But in a statement late Wednesday afternoon, the Republican and current mayor of Anchorage said he remains opposed to rules compelling mandatory union membership for certain work, which he referred to as a form of "economic slavery."
"To me, the term has no racial connotations except that people of all races may be prohibited from holding certain jobs unless they pay tribute to an organization they may not support," he said in the statement, released by a city spokeswoman.
The Anchorage NAACP had demanded an apology for the comments Sullivan made at a candidate forum Monday. At the forum, which also featured GOP rival Lesil McGuire, and Democrats Hollis French and Bob Williams, Sullivan was asked about right-to-work legislation, in which employees are not required to join a union to get or keep a job. According to a video of the exchange, Sullivan said he supported such legislation.
"Nobody should ever have to basically pay a fee to someone else to get a job in this state. I mean, we got rid of slavery a long time ago," he said. "You should never have to encumber yourself out of your wages in order to work in this state."
He called it a "freedom issue."
Anchorage NAACP President Wanda Laws said in a statement that to compare slavery to current political issues "diminishes how horrible and tragic" slavery was.
Sullivan told The Associated Press on Wednesday morning that he didn't think an apology was necessary. He said there are many forms of slavery, and he was talking about "economic slavery."
"I think that maybe people just need to discuss and clarify what it means to be forced to do something you don't want to do to get a job. And by various definitions, that's a form of economic slavery," he said in the interview.
But in his late-day statement, Sullivan said he understood "the sensitivity that the term slavery connotes and I apologize if the use of the word offended anyone."
Sullivan has had a rocky relationship with labor unions.
As mayor of Alaska's largest city, he championed a measure to limit pay raises for municipal workers and their right to strike. On his campaign website, he said his administration took a lead on "reforming labor laws to reflect the economic reality of our community." A referendum on that measure is pending.
Laws said in an interview that she realized Sullivan was referring to "economic slavery" but that's not the first thing people usually think about when they hear the word "slavery."
She said among the political realm of late, the word "has been used quite loosely, and it's offensive to a lot of people because of the history that it has in our country."
Two Dan Sullivans are scheduled to appear on Alaska's August primary ballot. The other Dan Sullivan is a former state attorney general and Natural Resources commissioner who is seeking the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate.
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