Katie Botz says there actually was a moment she gave up in her years-long battle on behalf of violent crime victims, during what essentially was a “one person can make a difference” showdown last year between individuals on opposing sides.
But it turned out her absence as a lone person also made a difference. It caught the attention of a bipartisan group of lawmakers, who encouraged her to persist and then delivered a surprising victory on what she called the most important policy change she’s been involved with — a bill which in part modernized the legal definition of consent in the state. Prior to the passage and signing of a bill last year, saying no wasn’t enough to mean consent wasn’t given.
Botz, a Juneau school bus driver whose advocacy has made her a familiar figure to many lawmakers at the Capitol, was among the seven people singled out as “Resilient Alaskans” by Gov. Mike Dunleavy during his State of the State speech Monday night. She’s been coping with her own struggles since being a rape victim of the age of 12 in addition to her fight for other victims the past several years, yet recently has seemingly seldom struggled to find the right words until she learned about the honor several days before the speech.
“I think I was still shocked,” she said Tuesday morning, reflecting on trying to express her thoughts immediately after Monday’s speech where she got a standing applause from the state’s political elite. “It was a really humbling experience to be recognized by Gov. Dunleavy and I am deeply honored.”
But, she emphasized, “I do think that technically it shouldn’t be focused on me. I am just an advocate for all of the victims. I would like to tell Alaskans this is a victory for all of us.”
The change Botz was honored for was a reformation of the state’s consent law, which previously required victims to demonstrate they physically resisted assailants, contained in House Bill 5 which was introduced in 2021 at the beginning of the previous session of the Alaska State Legislature. But the bill stalled in May of that year and got stuck in the House Judiciary Committee until near the end of the session last year.
Despite the moment when she felt inclined to give up after numerous futile attempts to unfreeze the bill, in the eyes of the governor she stood strong during those efforts.
“In spite of the pain it brought her, Katie raised her voice,” Dunleavy said. “Katie believed that speaking up would help keep others from experiencing what she’s gone through, and that speaking up would ensure that justice would be served on those who victimize others.
“In the end, we almost let her down when the passage of that bill was in jeopardy. Thankfully, we didn’t…Katie, I’m here to let you know that you did make a difference. You demonstrated that one person can in fact make a difference and I want to thank you for not giving up.”
Botz’s life was changed permanently when she was raped as a youth at her childhood home in Kodiak. The assailant would serve several years in prison, but it took her much longer than that — until the age of 30 — when she began coping with the mental health difficulties related to the assault.
That led to the beginning of her anti-violence advocacy efforts, starting with a much-publicized crime bill Dunleavy signed in 2019. She is also deaf and has been an advocate for the people who are hard of hearing, including responding online to Dunleavy’s urging people to wear face masks at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 by telling commenters favoring a mandate it “excludes those who are deaf and hard of hearing in our society.”
But the biggest victory so far occurred as defeat seemed imminent.
The bill stalled in the House Judiciary, chaired by Anchorage Democrat Matt Claman, although several hearings where it was “heard and held” occurred between early March and early May. But Botz said her appeals to Claman to allow the proposal to advance seemingly fell on deaf ears.
Claman, now in the state Senate, declined to comment Wednesday on why the bill was stalled and how other legislators convinced him to allow it to advance.
“The last two weeks of the last legislative session I did give up,” she said. The seemingly futile efforts revived past familiar haunts and feeling “I didn’t have a voice…I didn’t matter.”
But by then enough other legislators at the Capitol knew her well enough to know something was wrong when the emails from her stopped coming.
“What changed was I got many other legislators…who reached out to me,” she said. “They were working behind the scenes the last couple of weeks.”
The bill’s official action listing shows a flurry of activity by various committees and legislators beginning May 6 — and in the end it got merged with HB 325 which passed both chambers of the legislature and was signed into law by Dunleavy.
“It was not until the last day of the Legislature that I got a call out of the blue,” she said. It was David Song, a staff member for former state Rep. Geran Tarr, an Anchorage Democrat and primary sponsor of the original bill who Botz said was the key lawmaker in ending the standoff, who “told me to be down on the House floor because they have a surprise for me.”
Dunleavy told essentially the same story from the podium on the House floor Monday night.
“We celebrate this common sense reform, but it took until the last day of the last session to get it done,” he said. “It took legislators who put the people over partisanship. For that, I want to thank Senators such as Shelley Hughes and Jesse Kiehl, and former Representatives Geran Tarr and Sara Rasmussen in particular for getting this reform to my desk to sign. They refused to accept the possibility that this bill would end up as just another casualty of the clock running out in Juneau.”
Botz said her next efforts are focusing on further public safety proposals during the current session, including Dunleavy’s reference in the State of the State to combating sex trafficking in the state.
Such advocacy has to happen when she’s not driving a bus for public school students, which Botz said she started doing after she dropped out of college because her mother was also driver. While that means she can’t be a constant presence at the Capitol, she said she is constantly tuned to Gavel Alaska, emailing lawmakers and otherwise engaged from outside the building.
As for which is the more difficult challenge — state politicians or school kids — Botz said it’s no contest.
“Lawmakers…because it’s changing a mindset,” she said, while noting it’s certainly not a reference to all — or even most — of them.
• Contact Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org