturesque resort community of Whitefish, Montana, saw her life upended. Gersh, her husband and their 12-year-old son were flooded with vile phone calls, text messages, emails, and social media posts, many of which contained death threats and anti-Semitic slurs. Gersh, who is Jewish, was told that she should have perished in the Holocaust, and received chilling voice mails with the sound of a gun firing again and again. She began experiencing panic attacks that left her vomiting and short of breath.

"I was frightened to the point that we couldn't think straight," Gersh told reporters after a court hearing last week. "We talked about waking our children in the middle of the night - to run from Nazis."

On Monday, a federal judge recommended that Anglin should be ordered to pay Gersh more than $14 million in damages, finding that the neo-Nazi had "acted with actual malice" when he posted her contact information online and encouraged his followers to harass her. ("Tell them you are sickened by their Jew agenda," wrote Anglin, whose whereabouts are now unknown.) Though it's unclear whether she will ever see any of that money, Gersh said Monday that the judge's findings sent a clear message to Anglin and other extremists.

"This lawsuit has always been about stopping others from enduring the terror I continue to live through at the hands of a neo-Nazi and his followers," she said in a statement.

The barrage of online invective and threats that Gersh and her family received followed accusations that she tried to extort the mother of prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer. In late 2016, Sherry Spencer, who owned a commercial building in Whitefish, began facing scrutiny because of her son's racist views, and some residents discussed protesting outside the property.

After she learned about the potential protests, Gersh contacted some of her friends who rented space in the building to give them a heads-up, according to the lawsuit that the Southern Poverty Law Center filed on her behalf. She subsequently received a phone call from Sherry Spencer, asking for her advice.

Gersh suggested that Spencer sell the building, make a donation and publicly disavow her son's views, the lawsuit says. At first, Spencer seemed receptive, but she soon changed her mind. In a since-deleted post on Medium, she accused Gersh of trying to threaten her into selling.

The following day, Dec. 16, 2016, a blog post titled "Jews Targeting Richard Spencer's Mother for Harassment and Extortion - TAKE ACTION!" appeared on the Daily Stormer. It was the first of at least 30 articles that the site would publish about Gersh, according to the lawsuit.

Anglin allegedly included phone numbers, email addresses and links to social media profiles for Gersh's immediate family, friends and colleagues, encouraging his followers to "make your opinions known." If they were in Whitefish, he suggested, they could even "stop by and tell her in person." By April 2017, when the SPLC filed its lawsuit against Anglin, Gersh and her family had received more than 700 hate-filled messages. (Sherry Spencer condemned the trolling in a public statement on Medium, according to NPR.)

After unsuccessfully trying to get the case dismissed on First Amendment grounds, Anglin failed to show up at any of the court hearings, according to the Missoulian. His whereabouts are unclear, and he lost his chance to mount a defense against the lawsuit when he refused to travel to the United States for a deposition in April, claiming that he was no longer an American citizen and would face violence and harassment if he returned.

His decision may also have been motivated by the fact that he faces a number of other lawsuits from people targeted by the Daily Stormer. In June, a federal judge ordered him to pay $4.1 million to the Muslim comedian and radio host Dean Obeidallah, who sued for libel after Anglin falsely accused him of plotting a May 2017 terrorist attack that killed 22 concertgoers at an Ariana Grande show in Manchester, England.

After Anglin forfeited the opportunity to contest the Montana lawsuit, his lawyers withdrew from the case, leaving him without legal representation. He did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

In court last week, Gersh described how she had spent years building a career and a life in Whitefish, only to contemplate fleeing after Anglin edited Holocaust imagery into photographs of her and her 12-year-old son, the Missoulian reported. Her therapist testified that she developed post-traumatic stress disorder from the unrelenting harassment and hasn't been able to fully heal because threatening messages keep coming. The troll attack also caused her income from her real estate business to take a nose-dive, according to testimony.

Calling Anglin's conduct "particularly egregious and reprehensible," Magistrate Judge Jeremiah C. Lynch recommended on Monday that he be ordered to pay Gersh more than $4 million in compensatory damages, as well as the state maximum of $10 million in punitive damages. In court last week, he categorized what the real estate agent experienced as an "atrocity," according to the Missoulian.

The recommendation is subject to the approval of the chief judge for the U.S. District Court in Montana, and given that Anglin appears to have gone underground, it's unclear whether he will ever pay up. The Daily Stormer was banned by both Google and the Web-hosting company GoDaddy in 2017 but continues an active online presence, frequently posting articles authored by Anglin. Gersh's legal team told the Missoulian on Monday that it intends to enforce an order that blocks him from operating the site through any domestic domain company. The attorneys also categorized the judge's findings as a symbolic victory.

"We will spare no effort in attempting to collect Andrew Anglin's real and personal and intellectual property that is subject to collection in the United States, but the real story here is that Tanya Gersh, a small-town realtor from Montana, stood up to the internet's most notorious Nazi, and she won," David Dinielli, the deputy legal director for the SPLC, told The Washington Post in an email.

“Andrew Anglin didn’t have the courage even to give a private deposition in an undisclosed location,” he added. “Tanya Gersh, by contrast, testified in public in a federal court and proved definitively that Anglin’s efforts to terrorize and dehumanize her because she is Jewish did not and will not succeed.”

Apollo 11 moon-mission astronaut returns to launch pad on 50th anniversary

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 06:38

This March 30, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows the crew of the Apollo 11, from left, Neil Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, module pilot; Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, lunar module pilot. Apollo 11 was the first manned mission to the surface of the moon. (NASA via AP)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins returned Tuesday to the exact spot where he and two other astronauts flew to the moon 50 years ago.

At NASA’s invitation, Michael Collins spent the golden anniversary at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A in Florida. He marked the precise moment — 9:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969 — that their Saturn V rocket departed on humanity’s first moon landing. Buzz Aldrin was an unexplained no-show. Mission commander Neil Armstrong — who took the first lunar footsteps — died in 2012.

Collins said he wished Aldrin and Armstrong could have shared the moment at the pad.

Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 spacesuit is unveiled at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) (Andrew Harnik/)

It was “a wonderful feeling to be back,” the 88-year-old astronaut said in an interview on NASA TV. “There was a difference this time. I want to turn and ask Neil a question and maybe tell Buzz Aldrin something, and of course, I’m here by myself.”

