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Assembly candidates aligned with mayor win a majority of races

  • Author:
  • Updated: April 6
  • Published April 4

Anchorage voters elected an even larger majority aligned with the policies and goals of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz to the Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday night, with only one conservative candidate, Fred Dyson, winning his election.

Christopher Constant won in the downtown race, and Felix Rivera was elected to the Midtown seat. Dyson, a conservative former Anchorage Assemblyman and state legislator, overwhelmed two challengers to make a return to public office just a few years after he vowed that he was retiring.

Incumbents Tim Steele and Pete Petersen fended off challengers to keep their seats in West Anchorage and East Anchorage.

In South Anchorage, a progressive candidate, Suzanne LaFrance, was victorious over opponent Albert Fogle late Tuesday night after a close tally most of the evening.

LaFrance, who launched a last-minute campaign as the lone challenger to Fogle, who had been campaigning for months, seemed surprised by her victory: "It's a lot to take in right now."

With their victories, Constant and Rivera became the first openly gay representatives elected to the Anchorage Assembly.

Constant, Rivera, LaFrance, Petersen and Steele all pitched themselves as progressives who largely supported the direction Mayor Ethan Berkowitz was taking the city. Rivera worked as a special assistant for Berkowitz during the mayor's first year.

Constant and Rivera replace Patrick Flynn and Elvi Gray-Jackson, two three-term Assembly members who often voted in the Assembly's progressive bloc. In South Anchorage, LaFrance would be replacing Bill Evans, who often voted with the conservative minority on fiscal issues.

Dyson replaces Assemblyman Bill Starr, who often voted with the conservative bloc, but Mayor Berkowitz said he'd have no trouble working with Dyson either.

In an interview at the Election Central at the Dena'ina Center, Berkowitz said that he and Dyson worked together in the past when both served in the Alaska House at the same time.

"Fred and I have an ability to disagree, find consensus and share a meal," Berkowitz said. "And I think that's the way politics should be practiced."

Elections officials reported a few snags in the voting leading up to Tuesday's result, including a problem with an election worker running an hour late to an Eagle River precinct. City clerk Barbara Jones drove to Eagle River with ballots shortly after the poll opened, and was able to collect about 13 "questioned" ballots, said deputy city clerk Amanda Moser. Moser said no one was barred from voting.

Moser also said that equipment at about 10 percent of the 122 precincts malfunctioned. The city uses state equipment purchased in 1998.

City officials are planning to conduct future elections almost entirely by mail. That means no precincts or old equipment, Moser said.

Vote-by-mail elections have significantly boosted turnout in other U.S. localities, including in King County, Washington.

Turnout was at less than 20 percent Tuesday, though not all ballots had yet been counted.

The lowest turnout in the past decade was in 2013, with 20.1 percent. Turnout for non-mayoral Anchorage elections typically ranges between 20 and 30 percent.

Moser said the voting booths in City Hall were "incredibly busy" all day with people from all parts of the municipality.

At midday, there was a line of about 10 people waiting to vote at City Hall. One voter pointed to the line and said she felt people were more engaged in local elections than in the past.

But at a coffee shop across the street, a barista was surprised to learn that there was an election.

The build-up to the 2017 race was fairly muted, said current elected officials and longtime Anchorage politics watchers.

"Maybe it's the winter blahs," Assemblyman Dick Traini said after a candidate forum last week.

Marc Hellenthal, a longtime Anchorage political consultant who often works for conservative candidates and causes, described the level of interest as "real low" in an interview Monday. Hellenthal worked on an ad opposing Proposition 2, the "ambulance bond," and also advised School Board candidate Kay Schuster.

The latest campaign finance reports show a sharp disparity in fundraising between this year and last year, despite each race drawing challenges. Campaign disclosures show that Assembly candidates had raised about $200,000 less overall than candidates in the 2016 race.

Constant raised more than $100,000 in his campaign, but that amount far eclipsed most other candidates. Rivera, the second-highest fundraiser, was on track to raise about $70,000. Few candidates broke the $30,000 benchmark, seen by political consultants as the minimal amount needed to get out a candidate's name out in a local race.

Not counting inflation, the overall fundraising exceeded the 2013 election, but that race had three incumbents running unopposed.

"It was a real small budget election," Hellenthal said. "That partially accounts for the turnout."

Hellenthal also said that conservatives, and the Republican Party, did a poor job this year recruiting a fresh mix of candidates to excite voters.

"It's either old people that are long in the tooth, or that have run forever," Hellenthal said.

This year the Assembly is seeing a high level of turnover. Four new members were elected Tuesday night; three new members were elected in 2016.

"The last time that happened, that I can think of, was my first year, nine years ago," said Assemblyman Patrick Flynn, who is hitting his limit of three terms.

Only Assemblyman Dick Traini is in his third Assembly term. Petersen, Steele and Assemblywoman Amy Demboski are in their second terms; everyone else is within their first two years, though give Dyson an asterisk — he served on the Assembly two decades ago and retired after a long career with the Alaska Legislature in 2014.

Flynn said the turnover means less institutional knowledge.

Assembly chair Elvi Gray-Jackson said she was pleased that the election outcome meant a majority aligned with Berkowitz on policies.

"We need people on the Assembly who are going to support his efforts and the efforts of the remaining Assembly members to work together to continue to move our community forward, and not go backward," Gray-Jackson said.

South Anchorage's Evans, who tends to vote with the Assembly's conservative minority on fiscal issues, said ideology was less of a factor in the day-to-day work of the Assembly. Evans has chaired the Assembly's committee on homelessness, which shepherds proposals aimed at reducing homelessness in the city, including from the Berkowitz administration. Evans also noted that he's been able to get several key pieces of legislation passed despite being part of what he called a "distinct minority" on the Assembly.

Among advocates for members of the gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual community, there was excitement about the election outcome.

Billy Farrell, the executive director of Identity Inc., an Anchorage-based LGBT advocacy organization, said he wasn't aware of an openly gay person ever being elected to any office in Alaska.

"It's an incredible advancement for our population and our community," Farrell said. "Just representation and showing that we have a lot of the same needs and interests as any other Anchorage resident."

In October 2015, the Assembly voted 9-2 to add protections for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people in the city's anti-discrimination laws for employment and public accommodations, a measure that some social conservative groups have been hoping to repeal through a public vote.

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