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Parnell takes 'state business' to Focus on the Family

Jill Burke,Joshua Saul

Gov. Sean Parnell was on his way home Tuesday night from Colorado, where, according to a spokeswoman, he traveled on state business to attend meetings with the evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family. Specific details have yet to be released about the trip that raised eyebrows among some of Parnell's critics, including a few who hope to unseat him this year.

Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said topics discussed during the daylong session in Colorado included foster care and the governor's domestic violence and sexual assault initiative. Leighow confirmed the trip was considered state business -- the state paid for the travel and Parnell was accompanied by a state employee, Cindy Sims, director of the governor's Anchorage office -- but she did not have immediate access to the full agenda or the topics covered and she did not know whether the meetings were hosted by Focus of the Family, its political action arm, CitizenLink (which until recently was called Focus on the Family Action), or another related organization. Leighow was also not able to offer specifics about the meetings -- size, scope or other attendees -- but she expected to have more information following the governor's return to Juneau.

Founded in 1977 by psychologist James Dobson, Focus on the Family describes itself as "a global Christian ministry dedicated to helping families thrive." The organization's "guiding principles" include "the permanence of marriage," "the preeminance of evangelism," and "the sanctity of human life." CitizenLink urges members to take action in support of abstinence-only education, promotes the theory that homosexuality is a sin that can be "overcome," and is unequivocally opposed to physician-assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research and abortion.

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The meetings with Focus on the Family came just days after Parnell vetoed a $3 million expansion of a public health care program that serves low-income women and children. Thursday, Parnell revealed he was vetoing funding in the new state budget intended to expand Denali Kid Care because abortion is among the services covered by the program. Critics said the move was heavy-handed and hurt real people in need of real care -- an additional 1,200 to 1,300 children and 218 pregnant women who would, as a result of the increased funding, have been able to gain access to medical coverage. Critics accused Parnell, who faces several primary challengers in his run for a full term this year, of playing politics; however, the governor said he was guided by his conscience.

The timing wasn't lost on state Sen. Hollis French, who hadn't heard anything about the governor's trip before being reached for comment.

"I wish he'd spent the last two days speaking to the 1,200 children who no longer have access to basic medical care because of his veto," French, a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, said. "That's where his attention should be focused -- on providing health care to them instead of traveling out of state."

Sen. Bettye Davis, also a Democrat, hadn't heard about the trip either, but said it sounded like an attempt to build credibility among social conservatives -- the same reaction she had to the veto.

Denali Kid Care veto protest
Photo courtesy David Shurtleff
A group gathered outside Gov. Sean Parnell's Anchorage office June 4 to protest the governor's veto of increased funding for Denali Kid Care. Opponents say the governor, who previously supported the expansion, vetoed the funds to garner support among opponents of abortion.
"He's trying to show that he agrees with those kinds of issues," she said. "I think he has his eyes more focused on political issues than he does on family issues -- children in particular."

Another Democratic candidate for governor, Ethan Berkowitz, called the veto "classic Sean Parnell," saying the governor "speaks softly, talks nicely, then does something ugly." Berkowitz was among the first -- and most vocal -- to speak out against the Denali Kid Care cut. He hadn't heard about the governor's trip, either -- in fact, not a single politician contacted for comment was aware the governor was out of the state -- but didn't like the sound of it.

"Anytime a governor uses state funds to advance his political agenda with a special interest group, that's unethical," Berkowitz said. "What it does is highlight that his decision with Denali Kid Care was politically motivated, and that his rationale was either untrue, incompetent, or else a complete flip-flop of position." (Parnell supported the Denali Kid Care expansion during the legislative session; he said he wasn't aware of the program's abortion coverage at the time.)

Even those who support Focus on the Family's mission weren't sure why the state would pay for the governor to meet with the organization. Republican Bill Walker, one of Parnell's challengers in the upcoming gubernatorial primary, said he's contributed consistently to Focus on the Family over the years.

"I don't have an issue there, but if it's on state dollars I'm not sure how that all fits in ... it's unclear to me how this furthers the interest of the state," Walker said.

Parnell's campaign manager, Michelle Toohey, confirmed that the trip was sponsored by the state and was not campaign-related.

"I don't know anything about the trip or what he was doing down there," Toohey said, explaining that she knew Parnell would be out of town for one or two days but had no further information beyond the fact that he was traveling on state business.

As to whether Focus on the Family is an organization that's reflective of Parnell's personal views, Toohey said, "It's clear what his values are in terms of being pro-life."

Suzanne Armstrong, campaign manager for another Republican challenger, Ralph Samuels, said the campaign wouldn't comment on the trip -- except to say that her candidate "didn't even notice (Parnell) was gone."

Tuesday, some lawmakers pushed for a special legislative session to reconsider the Denali Kid Care expansion, but did not appear to believe they had the votes needed. Meanwhile, Parnell isn't budging on his budget cut. His stance is firm and has no intention of changing his mind, Leighow said. French hinted that opponents of the cut plan to go down swinging.

"I think you're going to see a continued drumbeat on this issue throughout the summer and the fall," he said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com and Joshua Saul at jsaul(at)alaskadispatch.com.