This article was originally published at ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
Alaska governors and mayors have at various times appointed Judy Eledge to the state Board of Education, the Anchorage Health and Human Services Commission and the Alaska Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee. She stood at the side of Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a personal friend, on the night of his 2018 Republican primary victory.
When it was time for the state to cast its Electoral College votes in the 2020 presidential election, Eledge was one of the three people representing Alaska. And in his annual State of the State speech earlier that year, Dunleavy asked her to stand for an ovation because she exemplified “the heart of Alaska.”
But on March 14, 2022, in a surreptitiously taped conversation with a co-worker in her office on the top floor of one of Alaska’s largest public libraries, a different side of Eledge came out. As visitors waited in the lobby for a meeting with the city of Anchorage’s deputy library director, she lowered her voice to a whisper.
Eledge said she had spotted one of the workers she supervised removing books that contained the word “Eskimo,” a term that is now seen by many as unacceptable. This was exactly the kind of behavior, Eledge has repeatedly told her city underlings, that Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson hired her to stamp out.
“I happened to live in Barrow,” she said, referring to the mostly Inupiat city that residents in 2016 renamed Utqiagvik. “They consider themselves Inupiat Eskimos but they got a bunch of woke, liberal, I consider racist Native people, young people. … It’s all about, ‘We stole their land.’ Which is bullshit!”
Eledge, 76, seamlessly moved from topic to topic, sharing her disgust with the use of Indigenous land acknowledgements and the sharing of pronouns. She called transgender people “very troubled” and said she was surprised that her recent public testimony against transgender girls participating in girls school sports had not made the front page of the Anchorage Daily News.
“Equitable, to me, is a racist word,” she said to her subordinate, who recorded the conversation because she feared no one would believe her about how Eledge interacted with her colleagues. At one point, Eledge noted that library employees were working to “wipe out everything white in the world.”
It’s not the first time Eledge has made controversial remarks. She lost a 2021 campaign for the Anchorage School Board after images of her social media posts criticizing people of color, transgender people, Alaska Natives and Muslims circulated online. Eledge at the time claimed some posts had been edited or taken out of context, although she never offered proof or specified which posts she alleged had been altered.
Eledge continues to hold an active role in Alaska conservative politics. Once described by a columnist as “one of the Alaska GOP’s grande dames,” Eledge has been a friend to and fundraiser for some of the state’s most powerful elected officials. She personally donated more than $40,000 to Republican candidates and groups over the past decade and serves as president of the Anchorage Republican Women’s Club, which hosts debates and fundraisers.
Despite Eledge’s sometimes-inflammatory comments, social media posts and public testimony, Dunleavy and Bronson have awarded her power and public money. What’s more, the Daily News and ProPublica found that the city and state agencies meant to protect Alaskans’ civil rights have been hamstrung.
When the same library worker who recorded the chat tried to file a complaint against Eledge with the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights, an investigator told her in January that because some of Eledge’s discriminatory remarks were directed against LGBTQ+ people, the agency would not investigate. “It’s a very sensitive issue for Dunleavy’s office,” the investigator told the library worker, who recorded the exchange.
The city agency tasked with investigating civil rights violations has also received complaints about Eledge, employees said, but has taken no action. The newsrooms found the agency is plagued by a backlog of open complaints, a problem that stands to grow worse as three of its four investigators have quit since the beginning of the year.
When library employees complained about Eledge to the city’s human resources department, the mayor’s then-director of human resources wore an “I’m with Judy” T-shirt to a library advisory board meeting. The director of the city Office of Equal Opportunity has filed lawsuits in state and federal court saying the mayor fired her after she began to investigate complaints against Eledge.
Veri di Suvero, executive director of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit watchdog that has filed public records requests related to the state’s rollback of LGBTQ+ civil rights protections, said that the nullification of Alaska’s civil rights agencies allows abuses of power to go unchecked.
“When people aren’t able to report these issues, they go unaddressed and signal to the agencies causing harm that these things are OK,” di Suvero said.
In a brief phone conversation, Eledge said she could not comment on accusations involving her statements at the library because they are the subject of a lawsuit. Asked about her social media posts, which are not included in the lawsuit, Eledge said, “I’ve already commented on those when I was running for school board.” She did not respond to specific questions sent by email and hand delivered to her office.
Bronson did not respond to detailed questions but, through his spokesperson, he sent a statement to the newsrooms. “The Mayor has no comment on these matters due to pending litigation. The Mayor denounces all hateful, racist, and derogatory remarks made by any Municipal employee, and expects those who work for the city to uphold the law and protect the rights of all,” the statement said. (A few hours later, the mayor’s spokesperson sent a revised statement that did not include the sentence denouncing “hateful, racist and derogatory remarks.”)
At a city Assembly hearing in April 2022 when Eledge came under fire from an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, the mayor forcefully defended his friend.
