While priming her political machine for a likely 2012 presidential primary run, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has fomented a scandal that threatens to further erode her reputation in the Last Frontier. In March, Palin nominated Wayne Anthony Ross for attorney general. Ross, a colorful far-right lawyer and longtime Palin ally who sports his initials, W.A.R., on his Hummer’s vanity plates, was once considered a shoo-in for confirmation. However, his nomination was thrown into grave peril when his opponents presented evidence that he called homosexuals “degenerates,” leveled invective against an African-American student offended by a statue of a Klansman, vowed to undermine the sovereignty of Native American tribes, and allegedly defended men who rape their wives. According to two sources close to the confirmation hearings, Palin may ask Ross to withdraw before his appointment comes to a vote.
According to Burton, who detailed the allegations for me, Ross allegedly declared during a speech before a 1991 gathering of the “father’s rights” group Dads Against Discrimination, “If a guy can’t rape his wife, who’s he gonna rape?”
Palin’s hopes for a swift confirmation process were dashed April 10 when Leah Burton, a veteran lobbyist on children’s issues and domestic violence, submitted aletter to the Alaska State Judiciary Committee claiming that Ross publicly defended spousal rape. According to Burton, who detailed the allegations for me, Ross allegedly declared during a speech before a 1991 gathering of the “father’s rights” group Dads Against Discrimination, “If a guy can’t rape his wife, who’s he gonna rape?” (In a subsequent letter, Ross denied the remark and claimed, “I don’t talk like that!”)
Burton said Ross’s statement was consistent with his overarching attitude toward women’s issues. She claimed that he once said during a debate on the Equal Rights Amendment, “If a woman would keep her mouth shut, there wouldn’t be an issue with domestic violence.” Burton also maintained she has been in touch with “a number” of domestic-violence victims who witnessed Ross make “horrible” statements, but are too intimidated to speak out. “Alaska is a very small state and it’s terrifying for these victims to come forward because they’re afraid of retribution,” Burton told me.
Since Burton’s testimony, her father, former Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Richard Burton, wrote a letter of his own demanding to Ross that he withdraw his nomination. “You sir, speak and act like the kind of bully I met many times when responding to domestic-violence calls, some of the most dangerous situations police officers are often in,” Burton wrote. Ross reacted with characteristic fury to the Burtons’ broadsides, barking to reporters that if “anybody said that to me, we’d have a little confrontation because that’s a bunch of crap.” At the same time, a grassroots group raising support for Palin’s presidential bid called Conservatives4Palin attacked Leah Burton as an anti-Christian “fringe nutcase.”
But as pro-Palin forces attempted to push back against Ross’s critics, dozens of op-eds Ross authored during the 1980s and 1990s surfaced as key exhibits in the case against his confirmation. Among them is a 1993 piece entitled, “KKK ‘art’ project gets ‘A’ for courage,” in which Ross defended a local college student who had offended an African-American classmate by creating a statue of a Klansman with a cross in one hand and a flag in the other. “It might have been fun to see [the African-American student] try to remove the display,” Ross wrote. “Then she could have been arrested and her future as a student of the university could have been resolved through the university disciplinary proceedings.”
During the early 1980s, while Anchorage residents grappled over renaming the city’s 15th Street as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and state legislators mulled establishing a state holiday honoring the assassinated civil-rights leader, Ross wrote several manifestoes attacking King as a communist subversive, according to University of Alaska-Anchorage music professor and local progressive activist Phil Munger. Munger also told me Ross has routinely appeared at public events beside his friend, Don Tanner, a white nationalist who moved to South Africa for a period during the 1980s to support its apartheid government, and who reveled crowds of conservatives with anti-black “South African jokes” upon his return to Alaska.
A glance at Ross’s published archive shows he never limited his resentment to minorities. He taunted environmentalists (“It is time we quit crying over the oil spill” was the title of an editorial he wrote in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster); hedenounced homosexuals as “degenerates” during a 1993 legal fight over a local gay-rights ordinance; and announced that his final wish before dying was to overturn Roe v. Wade. While rising through the ranks of the NRA’s national leadership in the 1980s, Ross published a piece in the mercenary magazine Soldier of Fortune, defending the right to form antigovernment militias.
“Ross’s profile fits where Palin wants to go after the current legislative session ends,” Munger remarked to me. “She seems to be planning some behind-the-scenes movement to stir up the crazies, especially by convincing them the federal government is going take their guns away. So nobody here is surprised by this selection.”
While Ross sustained withering criticism for his views on social issues, Native American tribes denounced his vociferous opposition to their subsistence rights. The tribes were especially disturbed by his vow during a 2002 gubernatorial debate to “hire a band of junkyard dog” attorneys to gut federal laws guaranteeing natives subsistence preferences. “It almost looked like she was rubbing our face in Anthony Ross’s appointment,” said Tim Towarak, co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives, told The Bristol Bay Times. “Like rubbing our face on the ground, saying ‘Here, take this.’” With increasingly powerful tribal groups mobilizing a united front against Ross, Palin was compelled to defend her own record, pleading, “Obviously I am not anti-Native and would never appoint anyone who is.”
If Palin withdraws Ross’s nomination, she could end another embarrassing political spectacle before it registers on the national press corps’ radar. Alternatively, if she manages to ram his appointment through, Palin can begin implementing a hard-right legal agenda that will appeal to the elements she is cultivating as the base of her likely 2012 presidential campaign. However Palin decides to proceed with W.A.R., by nominating him, she has staked out the culture war as the fuel for her national ambitions.