The return kicked off a week of celebrations marking each day of Apollo 11′s eight-day voyage. Collins remained in orbit during the mission while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon.

At the Air and Space Museum in Washington, the spacesuit that Armstrong wore is back on display in mint condition. On hand for the unveiling were Vice President Mike Pence, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine and Armstrong's son, Rick.

In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin Jr. stands next to the Passive Seismic Experiment device on the surface of the the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. (Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP) (Neil Armstrong/)

A fundraising campaign took just five days to raise the $500,000 needed for the restoration.

Calling Armstrong a hero, Pence said “the American people express their gratitude by preserving this symbol of courage.”

In Huntsville, Alabama, where the Saturn V was developed, thousands of model rockets were launched simultaneously, commemorating the moment the Apollo 11 crew blasted off for the moon.

Check back for updates.

Forest service chief talks timber sales in visit to Alaska’s Tongass National Forest

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 06:08

JUNEAU - The head of the U.S. Forest Service visited Alaska’s Tongass National Forest recently to investigate timber sales and related issues.

Vicki Christiansen is shown in a 2012 photo. (John Crepeau/The Missoulian via AP) (John Crepeau/)

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski hosted Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen during the July 6-7 visit, CoastAlaska reported.

Christiansen stopped in Wrangell, Ketchikan and Prince Wales Island as part of a flying visit with Alaska's senior senator. The meetings were not publicized in advance.

Murkowski questioned Christiansen about the service’s Southeast Alaska timber sales during budget hearings in May and the women agreed to tour the area together.

Christiansen told Murkowski the issue was a challenge and she was willing to visit Alaska to "roll up our sleeves and really look at this."

The forest service did not receive any bids in a sale of Tongass old-growth timber that ended in June.

The federal delegation spoke with industry representatives and supporters in Wrangell about a Trump administration effort to craft an exemption from the 2001 Roadless Rule that would allow logging in more undeveloped parts of the Tongass.

The forest service is expected to hold public hearings to a draft environmental impact statement for an Alaska-specific Roadless Rule later this year.

Christiansen was receptive to concerns over timber supplies for commercial logging, said Alaska Pulp Corp. executive Frank Roppel.

"We were encouraged that there's some interest and willingness to try and help the industry," Roppel said.

Tribal leaders in Ketchikan offered the visitors a different perspective.

“We prefer that there is no change the forest plan and I think most of the tribes are going that way,” said Ronald Leighton, president of the Organized Village of Kasaan.

NOAA closes investigation into close call between cruise ship and humpback whales

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 05:44

Juneau's first two cruise ships of the summer, Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam and Eurodam, arrived in port Monday afternoon, May 1, 2017, pictured here from the fifth floor of the Alaska Capitol. (Nathaniel Herz / Alaska Dispatch News) (Nathaniel Herz / ADN/)

An investigation into an incident involving an apparent near-miss between a cruise ship and a pod of whales last month has been closed, concluding the vessel did not violate federal regulations.

Julie Speegle of NOAA Fisheries confirmed that the agency’s Office of Law Enforcement determined Holland America Line’s Eurdoam altered course and slowed speed as it approached a group of humpback whales on June 24.

Under federal law, vessels must maintain a distance of at least 100 yards from humpback whales.

A video shared widely on social media after the incident shows the Eurodam cruising by the surfacing whales.

A man in the background claims to have radioed the ship twice over the course of about 15 minutes warning it about the whales, but says it didn’t slow down.

Speegle said NOAA received several complaints from the public after the video was posted.

Mark Sutherland said he shot the video and was working on the vessel Chichagof Dream at the time.

Sutherland said he didn’t file a complaint with NOAA, but he says he was surprised the investigation had been closed so quickly and disappointed the agency did not reach out to him.

“If you can show them a video of it and they’re not going to act on it, I don’t know what you could ever do to get them to take a stance,” Sutherland said. “If that’s not damning, I don’t know what is.”

He said the incident made him angry because he was working in Seward in 2016 when Holland America’s Zaandam pulled into port with a dead juvenile fin whale draped across its bow.

He also pointed out that the Holland America Line’s parent company, Carnival Corp., recently agreed to pay an additional $20 million in fines for felony probation violations that include illegal dumping in Alaska and elsewhere.

After the Eurodam incident, Holland America Line put out a statement saying the Eurodam’s captain altered course by 10 degrees to safely pass the whales.

“Holland America Line ships sail while following a comprehensive Whale Strike Avoidance program developed in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Parks Service,” the statement says.

This article was originally published at and is republished here with permission.

North Korea hints it may resume nuclear testing, accuses U.S. of reneging on pact

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 05:23

FILE - In this Sunday, June 30, 2019 file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump, center left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stand on the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone in Panmunjom. On Friday, July 5, 2019, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly asserting Trump walked into North Korea by himself, without Secret Service or military protection. At background left is Special Agent in Charge Anthony Ornato. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (Susan Walsh/)

SEOUL, South Korea - North Korea warned Tuesday that planned military exercises involving U.S. and South Korean forces would jeopardize proposed disarmament talks with Washington, and hinted it might respond by resuming nuclear and missile tests.

In a statement, the North's Foreign Ministry accused the United States of violating the spirit of negotiations between President Donald Trump and dictator Kim Jong Un by proceeding with military maneuvers scheduled for next month. At their first meeting in Singapore last year, Trump agreed to cancel major exercises with South Korea to avoid provoking Pyongyang.

The North said its moratorium on nuclear and missile tests "is a promise we made in hopes of improving bilateral relations, not something we wrote into law."

"Are we obliged to keep the promise unilaterally when the other side does not?," it said.

Pyongyang last launched a long-range missile in November 2017, though it has tested shorter-range weapons since then. It last nuclear test was in September 2017.

North Korea has long criticized U.S.-South Korean military exercises, viewing them as rehearsals for an invasion. The allies have planned to conduct combined maneuvers, known as Dong Maeng, in coming weeks.

U.S. Forces Korea said Tuesday it would continue to train in a combined manner while adjusting the scale and timing of military exercises in concert with diplomatic efforts.