“I’ve known her for 25 years. She is certainly energetic and outspoken, but she’s a dedicated employee,” he said. “She’s doing a great job, and she continues to have my undying and unquestioned support.”
For his part, Dunleavy in March appointed Eledge to a national education commission.
The governor refused an interview request and did not answer questions about Eledge’s public record of discriminatory remarks, his friendship with her or their fundraising relationship. He also did not answer questions about whether his administration’s decisions to award a no-bid contract to Eledge and appoint her to a national committee signaled that he saw no problem with her statements.
In an email, a spokesperson wrote: “Governor Dunleavy appointed Ms. Eledge to the Education Commission due to her long and distinguished career in public education.”
A Voice Against LGBTQ+ Protections
Eledge moved to Alaska in the 1980s and worked as a teacher and principal until 2004, according to her resume. After her retirement, under Republican governors Sarah Palin and Sean Parnell, the state Department of Education and Early Development paid Eledge at least $189,000 for consulting work and related expenses between 2007 and 2012.
The payments appeared to stop when Bill Walker, an independent, became governor, but they resumed shortly after Dunleavy’s election. The education department has paid Eledge $79,970 since 2019. Dunleavy also added a direct payment of $30,000 from the governor’s office for a no-bid contract during his first year in office.
According to Dunleavy’s spokesperson, since 2003, Eledge “has owned an education consulting business that specializes in assisting public schools in the areas of math and reading.”
Eledge’s more public roles have been as president of the Alaska Republican Women’s Club and in publicly testifying on behalf of Republican candidates and causes. In 2015, Bronson and Eledge testified before the Anchorage Assembly on consecutive nights, saying they opposed adding LGBTQ+ protections to the city civil rights law. They said laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of their gender identity and sexual orientation posed a threat to religious freedoms and vowed to force a repeal of any such protections through voter petitions.
Bronson, who had not yet held public office at the time of that meeting, testified as a board member of the Alaska Family Council. The council is a conservative Christian organization that has opposed gay marriage and civil rights protections based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
Eledge made no secret of her beliefs. Over a one-month span in September 2020, for example, the following posts appeared on her Facebook page:
- “How sad that people of color seem to have no self esteem! If so why all the focus on color?”
- “This is a slippery slope we began with gay marriage. Next was transgender so of course pedophile is next.”
- “I wonder if (actress) Cynthia Nixon, who I believe is gay really has a son who is transgender or just confused on male/female role models. Does she feel bad about encouraging her son into something that has a very high rate of suicide? Does she feel bad when she gave her son puberty blockers to ensure her son became a ‘woman?’ Does she feel bad about telling her son a lie? Final question. Does she feel bad for the child abuse she is doing to her son?”
On Nov. 9, 2020, as Alaska’s COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths hit then-record highs, Eledge urged parents to “get on the phone and call your doc and local hospitals and tell them to tell the truth about hospital capacity! Bullcrap on overwhelmed!” The same week, she suggested Alaska should “stop the damn testing” for the virus.
In December of 2020, Eledge put out a call to action. “If Joe Biden succeeds in becoming president it is going to be VERY important for all of us to get elected to something,” she wrote.
“There is going to be bad crap coming down and we need to fight at state and local level. None will be worse than school boards. I can’t even imagine the transgender, racist and revisionary history that will be taught!”
A Daily News and ProPublica review verified that the posts included in this story were posted to Eledge’s Facebook page and remained there as of this week.
An Unsuccessful School Board Campaign, Then a New Job
In January 2021, Eledge filed to run for the Anchorage School Board, announcing she would campaign along with three other conservative candidates in hopes of sweeping the open seats. But as screenshots of her Facebook posts began to circulate on Twitter and Facebook, the group abandoned its combined campaign, though Eledge claimed some of the screenshots had been altered and others were taken out of context.
Dunleavy and Bronson each donated to Eledge’s campaign. The mayor’s wife, Deb Bronson, also donated.
The longtime director of Anchorage city libraries retired on the first day of April 2021, creating a vacancy for the next mayor to fill. A few days later, Eledge lost her school board campaign while Bronson won the mayor’s race. In July, when he was sworn in, he named one of the conservatives who had been running for school board alongside Eledge, former principal Sami Graham, as the city’s new library director.
The city Assembly rejected Graham’s nomination because she had no library science degree, a requisite for the job. Bronson responded by making Graham his chief of staff and placing her office in the library. Three days later, on Aug. 27, Bronson named Eledge as his new head of libraries.
Eledge didn’t have a library science degree either. The Alaska Library Association raised concerns in a letter to the Anchorage Assembly, saying that appointing someone who is not a librarian and does not meet the qualifications for library director would be like appointing a fire chief who’d never fought a fire.
