Anchorage had a weird municipal election in 2011. The night would see the Anchorage Assembly’s balance of power shift notably to favor the administration of Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan — not the one running for Senate; the one running for lieutenant governor on the ticket with Sean Parnell.
That result, however, was a bit unexpected. Of the six seats at play, 2011 featured four notable contests. Then-Assemblywoman — now State Representative — Harriet Drummond faced stiff competition in West Anchorage from Liz Vasquez. In Midtown, Assemblywoman Elvi Gray-Jackson faced arch-conservative and former Alaska Family Council board chairman Dave Bronson. Assemblyman Mike Gutierrez had two opponents attacking from the right: Adam Trombley and former-Assemblyman Paul Bauer. And the mayor’s strongest ally, Chris Birch, faced challenger Mike Kenny, a fierce advocate for workers’ rights (not one of Sullivan’s favorite topics).
As the polls opened on April 5, there was a palpable sense of optimism among Sullivan’s detractors that their slim 6-5 majority might increase by a seat or two. It was a sense presumably shared by the mayor. And that put him in a bit of a pickle. This was also the first year that Sullivan openly backed candidates. He vocally supported and campaigned for Trombley, Vasquez, Birch, and Bronson.
Sullivan had skin in the game, and didn’t want that to come back and bite him. Thus, he made another unusual move. He canceled Election Central; the gathering of candidates, supporters, and media downtown to cover results as they poured in on election night.
The event is quite the spectacle. Generally held at either the Egan Center or Dena’ina, it’s a festive convergence of all political stripes. Local news affiliates and radio stations broadcast live as candidates — both winners and losers — lead processions of sign-waving supporters past frenzied photographers and journalists furiously scribbling in note pads or waving audio recorders. The short time is am important window of access for citizens and media alike to connect with Alaska’s elected officials.
Sullivan’s cancellation of Election Central was a weird anomaly. The following year, it was back again, as it has each year since. Its absence, however, was felt.
Instead of results being digested in one, central location, Election Central became fractured. Those on the left gathered at Snow City Cafe. Sullivan hosted a conservative gathering at McGinley’s Irish Pub — of which Sullivan is a founding partner. For the first time, Anchorage’s nonpartisan municipal election became politically segregated.
“Mayor Sullivan would rather gather with his people,” Anchorage Press columnist Ivan Moore wrote at the time, “with people who are like him[.]”
Despite the two events being just blocks away from each other, Sullivan consciously chose to erect a wall between his supporters and everyone else.
The same could be said about a candidate by the same name this past Tuesday.
The 2014 Alaska Primary has been featured in headlines all across the country. The high profile GOP senate race featured three candidates vying for the chance to square off against first-term Democratic Senator Mark Begich. As was expected (but far from guaranteed), frontrunner Dan Sullivan landed the party nomination. From the outset, results clearly secured a victory for the former attorney general and Department of Natural Resources commissioner. Precincts began reporting his lead around nine o’clock. The margin would only widen as the hours ticked by.
Yet the only senate contenders at Election Central were Mark Fish — one of three Libertarian challengers — and Sullivan’s opponent, Sen. Begich (Treadwell would eventually make an appearance to concede defeat). Where was Sullivan, that he couldn’t be bothered to make a stop, wave to supporters, and lend the media a photo op or two?
Across the street.
Like, directly across the street. The Sullivan campaign took over the Fat Ptarmigan pizzeria, throwing their own party and barring media access. A gaggle of reporters — myself included — lined the sidewalk on the west side of E Street, snapping photos of the east side; a packed house that allowed media only a fishbowl view of Sullivan making a victory speech (apparently as delivered by his wife, due to laryngitis).
Some tweets of the bizarre scene:
Election Central is an important fixture for Alaska politics, and those politics are local. That’s an integral part of the state’s political tradition. Many candidates will readily offer voters — and media — their private cell phone numbers in the event one wished to contact them. Mayor Sullivan was wrongheaded to cancel the event in 2011, and was roundly criticized for it. His Republican colleague, running atop the party ticket for U.S. Senate this year, was similarly wrongheaded in setting up an invite-only party right next door and snubbing everyone else. Especially barring the media, whose jobs necessitate their presence to convey that victory to the public.
Campaign speeches on election night are not “off the record.” No one should have to get past a bouncer in order to cover a speech — a lesson one would think was made painfully clear after Joe Miller handcuffed a reporter in 2010. Sullivan’s decision obviously lacked Miller’s unique flair, but was still ill-advised, tacky, and wholly unnecessary.
Sullivan offered the explanation that no Outside media outlets had called the race. But, with press lingering until shortly before 2am and over 90 percent of precincts reporting, that’s a tough sell. Sullivan’s deliberate choice of a secluded victory set a bad tone as the campaign’s first move heading into the general election.