"As a matter of standard operating procedure, and in order to preserve space for diplomacy to work, we do not discuss any planned training or exercises publicly," it said.

The North's statement appeared aimed at pressuring the United States, which has sought to revive nuclear talks with Pyongyang since the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in February ended without a deal.

The two leaders met again at the inter-Korean demilitarized zone last month and moved to get diplomacy back on track.

"What is going to happen is over the next two or three weeks, the teams are going to start working to see whether or not they can do something," Trump said after the June 30 meeting, where he became the first sitting president to set foot in North Korea.

Since that summit, there hasn't been any official meeting between working-level negotiators of the two countries, prompting worries about the sustainability of their diplomacy and the prospects of a deal.

"The U.S.-South Korean military exercises have already been toned down in scale and substance in order not to provoke North Korea," said Shin Beom-chul, a researcher at Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. "North Korea is trying to pick a hole in order to raise its leverage in working-level negotiations with the United States."

The United States wants North Korea to take concrete steps toward denuclearization before it is willing to ease sanctions that limit Pyongyang’s trade. Kim has said he wants to develop his economy - though that goal remains largely out of reach while his nation remains shackled by sanctions.

I denied that Trump was a racist. Not anymore.

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 21:29

President Donald Trump speaks during a Made in America showcase event on the South Lawn of the White House, Monday, July 15, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (Alex Brandon/)

George T. Conway III is a litigator at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in New York.

To this day, I can remember almost the precise spot where it happened: a supermarket parking lot in eastern Massachusetts. It was the mid-1970s; I was not yet a teenager, or barely one. I don’t remember exactly what precipitated the woman’s ire. But I will never forget what she said to my mother, who had come to this country from the Philippines decades before. In these words or something close, the woman said, “Go back to your country.”

I remember the incident well, but it never bothered me all that much. Nor did racial slurs, which, thankfully, were rare. None of it was troublesome, to my mind, because most Americans weren't like that. The woman in the parking lot was just a boor, an ignoramus, an aberration. America promised equality. Its Constitution said so. My schoolbooks said so. The country wasn't perfect, to be sure. But its ideals were. And every day brought us closer to those ideals.

To a young boy, it seemed like long ago that a descendant of slaves had prophesied, five days before I was born, that his "four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." We would be there soon enough, if we weren't there already. I couldn't understand why colleges required applicants to check boxes for race or ethnicity. I'm also part Irish and Scottish. What box should I check? Should I check one at all? Will that help me or hurt me? Never mind, not to worry, those boxes would someday soon be gone.

How naive a child could be. The woman in the parking lot - there were many more like her, it turned out. They never went away. Today they attend rallies, and they post ugliness on Facebook or Twitter. As for the victims of historic racial oppression, no matter how much affirmative action (or reverse discrimination, or whatever you want to call it) the nation offered, they, too, had resentments that never went away - in part because of people like the parking-lot woman. Those resentments often led to more, not fewer, charges of racism as the years passed - charges of institutional racism and "white privilege."

Which, in turn, bred another kind of resentment: Why, asked many an unaffluent white parent, who may never have uttered a racial slur or whose ancestors may never have held anyone in bondage, does my child have to check a box to her detriment, or be accused of "white privilege," when the only privilege she has received came from the sweat of my brow? Why are people like me being called racist, when all I've done was mind my own business?

And how naive an adult could be. The birther imaginings about Barack Obama? Just a silly conspiracy theory, latched onto by an attention seeker who has a peculiar penchant for them. The "Mexican" Judge Gonzalo Curiel incident? Asinine, inappropriate, a terrible attack on the judiciary by an egocentric man who imagined that the judge didn't like him. The white supremacists' march in Charlottesville, Virginia? The president's comments were absolutely idiotic, but he couldn't possibly have been referring to those self-described Nazis as "good people"; in his sloppy, inarticulate way, he was referring to both sides of the debate over Civil War statues, and venting his anger about being criticized.

No, I thought, President Donald Trump was boorish, dim-witted, inarticulate, incoherent, narcissistic and insensitive. He's a pathetic bully but an equal-opportunity bully - in his uniquely crass and crude manner, he'll attack anyone he thinks is critical of him. No matter how much I found him ultimately unfit, I gave still him the benefit of the doubt about being a racist. No matter how much I came to dislike him, I didn't want to think that the president of the United States is a racial bigot.

But Sunday left no doubt. Naivete, resentment and outright racism, roiled in a toxic mix, have given us a racist president. Trump could have used vile slurs, including the vilest of them all, and the intent and effect would have been no less clear. Telling four nonwhite members of Congress - American citizens all, three natural-born - to "go back" to the "countries" they "originally came from"? That's racist to the core. It doesn't matter what these representatives are for or against - and there's plenty to criticize them for - it's beyond the bounds of human decency. For anyone, not least a president.

What's just as bad, though, is the virtual silence from Republican leaders and officeholders. They're silent not because they agree with Trump. Surely they know better. They're silent because, knowing that he's incorrigible, they have inured themselves to his wild statements; because, knowing that he's a fool, they don't really take his words seriously and pretend that others shouldn't, either; because, knowing how damaging Trump's words are, the Republicans don't want to give succor to their political enemies; because, knowing how vindictive, stubborn and obtusely self-destructive Trump is, they fear his wrath.

But none of that is good enough. Trump is not some random, embittered person in a parking lot - he’s the president of the United States. By virtue of his office, he speaks for the country. What’s at stake now is more important than judges or tax cuts or regulations or any policy issue of the day. What’s at stake are the nation’s ideals, its very soul.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Crowd gathers in Anchorage to mark closing of Alaska State Council on the Arts

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 20:57

Artists and supporters of the Alaska State Council on the Arts gathered outside its offices in Anchorage to say farewell on Monday afternoon, July 15, 2019. The agency closed Monday due to its loss of funding by veto by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. (Marc Lester / ADN) (Marc Lester/)

Sheryl Maree Reily spoke quietly as she reflected on the loss. Wearing a long, black dress with a dark lace veil, she was symbolically dressed for a funeral.

Reily was one of about 50 people who gathered outside the Alaska State Council on the Arts Monday to mourn the passing of the organization, which closed its doors after its funding was eliminated by a budget veto by Gov. Mike Dunleavy earlier this month -- a $2.8 million cut.