The mayor made her deputy director instead — a role that does not require nomination hearings or approval by the Assembly. Eledge would run the library for the next year in the absence of a permanent director.
Jacob Cole, a longtime library employee who had served as acting director, said the deputy director job was created specifically for Eledge. Cole said he had unsuccessfully applied for the library director position, a process that included a one-on-one interview with the mayor.
“He wanted to know how to kick the homeless out of the library,” Cole said. “He’s like, ‘The homeless is a real problem in the library and Judy is telling me how much of a situation this is, and what do you think we can do to lessen them coming to the library?’”
Bronson also asked about the presence of social workers in the library and whether they should be removed to avoid encouraging homeless people to visit the building.
“I said, ‘The homeless are there no matter what. This is just meeting them where their needs are,’” Cole said.
Cole said he doesn’t know why he didn’t get the library director job. In the recorded March 14, 2022, conversation with a colleague, Eledge said that she believed Cole was “on the spectrum.”
“He’s got, like, Asperger’s,” she said in her office, using an outdated term for a type of autism.
Asked about that comment, Cole laughed. “For the record, I am in no way on the spectrum,” he said.
Cole said that over the months they worked together, Eledge would sometimes come into his office and make discriminatory remarks. She believed that librarians were conspiring to remove conservative books from shelves and that parents who allowed children to read books about gender were harming their children, and she said she didn’t trust women to select books for the collection that would appeal to boys and men.
Some of her most inflammatory remarks involved Alaska Natives, according to Cole. “She said, ‘I worked in an Alaska Native village. If it wasn’t for the white man and his oil money, they’d still be raping their daughters in caves.’” (A reporter for Alaska Public Media asked Eledge about this comment in May 2022. Eledge replied that she wouldn’t “honor the request by responding” to the question.)
On other workdays, Eledge talked about the medical profession, which she said was ruining the lives of people who did not want to take COVID-19 vaccines.
“She would go on rants about the vaccine and how she thought the vaccine wasn’t safe for children and how the vaccine was going to mess with your DNA,” said Cole, who at the time served as Eledge’s second in command.
“I would turn and say, ‘Judy, I have work to do,’” he said.
Cole is one of at least three library employees who quit while Eledge served as the de facto director, and who later filed complaints with the city. The exchanges that Cole says he had with Eledge, along with many of the alleged statements described by the library employee who made the recordings, appear in the lawsuits pending against the city in state and federal court.
“You Can’t Say That”
The woman who recorded Eledge said she began making recordings after their first meeting, at the library’s flagship location in midtown Anchorage, on her first day on the job.
She later described that day in a letter to the Anchorage ombudsman: “During our meeting Judy said, ‘I don’t have the same views about Eskimos as other people at the library. I worked in Barrow; I know they diddle their kids. It’s a well-known secret, people just don’t talk about it. I knew a 2nd grader that had gonorrhea. They send their FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome) babies to Anchorage because they don’t want to take care of them.’”
The woman provided the Daily News and ProPublica with a recording of a 74-minute conversation that she and Eledge had on March 14, 2022. She asked that she not be named because she is worried about retaliation from Eledge, the mayor or their allies.
The employee wrote the ombudsman on March 17, 2022. On March 31, the ombudsman suggested she take her complaints about Eledge to the city Office of Equal Opportunity. The office is charged with helping employees who complain about discrimination or a hostile work environment.
The employee first spoke to Heather MacAlpine, the director of the equal opportunity office, on April 1, according to a lawsuit that MacAlpine later filed against the city. (MacAlpine’s attorney said neither she nor MacAlpine could comment on the details of the case while the lawsuit is still pending.)
MacAlpine asked to talk to city human resources employees about the allegations against Eledge, the lawsuit says. One of the HR workers told MacAlpine that he had in the past “also felt compelled to tell Eledge, ‘You can’t say that’ in response to certain of her discriminatory comments,” the suit says.
The HR officials told MacAlpine that employees should bring their concerns directly to the human resources department. But the department was at the time run by Niki Tshibaka, a political ally of the mayor and the spouse of conservative U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka, whom Eledge supported with campaign donations.
The problems at the library continued, according to MacAlpine’s lawsuit, with several employees resigning under Eledge’s leadership. At least five employees brought complaints directly to the human resources department, which refused to begin an investigation, according to the suit and interviews with library workers.
On May 3, 2022, MacAlpine visited the library and spoke to several employees who complained about Eledge’s statements and behavior. According to her lawsuit, the employees said Eledge had threatened to retaliate against any workers who repeated her comments. The employees said Eledge told library security to selectively enforce a policy that allowed visitors to bring only one bag into the building. According to the employees, Eledge told security they should “not enforce the policy against ‘mothers with diaper bags,’ but to enforce it strictly against individuals who appeared homeless, many of whom appeared to be Alaska Native.”
