Sarah Vance (Photo provided)

Point of View: A moment of agony for Sarah Vance, and for Homer

The emotions driving Sarah Vance to the brink of tears during her agonizing silence in front of the Legislature suggested a battle of ideas

Whether your politics run liberal or conservative, it was hard not to feel compassion for Sarah Vance when she stood up to apologize to the state Legislature. With the “Gavel-to-Gavel” camera and every eye trained on Homer’s elected representative, she struggled through 45 seconds of excruciating silence to rein in her emotions and find her words.

She had offended a lot of people, in Juneau and beyond, at a legislative hearing the week before. The circumstances were mortifying, because this was a subject about which she cares deeply: the sexual exploitation of women, insofar as that topic is covered under the rubric of “human trafficking.”

The tribal affairs committee had been talking about the appalling and long-running rates of sexual assault and violence against Indigenous women in Alaska. At some point, Vance objected to the tenor of the proceedings, reminding those who testified that they have “white sisters who are going through the same thing.”

The committee chair, who is from Bethel, said her comments left him “at a loss for words.” They had heard that Alaska Native women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than white women in Alaska. Even the state’s commissioner of public safety had recently called the long neglect of law enforcement in rural Alaska “shameful.” After Vance’s gentle scolding, a Fairbanks Democrat replied that the suffering of white women victims might be the same, but “the causes of that violence are not the same. And the response to that violence is not the same. And the justice for the victims is not the same.”

Pundits argued back and forth about who was politicizing the issue, but the concern for Homer is how Sarah Vance’s comments reflect, sadly, on the risks of raising children in our small, isolated, mostly white town.

A Juneau columnist nailed it when he called Vance’s comments “All-Lives-Matter-adjacent.” It’s too easy for kids in Homer to grow up in sheltered homes where the stream of news, if any, never talks about racism or the inequities structured in our society. Flashbacks to Black Lives Matter protests and warnings about critical race theory can quickly cloud understanding, particularly at a time when concerted efforts to terrorize librarians and school teachers and local officials help close off thoughtful conversations about discrimination.

The moment brings to mind our Sarah’s own beginnings in local politics, when she led a recall campaign in 2017 against city council members for discussing, in emails, whether to take up the cause of making Homer a “sanctuary” for undocumented immigrants (they had decided against it).

Homer voters strongly spurned that obtuse recall effort. But something had shifted in our politics.

Homer has always skewed conservative in statewide elections. Despite its reputation for crunchy-granola liberalism, Homer has sent Republicans to Juneau ever since I got here in the 1970s. Some were moderates, some more conservative. The outstanding example was Gail Phillips, who rose to be Speaker of the House. Phillips was staunchly conservative on old-Alaska resource development issues, but careful to moderate her politics back home, even when it came to logging around Kachemak Bay. I think her broad community roots reflected her long methodical political ascent through the chamber of commerce and city and borough elected office.

Sarah Vance represents a different breed of conservative. Compromise, in this new world, shows a lack of integrity. She pushes for smaller state budgets, bigger Alaska Permanent Fund dividends, and repeal of ranked-choice voting, repeatedly invoking “the people of my district.” And some of her priorities, such as her advocacy for Israel and campaign on human trafficking, seem to come from somewhere outside her district — perhaps the Koch-funded Alaska Policy Forum, which opposes increases to education funding, or the Museum of the Bible, where Vance attended the annual meeting in December of the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, on whose legislative leadership council she serves.

The emotions driving Sarah Vance to the brink of tears during her agonizing silence in front of the Legislature suggested a battle of ideas. Was she thinking about testimony that more than half of Alaska Native women have been victims of sexual violence and frequently have nowhere to turn? Or was she thinking about her national association’s award to campaigners against the teaching of critical race theory?

Her apology, when it finally emerged, was another disappointment. She said she was sorry for her choice of words. “What I should have said is that evil does not discriminate.”

She still doesn’t get it. Evil loves to discriminate.

Homer resident Tom Kizzia is a longtime Alaska journalist.

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