The elimination of the agency leaves Alaska as the only state in the U.S. to be without a state arts council. According to council chairman Benjamin Brown, the state’s general fund contributes $700,000 of the council’s funding directly; $700,000 in federal funds through the National Endowment for the Arts and $1.5 million in private foundation funds were also vetoed and can’t be accepted.

Although the gathering had a somber tone, community members also assembled to thank outgoing employees who were terminated with the council’s shuttering.

“I came here today to give my support, acknowledge the hard work and the achievements of this organization,” said Reily, who was a member of the council’s visual arts advisory committee.

Attendees wore “Art Matters” stickers and wrote messages of support in chalk on the pavement outside the front of the council office in Mountain View as local musicians played. Organizers were planning a larger show of support for employees as they left at the end of the day, but most wanted to complete their day without any extra ceremony. Those who left while the crowd was still at the building were visibly shaken.

Alaska State Council on the Arts staff member Keren Lowell, second from right, is comforted outside the organization’s Mountain View offices at the close of its last day on Monday, July 15, 2019. “We did a good job. I’m proud of what we did," Lowell said.(Marc Lester / ADN) (Marc Lester/)

Keren Lowell, literary and visual arts coordinator, was emotional as she spoke about her time at the council. She also had finance and administrative duties during her seven years there. Although those were less gratifying jobs than working directly with the art, she said they were probably some of the more valuable services the council provided.

“That’s why this agency is so amazing,” she said. “We had a good handle on how money works and how the arts work in money. We did a good job. I’m proud of what we did.”

Lowell pointed out that while public perception might be that the organization was mainly about funding, they did much more, from supporting schools, teachers and rural communities to coordinating with other arts organizations and facilitating professional development for artists.

“Instead of thinking about us as an organization, we talk about being a node and all of the other arts partners used us as a pass-through or as a center or as a collection point for all of the activities going on,” Lowell said. “We communicated with people, which led to more opportunities and supported the work that they did.”

Reily said the loss of the council will be a big hole in the arts community.

“This is going to leave a huge vacuum,” she said. “There is going to be no formal mechanism for connecting information, connecting funding.”

Artists and supporters of the Alaska State Council on the Arts gathered outside its offices in Anchorage to say farewell on Monday afternoon, July 15, 2019. The agency closed Monday due to its loss of funding by veto by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. (Marc Lester / ADN) (Marc Lester/)

Reily spoke about the perception of the arts as something that are subsidized without a return.

“I think it’s a misconception,” she said. “They are an economic driver. They are the underpinnings of the tourism industry, secondary to the landscape. People come here for the culture, and they come here for the arts. It’s the stories that people tell in magazines that bring people here that the writers and poets write, the photographs that the photographers take.”

Quinton Smith, 26, of Anchorage, is an audio/video artist who operates the firm Landsick Media. Smith said he’s done some work with the state council on the arts. While artists will continue to operate in the state, the loss of the council will be considerable, he said.

“It’s devastating,” he said. “It’s incredibly regressive. We’re the only state in the entire country that doesn’t have a state council on the arts. Art is going to prevail. Art will be here.”

At hearing, Alaskans call for compromise as Legislature remains split over the dividend

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 20:26

Emily Olsen, M.D. said some of her "medicaid patients will die" as she testified during the Alaska House Finance Committee meeting in Anchorage on Monday, July 15, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

At a legislative hearing on Monday, many Alaskans were divided over payment of an Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend payment, with some calling for a full, $3,000 payment while others supported a smaller amount and a reversal of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s $444 million in vetoes.

And some speakers supported new taxes as a way to pay both a large dividend and protect services.

If the dividend is reduced below $3,000, poor people with large families will be hit the hardest, said Judith Rittenberg of Trapper Creek, who phoned into the hearing. Even infants who are eligible for the dividend are essentially being taxed under that plan, she said.

“There needs to be an income tax, or a flat tax or some kind of tax. Oil companies can be taxed. But stealing people’s PFD is not one (of the options)," Rittenberg said.

The five-hour hearing at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office was the first of five meetings this week for the Alaska House Finance Committee, as the Legislature struggles to find a way forward after efforts to override the vetoes failed last week. Tuesday’s meeting is set for the LIO in Wasilla, with public testimony scheduled for 2-7 p.m.

[Impasse continues as Alaska lawmakers push different visions for budget, Permanent Fund dividend]

The committee is taking testimony on House Bill 2001, which would pay a $929 dividend while restoring funding lost with the vetoes, if the Legislature can muster a 45-vote, veto-proof majority. That dividend is simply a starting point for discussion, said Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome and the committee’s co-chairman.

“We’re trying to get to some middle ground,” he said.

More than 250 people signed up to speak at the hearing, a committee aide said.

Protestors who support a full PFD stand outside the Anchorage Legislative Building before public testimony in the Alaska House Finance Committee meeting on Monday, July 15, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
Representatives Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, left, and Neal Foster, D-Nome, right, co-chairs of the House Finance Committee listen to Marnie Hartill speak during public testimony in Anchorage on Monday, July 15, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
Molly Hayes was joined by her daughters Adele, 8, left, and Greta, 6, as she testified in support for a smaller PFD and reinstating the items vetoed while speaking at the Alaska House Finance Committee meeting in Anchorage on Monday, July 15, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)
Rep. Matt Claman, D- Anchorage, left, sat with Senate President Cathy Giessl, R-Anchorage, center, and Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon as public testimony began in the Alaska House Finance Committee meeting held in Anchorage on Monday, July 15, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

The hearing lacked the large protests, usually dominated by veto opponents, seen outside other legislative meetings that followed the June 28 vetoes to the state operating budget.

This time, about 10 people stood outside with signs supporting the $3,000 dividend backed by the governor and some lawmakers. Those big-dividend supporters testified frequently on Monday, at least during the hearing’s early hours.

Molly Hayes, who two young daughters stood by her side as she spoke, said no dividend is worth the pain Alaskans are already facing from the cuts, including the loss of services at homeless shelters.

“At this point, it feels like dirty money,” she said.

