The results of this year’s Anchorage municipal election came to life Tuesday evening, when the Loussac Library’s chambers once again hosted the annual changing of the guard.
The yearly event is always fun to watch, often bittersweet, and often emotional for those who frequent local politics. Tuesday night was no exception, and maybe even dialed it up a couple of notches.
Three members of the 11 member body signed off. Paul Honeman in east Anchorage, Ernie Hall in west Anchorage, and Jennifer Johnston in South. Forrest Dunbar, Eric Croft, and John Weddleton were sworn in to replace them, alongside Dick Traini and Amy Demboski, who were reelected.
A lot of great things can be said about the departing Assembly members, but I think the most defining universal attribute is their autonomy. Alaska’s largest city is not saying goodbye to any “rubber stamp” members. Though Honeman was largely categorized as part of the liberal wing, and Johnston and Hall were thusly cast among conservatives, all exhibited an ability to be their own person — voting against their peers when they felt it warranted.
In a time of hyper-partisanship, these elected officials should be commended for bucking the trend of blind allegiance.
Paul Honeman first was elected to the Assembly in 2010. It was a strange year, in the wake of a Tea Party wave that guided who was elected to state and federal offices. Honeman was an outlier. He was a public servant.
Hired by the municipality as an employee with People Mover in 1985, he then moved on to work as a Community Service Officer with APD in 1986, before becoming a full fledged officer three years later. He would serve and protect in that position until his retirement in 2008 as a lieutenant and spokesperson. He returned to the job during his tenure as an Assembly member as a University of Alaska Police Officer, where he serves to this day.
He entered the Assembly after Sheila Selkregg chose not to run for reelection. And he ran as a nonpartisan. A role that he embraced once in office.
“I didn’t keep statistics, but I think, probably, we voted apart more than anybody else on the body,” Assembly member Paul Evans told Honeman. “If I said ‘Black,’ Paul would say, ‘White.’ If I said, ‘Up,’ Paul would say, ‘Down.’ And that was fine because he always did it — it was never personal. It was just a difference of opinions. And I was always respectful and he was always an amiable gentleman the whole time I’ve known him. And those qualities are far more important and needed these days than most ideological positions.”
Evans described Honeman as a worthy opponent, and said he would miss him.
Honeman, in turn, thanked his wife for letting him take long hours as an Assembly member. He used his farewell address to advocate for the over-2,600 municipal workers, who he noted often worked evenings, late nights, and weekends.
“To you, the muni workforce, I say, please. Please keep doing the fine work that you all do in service to our residents and visitors,” Honeman told those present. “These past six years, I’ve heard some badgering about the costs of municipal employees as perhaps too much. And to that I say horsepucky. You’re worth every penny you’ve earned. And, yet, I’ll remind you: There’s always room for improvement.”
Honeman immediately announced plans for retirement. He let everyone know he’d be taking his wife, Valerie, out to dinner.
Ernie Hall was elected the same year as Paul Honeman, and in similar fashion. Hall advertised himself as an independent. The former Lieutenant Governor candidate who shared a ticket with Fran Ulmer as a Democrat in 2002 decided that centrism was in fashion. And it worked.
Enjoying both the endorsement of Republican Mayor Dan Sullivan and labor unions, Hall cruised to a 20 point victory over acting-mayor Matt Claman in that year’s election.
Once in office, Hall spent the majority of his time siding with the mayor, and even authored Anchorage Ordinance 37 — an attempt to severely curb collective bargaining. He also caught a lot of flak when he cut off public testimony on the topic.
But, once spared the chairship and the responsibility that comes with being the most-watched swing vote, Hall dedicated himself to navigating the road towards legal marijuana and reforming the city’s election laws. The Assembly recently passed sweeping legislation turning Anchorage in the direction of vote by mail. He ultimately decided that he would not seek reelection, though he would have been accorded one more term. He referenced the recent election system reforms in his parting comments.
“I think you’re all aware that I was serving on this body when I married my lovely wife, Sandy,” he told his colleagues. “But, I would tell you this, Mr. Traini, if my name is on the first write-in vote by mail, there will be a divorce in the family. So, I’ve got to be careful.”
Hall said it was an honor to serve the community, and thanked everyone.
“You’ve lead us through some difficult times on the Assembly, and thank you very much,” outgoing chair Dick Traini replied. “Thanks for working with us, Ernie.”
“You engaged in some unpopular decisions and controversial decisions, but for those who know you, like I feel I do, behind everyone one of those decisions was what you believed truly was to be the best for the citizens of Anchorage,” Evans offered. “You can’t ask for more than that from a public official. I’m going to seriously miss not having you around for your guidance and advice.”
Jennifer Johnston has been a staple in south Anchorage for nine years. Assembly members are only allowed to serve three consecutive three-year terms. So, she has no choice but to move on to greener pastures. I’m not sure anyone would call the state legislature a greener pasture, but that’s where it seems her sights are focused. She’s announced her candidacy for the post left vacant by outgoing Rep. Mike Hawker (R-Anchorage) in District 28. It’s her second attempt at a seat in the House.
“My little friend with a big heart and a huge intellect, thank you so much for your willingness to work with perhaps an insolent youngster periodically,” Downtown Assembly member Patrick Flynn offered, then not so subtly pointing at her bid for state office: “Congratulations. And I hope you are successful in your future endeavors.”
“You’re always fun to deal with,” Traini added. “We didn’t always agree on things, but you always cared about where the town was going.”
“Many people don’t know, but Jennifer has the best scotch in town,” Evans said, after a glowing thanks to his south Anchorage colleague. He said he hoped they’d continue to be friends.
Johnston, who asked that her colleagues limit their remarks, eventually acquiesced and afforded them some parting comments of her own.
I’ve always said running for office is like walking into a room naked. And once you get over that feeling and get beyond your comfort zone, than you’re going to be on this body. And one of the best things about this body is there’s nothing between you and the pothole. And lots of times you can fix the pothole. Some of the worst things is there’s nothing between you and the pothole because you can’t fix it.
She congratulated the newly elected and offered words of caution and direction.
“The body has, at this point, a triple-A bond rating. I want to remind you that. And I hope you have the discipline to keep that,” Johnston said. “Because if you do, you’re going to be in a great spot for Anchorage to be growing in a sustainable way and to be able to react to whatever comes down from the state, and I think that’s very important.”
“What’s the bond rating where you’re going to be at?” Traini joked, noting that while Anchorage’s bond rating is triple A, Alaska’s was downgraded to AA+.
“We raised one, we can raise another,” Johnston said with a smile.
Welcome to the Assembly
Dick Traini was reelected to his midtown district. He is the longest serving member of the Assembly — in history — first being elected in 1991. While candidates are limited to serving three three year terms, that resets after sitting out one term. Traini has mastered the art of coming back.
Forrest Dunbar was elected and replaces Paul Honeman in east Anchorage.
John Weddleton takes over for Jennifer Johnston.
The new chair of the Assembly is Elvi Gray Jackson, who makes history as the first African American to serve in the post. She traded chairs with outgoing chair Traini, who now will serve as vice chair. She was understandably emotional when accepting the position. She will term out next year.
We wish Gray Jackson and everyone else the best of luck.