MacAlpine again scheduled a meeting with the human resources department. She prepared to summarize employees’ specific complaints. “By this point, multiple Loussac employees had made complaints to HR, so Ms. MacAlpine expected that the additional information she had learned would be helpful to HR’s investigation,” the suit said. (Loussac is the city’s main library.)
But when she arrived at City Hall for the meeting on May 11, 2022, she was fired.
Cole resigned May 23. Alaska Public Media reported later that month that 12 then-current or recently departed employees described a toxic and chaotic work environment under Eledge.
When the Anchorage Library Advisory Board next met, on June 15, 2022, Human Resources Director Tshibaka sat beside Eledge wearing a T-shirt that said “I’m with Judy.” Tshibaka has declined interview requests and did not respond to emailed questions for this story.
MacAlpine’s lawsuit, filed June 23, claimed that Bronson had made it clear he would not fire or discipline Eledge no matter what she did at the library. It says MacAlpine was fired for investigating complaints against Eledge, in violation of city whistleblower protections.
The city answered that lawsuit in July, denying claims that Eledge made racist statements and saying MacAlpine was not fired in retaliation for acting as a whistleblower. Eledge co-hosted a Dunleavy fundraiser the next month.
In February 2023, MacAlpine filed a lawsuit in federal court involving the same claims. The city has not yet answered that lawsuit. Both suits are pending.
“A Very Sensitive Issue for Dunleavy’s Office”
Library employees had two other bodies with which they could file complaints against Eledge.
Both are tasked with enforcing anti-discrimination laws. One is operated by the state: the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights. The other is run by the city: the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission.
But when one of the library employees attempted to make formal complaints about Eledge to the state commission, an investigator said she had been told she cannot investigate.
“I just think that’s wrong,” the investigator said, according to a recording of a phone call obtained by the Daily News and ProPublica.
The employee replied: “So I can’t even file a complaint about it? They won’t … not saying you personally, but the commission won’t take a formal complaint on it?”
“Nope,” the investigator said. “And now it’s nixed completely because a lot of what’s happening at the library has to do with LGBTQ stuff.”
“This is a very sensitive issue for Dunleavy’s office,” the investigator said.
The library employee said she was unable to file a formal complaint with the commission because the investigator told her she did not meet the criteria for a protected class of worker, such as a gay or transgender person, who was directly discriminated against by Eledge’s remarks.
The investigator said in an email that she could not speak to the media on behalf of the commission and could not talk about the case because complaints and investigations are confidential.
Commission director Robert Corbisier provided a written statement in response to the recording. He said the investigator misspoke and that the commission can’t pursue a discrimination case if the complainant is not a member of the protected class of people being discriminated against.
“At no time did I, or any manager or supervisor at ASCHR, or any ASCHR Commissioner during my tenure, state that this agency would not take a valid complaint due to political implications,” Corbisier said. “Since my first day here, I made it my personal mission to ensure the agency’s discrimination investigations and prosecutions avoid political influence.”
Eledge’s husband, Randy Eledge, is a former commissioner for the agency.
In March, the Daily News and ProPublica reported that the state civil rights agency had stopped accepting most categories of complaints about anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination based on advice from state Attorney General Treg Taylor. The newsrooms found the decision had been requested by a conservative Christian group and was made the week of the Republican primary for governor, in which Dunleavy was criticized for not being conservative enough.
The issue arose after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2020 that workplace discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity was illegal. After that case, known as Bostock v. Clayton County, the state human rights commission began accepting all categories of complaints about anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination. Taylor later advised the agency to interpret the Bostock ruling more narrowly and to only accept complaints related to discrimination in the workplace.
Library employees complained to the city agency as well.
According to attorney Caitlin Shortell, who said she represents five current and former library employees, the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission has not investigated complaints of harassment and bullying within the library.
Over the past three years, fewer people have been bringing their questions and complaints about discrimination to the city agency. Yet the backlog of open cases is growing. At the end of 2021, the agency had 70 open cases. Today there are 81. It’s unclear if the library complaints are part of the backlog.
Commission director Keoki Kim said in an email that the agency is “fully enforcing” the city’s LGBTQ+ protections. Kim said that the commission plans to fill the vacant investigator positions and that reducing the backlog is a top priority.
Eledge remains deputy director of the library today. The Assembly confirmed a new library director, Virginia McClure, in December. But McClure took a leave of absence the next month, putting Eledge back in charge of library operations until March 13.
Eledge will represent Alaska’s educators as a member of the national Education Commission of the States. Dunleavy in March appointed her to the commission, where she joins governors, state legislators and heads of state education boards tasked with steering U.S. education policy.
In the meantime, Eledge has continued her advocacy against LGBTQ+ protections. Just last week she testified before the Alaska Legislature in support of a “parental rights” bill, proposed by Dunleavy, that would restrict the rights of transgender students.
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