[Anchorage’s biggest homeless shelter closes during the day, braces for drastic budget cuts]

Many speakers said they’re already seeing stress in the economy from the cuts, including University of Alaska staff who expect to lose jobs following a $130 million cut to UA, and students who are losing scholarships and possibly degree programs. They urged lawmakers to reverse the cuts.

Caroline Storm, a self-employed architect in Anchorage, said business in the construction industry is slow and expected to get slower because of the cuts. She said she supports a full, $3,000 PFD payment, but also wants to see a reversal of most of the vetoes and a progressive income tax.

“The same people who need the PFD will also be harmed by the vetoes,” she said.

Paige Hall, from Wasilla, said the Legislature should pay a full, $3,000 dividend under the traditional formula. Her family has used past dividends under that formula to buy a boiler for their house, and pay for their children’s college. This year, her family plans to use the money to build a cabin for a homeless relative.

But she also doesn’t want to see services lost. She supports an income tax or a sales tax, she said.

“I’m not well off, but I’m ready to pay my fair share,” she said.

Verne Boerner, chief executive of the Alaska Native Health Board, said the state will lose at least at least $50 million in federal matching funds from the vetoes alone, after the governor cut $50 million from Medicaid services. The veto to Medicaid services comes atop a $70 million cut approved by the Legislature.

[A partial list of Gov. Dunleavy’s line-item vetoes]

Emily Olsen, a doctor from Anchorage wearing a white coat, told the committee the hit to Medicaid funding will lead to more homelessness and unnecessary deaths as medical services are lost. She said a physician friend is exploring leaving the state.

“The PFD has been used as a weapon to pit neighbor against neighbor,” she said. “We need a different source of income."

A man from Fairbanks who called in said he’s a Republican who would support an income tax if it helps pay for full dividend.

“Being a Republican, I know that sounds crazy, but I’m OK if everyone is paid,” he said.

Shelly Vendetti-Vuckovich of Anchorage told lawmakers that much of the testimony gave her hope. Until now, she hasn’t heard calls for a full dividend payment, a veto reversal and new taxes to help pay for services.

“It highlights the need for everyone to come together and work together and find a bipartisan solution,” 'she said.

Interior to move one-fifth of Bureau of Land Management’s Washington staff out West, as part of larger reorganization push

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 18:39

WASHINGTON - The Trump administration plans to relocate more than a fifth of the Bureau of Land Management’s D.C. workforce to west of the Rockies, part of its broader push to shift power away from Washington and shrink the size of the federal government.

The proposal to move nearly 80 employees from a key Interior Department agency - the majority of top managers - comes as Trump officials are forcibly reassigning career officials and upending operations across the federal government. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue finalized plans this summer to move about 550 jobs at two of his department's scientific agencies from the nation's capital to the greater Kansas City region. The White House is trying to abolish the Office of Personnel Management, the government's human resources agency, and has threatened to furlough as many as 150 employees if Congress blocks it.

"The problem with Washington is too many policy makers are far removed from the people they are there to serve," Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said in a statement supporting the move. "Ninety-nine percent of the land the BLM manages is West of the Mississippi River, and so should be the BLM headquarters."

But opponents argue that abrupt decisions to relocate or reassign federal workers have not been justified by sufficient analysis, can disrupt families' lives and has already cost the government valuable expertise.

"If I wanted to dismantle an agency, this would be in my playbook," said Steve Ellis, who retired as BLM's deputy director in 2016 after nearly four decades in government service. In a phone interview Monday, he said that transferring so many employees out of Washington could complicate the agency's relationship with Capitol Hill, budget officials and other federal entities.

He noted that Interior dispatched all of its wildfire and aviation staff to Boise, Idaho, in the 1990s only to re-establish a wildland fire office in D.C. when lawmakers expected briefings after fires broke out in the West.

"It's important for these agencies to have a meaningful footprint in D.C.," Ellis said.

Margaret Weichert, Office of Management and Budge deputy director for management, said in a statement that the move will make the government more efficient and "better serve the American people."

In a shift long sought by conservatives, Trump's government has shed thousands of employees overall since he took office, with gains at the Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs but an exodus of civil servants at several other agencies, including the Departments of Labor, Education, and Housing and Urban Development.

Jason Briefel, head of the Senior Executive Association, which represents 6,000 top government leaders, said it is worth having a public conversation about how to reorganize different agencies. But he questioned whether the Trump administration had made a solid business case for some of these decisions.

"This isn't just an Interior issue," he said in an interview. "This is a government-wide issue."

Many of the 77 BLM employees slated for a job transfer will move to Grand Junction, Colorado, according to two federal officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the decision has not been formally announced. But some of the affected workers - who include some top officials, Senior Executive Service staffers and low-level managers - will move to other cities in the West.

Interior officials have been eyeing a possible move for BLM, which manages more than 10 percent of the nation's land, for more than two years. A handful of Western states, such as Colorado and Utah, have sought to recruit the agency. The bureau has about 9,260 employees, of which roughly 350 work in Washington.

While administration officials defend the Agriculture Department and BLM moves as an effort to spread the federal workforce around, 85% of the 2.1 million federal employees already live outside the Washington area.

The Bureau of Land Management has just 350 employees in Washington, with 95% of its 9,260 employees working in the field.

The idea of shifting the bureau west has received the support of some lawmakers, including the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, Rob Bishop of Utah, as well as Gardner and Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo. In March 2018, the two senators from Colorado urged then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to look at the city lying roughly 280 miles west of Denver.

"We can think of no better permanent home for the BLM headquarters than Grand Junction," they wrote. "Moving the BLM closer to the land it manages and the people it serves ensures a bright future for the agency."

Bishop helped arrange a tour of Ogden, Utah, last year for one of the top officials overseeing the move: Susan Combs, assistant secretary for policy, management and budget

Bishop said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is "promoting a thoughtful, methodical approach."

But House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., accused Interior Secretary David Bernhardt of not being more transparent about his plans. In a statement Monday, Grijalva noted that Bernhardt's hometown of Rifle, Colorado, is not far from Grand Junction.

"This administration has been handing over public lands to fossil fuel companies at record speed, and this move is part of that agenda. Putting BLM headquarters down the road from Secretary Bernhardt's home town just makes it easier for special interests to walk in the door demanding favors without congressional oversight or accountability," Grijalva said. "The agency will lose a lot of good people because of this move, and I suspect that's the administration's real goal here."

The move comes as Bernhardt has tapped William Perry Pendley, former president of the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation, as a top policy adviser at BLM.

Interior declined to comment on the matter.

It remains unclear whether Congress, which has yet to be formally briefed on the proposed changes, would have to explicitly authorize the shift in personnel. The move is expected to cost at least $4 million, according to one federal official.

This is not the first time Interior has reassigned senior executives with little notice. In June 2017, political appointees reshuffled the assignments of more than three dozen career executives, with just 15 days' notice of their job change. Interior's Office of Inspector General investigated the matter but did not determine whether the moves were justified, citing the department's incomplete records.

Denise Sheehan, who worked at Interior for 33 years before retiring last month at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a phone interview Sunday that the round of reassignments had "a chilling effect."

"They said, 'Don't fight, don't take any complaints to the politicals because they could move us. I had one manager tell me, 'They could move you, they could move me,' " said Sheehan, who added that it limited what political appointees could learn from career officials. "I don't know if that was intended or not, but that was definitely the effect. It's the most toxic thing in the senior executive corps I have ever seen."

In many cases, reassigned federal staffers have chosen to leave the government, because they hail from two-career families or for other personal reasons. A majority of scientists and researchers at the USDA agencies slated to move to Kansas City are choosing not to move, and Perdue's plan has been dogged by questions about its cost and the motivation behind it.

"When you move large numbers of employees from one part of the country to another, you're going to lose a lot of institutional knowledge," said Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union - with 530 members at BLM.

In other instances, the administration has shuttered parts of agencies altogether. The small Federal Labor Relations Authority, which adjudicates disputes between federal employees and their agencies, has closed regional offices in Dallas and Boston, citing declining workloads.

While the administration has said that its efforts to reorganize the federal government are designed to make it more efficient and responsive, such moves are costly. Dismantling the Office of Personnel Budget, for example, would cost $50 million, according to the White House's proposed budget request.

Under federal law, BLM will have to pay all relocation and real estate costs for employees who choose to move west, including what it takes to sell their homes in the Washington region and purchase a new one. Employees and their families will be entitled to four months of hotel stays on the government's dime, federal personnel experts said, which could cost as much as $100,000 per employee.

The agency will probably offer retirement and buyout packages to employees who decide not to move, which could equal as much as a year's salary depending on their age and years of service.

Interior's total workforce shrank by a little more than 1 percent between January 2016 and September 2018, according to federal records. BLM's staffing grew 3 percent during that period, however.

Not all the administration's reorganization plans have gained traction, largely because they would have required congressional approval. A merger of the Education and Labor departments has yet to materialize, and neither has a plan to create a new agency housing safety-net programs such as food stamps and welfare.

The Washington Post’s Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.

Impasse continues as Alaska lawmakers push different visions for budget, Permanent Fund dividend

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 18:05

Gov. Mike Dunleavy talks and answers questions about his recent budget vetoes at the start of a meeting with members of his cabinet in Anchorage on July 15, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN) (Marc Lester/)

JUNEAU — Alaska lawmakers have entered the second week of their ongoing special session still divided by different visions for this year’s Alaska Permanent Fund dividend and state budget, even as concerns about the location of the session subsided with a compromise meeting in Anchorage.

On Monday, one group of lawmakers unveiled new legislation that would fix issues with the state’s capital budget, reverse Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s decision to veto $444 million from the state operating budget, and pay a dividend of $929 per person with the $641 million surplus remaining after state services are funded.

The other group, deferring to the governor’s control of the special session’s agenda, published a letter asking him to add the capital budget to that agenda once lawmakers agree on the amount of this year’s dividend. The issue of the vetoes was left unaddressed, but its authors said in subsequent interviews they could be addressed after the other two items.

Legislators have four tasks: agree on the appropriate location of the special session, approve an amount for this year’s Permanent Fund dividend, finish work on the capital budget (including the “reverse sweep”) and make a final decision on reversing (or not) Dunleavy’s decision to veto $444 million from the state operating budget.

Last week, and continuing Monday, about one-third of the Legislature’s 60 members have met in Wasilla, supporting a special-session proclamation from the governor that calls them into session there. The remaining lawmakers contend that the Legislature’s position as a separate but equal branch of government allows them to select their own meeting location, and with a majority of the Legislature in attendance, convened the session in Juneau.

Lawsuits have been filed on both sides of the issue.

In remarks Monday to news media, the governor said legislative factions were “moving closer together.”

He said compromise wasn’t off the table.

“I realize we all have to come together,” he said. “Which means some movement into the middle, so we can meet.”

Dunleavy did not say what compromises he was willing to make.

“We all realize we’re running out of time,” he said. “We all want a closure to this legislative session.”

Representatives Jennifer Johnston, R-Anchorage, left, Neal Foster, D-Nome, and Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, listen to public testimony during the Alaska House Finance Committee meeting in Anchorage on Monday, July 15, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage and one of those who went to Wasilla, said the location dispute is a side issue.

“We have gone to the governor and said, you know what, if you want to call us into Anchorage or Juneau, we will be there. That’s not the issue here,” she said.

The critical issues, she explained, are budgetary. If the Legislature fails to finish work on the capital budget before the end of the month, the state could lose almost $1 billion in federal highway and airport aid. Within the capital budget, the failure of the “reverse sweep” vote has caused college students to lose scholarships and has endangered, at least temporary, the state’s subsidy for rural electricity.

If the governor’s operating budget vetoes are unchanged, the state’s senior benefits program will remain unfunded, Medicaid patients will go without dental care, and the University of Alaska will be forced to make extraordinary cuts to its operations. (The university’s board of regents on Monday deferred decisions on those cuts until the end of the month.)

Speaking to reporters, the governor said, “these vetoes, once again, in my opinion, were needed to start the process of right-sizing government.”

He has previously said his goal is to balance the state budget without increasing taxes, cutting the dividend or spending from savings.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy talks and answers questions about his recent budget vetoes at the start of a meeting with members of his cabinet in Anchorage on July 15, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN) (Marc Lester/)

Costello said the Wasilla group believes the governor’s special session proclamation is constitutionally and legally valid, so it must be followed. The difficulty is that the only agenda item on that proclamation is the dividend.

The Wasilla group supports following the traditional dividend formula, which calls for a payment of $3,000 this year. Most of the Juneau group does not.

“We need to fund the full amount, but that’s because that’s step one of multiple steps in terms of getting this off our plate,” said House Minority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage. Pruitt and Costello signed the letter on behalf of the legislators in Wasilla.

“We’re supporting the constitutional call, but at the same time we’re moving things forward,” Costello said.

Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, center, and Senate President Cathy Giessel, right, attended the Alaska House Finance meeting in Anchorage on Monday, July 15, 2019. (Bill Roth / ADN) (Bill Roth / ADN/)

Legislators who originally convened in Juneau are taking a different track. On Monday, members of the House Finance Committee who met in the capital city introduced a new version of House Bill 2001, which was originally written to pay a $1,600 dividend.

The new version calls for a “surplus” dividend — what’s left over after other expenses are paid. As part of the calculation of that surplus, the bill calls for restoring funding to programs vetoed by the governor, funding the capital budget and fixing the reverse sweep. After that, it pays the estimated $929 dividend.

That roundabout approach is necessary to follow the governor’s constitutional ability to control the special session agenda, which only includes the dividend.

“This is, again, a surplus PFD bill, and we had to put the information in there to know what the surplus PFD was,” said Rep. Neal Foster, D-Nome and co-chair of the House Finance Committee, in a committee hearing unveiling the proposal.

The hearing took place in Anchorage, neutral ground between the Juneau and Wasilla locations. Three members of the committee who attended the Wasilla session were present. They voted against considering the idea, saying it strays from the governor’s agenda.

Foster said after the hearing that the bill “is just a starting point. I don’t think there are many people who believe we’re going to have a $929 PFD.”

He called the bill a “means to get past the current impasse” over the budget.

“Maybe in the end we do accept some of the (governor’s) cuts, but without this bill, that’s a nonstarter,” he said.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Amazon shoppers snatch up deals on potato chips and toilet paper

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 17:39

Amazon shoppers are snatching up potato chips, crackers, toilet paper and other nonperishable grocery store items to take advantage of the online retailer’s Prime Day deals, which could be bad news for Costco and Walmart.

Sales of consumable products on Amazon during the first nine hours of Prime Day - a two-day sale that began Monday - are about triple what they are on a typical sales day, according to CommerceIQ, which helps hundreds of consumer brands sell products on the e-commerce site.

The results show that Prime Day's appeal stretches beyond electronics, appliances and other big-ticket purchases shoppers usually put off until there's a big promotion. Sales of car seats, appliances and toys were up four to five times a typical day, according to CommerceIQ, which is about the usual rate for a sales event.

Shoppers will spend $5.8 billion on Amazon over the two days, according to an estimate from Coresight Research. That's an 11% increase from last year's 36-hour sale when converted to spending per hour. Amazon launched Prime Day in 2015 as a way to lure new Prime members, who pay monthly or yearly fees in exchange for shipping discounts and other perks like video streaming.

The uptick in spending shows Amazon Prime Day continues to have strong appeal to shoppers despite competing sales events offered by rivals from Walmart to Target and EBay.

Amazon doesn’t disclose specific sales information about Prime Day. Some companies are able to gain insights through their own sales on the site or estimations based on sales rankings and other information Amazon discloses.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway will ignore congressional subpoena

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 17:31

WASHINGTON - White House counselor Kellyanne Conway will ignore a congressional subpoena at the request of President Donald Trump, refusing to testify about a government watchdog’s findings that she broke the law dozens of times, the White House said Monday.

Last month, the House Oversight Committee authorized a subpoena for Conway after special counsel Henry Kerner said she blatantly violated the Hatch Act, a law that bars federal employees from engaging in politics during work.

"We're not requiring her to testify about advice she gave the president or about the White House policy decisions. . . . We are requiring her to testify before Congress about her multiple violations of federal law," Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the committee, said at a session Monday. "This is bigger than just the Hatch Act. . . . This is about holding our government to the highest standard and not allowing [Trump officials to have] special treatment when they flagrantly violate the law."

White House lawyers had rejected the Oversight Committee's request for Conway to appear at the hearing last month, citing a bipartisan practice that West Wing officials do not testify to Congress while they still work in the administration. They likewise advised her to ignore the subpoena Monday at Trump's request.

"As you know, in accordance with long-standing, bipartisan precedent, Ms. Conway cannot be compelled to testify before Congress with respect to matters related to her service as a senior adviser to the President," White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote in a letter to the panel.

He added: "Because of this constitutional immunity, and in order to protect the prerogatives of the Office of the President, the President has directed Ms. Conway not to appear at the Committee's scheduled hearing. . . . The long-standing principle of immunity for senior advisers to the President is firmly rooted in the Constitution's separation of powers and protects the core functions of the presidency."

The move increases the likelihood that Democrats will hold Conway in contempt, just as they have for several White House officials who have ignored compulsory measures. Rebuffed by the White House, Cummings said Monday that the panel would meet July 25 and vote on whether to hold Conway in contempt.

In the latest example of the standoff between the two branches, House Democrats will vote Tuesday to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in criminal contempt for refusing to cooperate with an investigation into President Trump's effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.

In Conway's case, Democrats argue that the White House had no right to claim executive privilege or immunity because the alleged violations deal with her personal actions, not her duties advising the president or working in the West Wing. They accused the administration of stonewalling another House investigation.

The Hatch Act bars federal employees from engaging in political activity during work hours or on the job. But a report submitted to Trump by Kerner - a former Oversight Committee Republican aide who was appointed by Trump - found that Conway violated that law on numerous occasions by "disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media." Kerner recommended that Trump terminate her federal employment, though Trump has refused.

Conway has appeared on national television to defend herself and accused House Democrats of trying to retaliate against her for managing Trump's 2016 campaign.

"You know what they're mad about?" Conway said. "They want to put a big roll of masking tape over my mouth because I helped as a campaign manager for the successful part of the campaign. . . . So they want to chill free speech because they don't know how to beat [Trump] at the ballot box."

Republicans have also tried to argue that Kerner, while a former colleague, is targeting Conway because she scoffed at his requests that she stop discussing politics on air. But Kerner, in an interview with The Washington Post, pushed back on the assertion that politics in any way influenced his decision.

"We're trying to hold Ms. Conway to the same standard we hold other people in government to," Kerner said. "My staff came up with violations. They're obvious. She says things that are campaign messages."

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the committee, said Monday that the session was "pure politics . . . to silence one of the president's top advisers. They targeted Ms. Conway because she's effective."

The Office of Special Counsel is a quasi-judicial independent agency that adjudicates claims of retaliation by whistleblowers and administers the Hatch Act and other civil service rules. It is separate from the office run by former special counsel Robert Mueller, who led an inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

History is watching. Let’s look out for one another.

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 16:18

The setting sun lights up the buildings of downtown Anchorage beneath the Chugach Mountains as seen from Port Woronzof in west Anchorage, AK, on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN) (Anchorage Daily News/)

I remember when Ted Stevens would put on his Hulk tie and do battle for Alaska. He fought hard, and so did generations of leaders who put Alaska first. They would be appalled at what is happening to their dream. The Great Land is in peril. The women and men who built and bequeathed Alaska were tough, fair, and smart; they had wisdom and common sense. We need to draw on that spirit today since the adversity we face betrays our legacy and jeopardizes our future.

We are in a painful and frightening moment because the vetoes aim at the heart of our legacy, and at the people of Alaska.

At our best, Alaskans shared clear vision, even when our visions conflicted, and we respected our neighbors. Pride of being in this place together took priority over partisanship. Sadly, our politics have shriveled. A coarseness corrodes our identity as Alaskans and threatens the civil discourse required for a functional democracy. The way out of this bog is to be big, to be bold, and to find common ground. As former Gov. Wally Hickel warned, “There is no vision, no hope, no future, no agenda for Alaska ... if your only cause is to cut the budget.” I refuse to believe that Alaska can be judged solely by the size of our dividend. That measure is not the way of greatness. It is just the measure of our price.

We are so much better than this, and so much bigger. There is moral deficit in slashing budgets that disproportionately target our elders and our most vulnerable. There is neither strength nor self-determination in devastating our university, our pre-K, our doctors and nurses and teachers in training. There is callousness in stripping Power Cost Equalization from rural Alaska. There is hypocrisy in pulling state bond-debt reimbursement for resident taxpayers while protecting oil industry tax credits. Too much of the cry is about “my” dividend, but not enough about “our” schools, “our” roads, “our” Alaska. These vetoes are shattering the promise of what it means to be an Alaskan. The things being broken were costly to create and will be more expensive to replace. Ultimately, budget veto choices reflect values, and it is time to fight for the values that define us.

Alaska is being given a false choice between cuts and a dividend. This pushes us down a path of instability and danger, pitting Alaskan against Alaskan. There are other paths, fiscal options that make Alaska stronger and competitive, able to meet the future on our own terms.

One sustainable fiscal option has old roots spread wide across the political spectrum. The POMV — Percent of Market Value model — uses approximately 5% of the Permanent Fund annually, protecting the remainder. 5% of the Fund’s current $60 billion value translates to $3 billion. Under one model, 45% of the 5% goes to the state (approximately $1.4 billion), 45% goes to the dividend (roughly a $2000 dividend and growing), and 10% for community dividends ($300 million, which allows local government to assume many state costs, such as bond-debt reimbursement, diversify local revenue and ease tax burdens on local taxpayers).

A second component of a fiscal plan would strengthen the Permanent Fund. There’s a lot of talk about what comes out of the Permanent Fund, but little about what goes in. The current requirement is that 25% of the royalty oil value goes into the Permanent Fund. It should be 100% — the theory of the Permanent Fund is that we are converting non-renewable resource wealth into renewable financial wealth, and if the theory makes sense for 25%, it makes more sense for 100%.

When future Alaskans look back on this time, I want to say that we fought to keep faith with the tradition of looking out for one another. History is watching. Now is the time to rise and show ourselves worthy heirs of Alaska.

Ethan Berkowitz is the mayor of Anchorage and a former state legislator.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Four minority congresswomen condemn Trump attacks decried as racist

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 15:19

WASHINGTON - The four Democratic congresswomen who President Donald Trump told to “go back” to their countries rejected the president’s attacks on Monday, condemning his tweets as racist and calling them a distraction from the issues facing the country, including the detention of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York told reporters at the Capitol that they were not surprised by the president's attacks and vowed not to be silenced by them.

"This is the agenda of white nationalists. . . .This is his plan to pit us against one another," Omar said.

Trump said earlier Monday that he is not concerned by criticism that his tweets were racist, asserting that the congresswomen hate the United States and are free to leave. Three of the four were born in the United States; the fourth, Omar, came to the U.S. from Somalia and became a citizen as a teenager.

Pressley began by voicing gratitude for the support the four have received in light of the "most recent xenophobic, bigoted remarks from the occupant of our White House."

"I encourage the American people and all of us - in this room and beyond - to not take the bait," Pressley said. "This is a disruptive distraction from the issues of care, concern and consequence to the American people that we were sent here with a decisive mandate from our constituents to work on."

Addressing the children of the United States, Ocasio-Cortez rejected Trump's words and said that they were the opposite of what America stands for.

"No matter what the president says, this country belongs to you. And it belongs to everyone. . . . This weekend, that very notion was challenged," she said.

She said Trump was launching personal attacks on the congresswomen - including accusing them of hating the United States - because he wasn't able to debate them on policy grounds.

"Weak minds and leaders challenge loyalty to our country in order to avoid challenging and debating the policy," she said.

And Omar defended the comments that she and her colleagues have made as coming "from a place of extreme love for every single person in this country."

Asked about Trump's suggestion earlier Monday that she supports al Qaeda, Omar replied: "I will not dignify it with an answer."

Trump tweeted another broadside against the Democratic congresswomen while the press conference was underway.

“The Dems were trying to distance themselves from the four ‘progressives,’ but now they are forced to embrace them,” he said. “That means they are endorsing Socialism, hate of Israel and the USA! Not good for the Democrats!”