Home Politics Assembly Beat: Anchorage Anchorage Makes History in 2017 Local Elections Despite Ridiculously Low Voter Turnout

Anchorage Makes History in 2017 Local Elections Despite Ridiculously Low Voter Turnout


Anchorage’s 2017 municipal elections are behind us and there are a lot of “stories of the night” — at least to the 20 percent of Alaska’s largest city who voted.

The low turnout of 19.66 percent as of this reporting (99.19 percent of the vote is in), is down nearly 20 percent from last year’s already-dismal 24.77 percent, and the lowest since the 19.42 percent turnout in 2010. Over the last decade, in non-mayoral election years, the average voter turnout has been 20.37 percent.

But, regardless of how many people showed up, this election cycle was consequential. A lot of institutional knowledge is going away: Patrick Flynn, Elvi-Gray Jackson, and Bill Starr all were ineligible to run due to term limits. Bill Evans decided not to run for a second term.

A total of six seats on an eleven-member body were up for grabs, meaning that Mayor Ethan Berkowitz could lose the 8-3 supporting voting bloc he has enjoyed over the past year.

With so many seats in question, there was concern over a backlash against the mayor and his center-left, supportive majority.

There was not a backlash against the mayor and his center-left, supportive majority. In fact, they gained a seat.

History Made

McCarthy once had an “unofficial mayor” in Neil Darish who was openly gay, and Palmer had a city council member, Kevin Brown. But, there has never been an openly gay candidate elected to public office in Anchorage, nor has there ever been an openly gay candidate elected to the legislature or the U.S. Congress.

As longtime Alaska State Senator Johnny Ellis’s (D-Anchorage) record reflects, it hasn’t exactly been a safe space. Antidiscrimination laws are routinely ignored whenever proposed and there has still been no action, three years after Hamby and two years after Obergefell, to so much as update the numerous referrals in state statute and code to update the repeated references to “husband and wife” or to officially the repeal the constitutional amendment banning marriage equality.

Ellis came out after he retired.

In 2009, the Anchorage Assembly passed an ordinance banning workplace and employment discrimination against LGBTQ residents of the municipality. Then-Mayor Dan Sullivan vetoed the measure. In 2012, in an election fraught with voting issues, voters overwhelmingly put down a ballot proposition with the same goal.

Five years later, Anchorage has elected their first openly gay elected official — twice over.

Christopher Constant, running against a prominent Democrat and three lesser known conservatives for the downtown seat being vacated by Flynn, won Tuesday with 52 percent of the vote. His closest competitor was David Dunsmore, a fellow Democrat, who mustered just 23.35 percent of the vote after the latter pursued a final week of negative campaigning, which evidently backfired.

Felix Rivera, also openly gay, is now too an Assembly member-elect, fending off three challengers while maintaining nearly 47 percent of the vote in midtown Anchorage. Rivera ran for the seat being vacated by Assembly Chair Elvi Gray-Jackson with her full support — as well as the support of current Vice-chair Dick Traini.

“With Chris and I winning, I think it shows that Anchorage voters know that we’re moving in the right direction and they want us to keep going in the right direction,” Rivera told me at Election Central at the Dena’ina Center downtown Tuesday night, adding with a laugh, “There’s a lot to learn and learn quickly.”

Rivera said he can’t wait to get started on issues like public transportation.

I caught up with Constant, too, and asked him how he was feeling.

“Really great. Really, really great,” he said, smiling wide. “You know, it was a very hard-fought effort with resistance at every step. And my neighbors, the people that believe in me, we overcame all that resistance.”

He looked at the election results as they trickled in via projectors onto the wall showing a 19 point advantage over his closest competitor, Dunsmore. Constant won with 52 percent of the vote.

“Not only did we overcome it, we really, really showed them,” he laughed. “The proof there is that our downtown district, at least, is ready for something different — something positive; something that’s connected to the neighborhood — and I hope to live up to the love that’s been given to me. Hope to live up to it.”

He says he can’t wait to get started, in his new position, on the Gambell Street redevelopment project, and also wants to continue to work on the city’s homelessness issues. Constant said he also planned to work with Berkowitz on the creation of a farm north of downtown that would put people to work and bring local produce to market. He also would like to address the oft ignored issue of his district’s lone representation on the Assembly. The downtown district has only one seat on the Assembly whereas every other is allotted two.

A little before 10 pm, Dunsmore conceded.

While I am disappointed with the outcome of the evening tonight, I just called Chris to congratulate him on his election. I sincerely wish him great success; our district has a lot of priorities that need to be addressed. I would like to thank all of my supporters and volunteers, we ran a heck of race and raised a lot of great issues including the need for improved public safety, affordable housing, and giving people a real voice in local government. I am truly humbled by the support I received and I will continue to work to make Anchorage an even greater place to live.

According to a 2011 study by the Williams Institute, 3.8 percent of Americans identify as LGBTQ. A 2006 study narrowed the number of LGBTQ-identifying Alaskans to 3.4 percent — though the complete lack of anti-discrimination laws (still not recognized at the state level, though the State Senate scheduled, and then canceled, a second round of public hearings on legislation again Wednesday) increases the likelihood of under-reporting.

The eleven-member body of the Anchorage Assembly will soon be represented by LGBTQ members to the tune of 18 percent.

Outgoing Assembly Chair Elvi Gray-Jackson embraces her successor, Felix Rivera.

South Anchorage Breaks a Decade-Old Trend

This year’s municipal election also saw a district flip from conservative to progressive in a very unlikely place — for the second year in a row.

Conservative candidate Albert Fogle faced off against progressive Suzanne LaFrance for the seat vacated by Bill Evans, who, as previously mentioned, decided not to run for a second term.

In 2016, John Weddleton won the seat previously held by Chris Birch (R-Alaska) — now a State House representative — in a three-way split against conservative challengers Mark Schimscheimer and Treg Taylor. This year, darkhorse candidate Suzanne LaFrance upset Albert Fogle in a two-way race by 558 votes.

South Anchorage has not had both seats occupied by center-left candidates since Birch ousted Dick Tremaine by nearly ten points in 2005. Two years later, Jennifer Johnston (R-R-Anchorage), also now serving in the State House, narrowly defeated Val Baffone in a four-way election. Both served their full three terms.

LaFrance initially started the night down a few percentage points. Or, as recent history would say, “Everything is normal.”

But, by nine o’clock or so, she took a narrow lead.

With 83 percent of the vote in, and the race tightening in Fogle’s favor, an unnamed campaign worker nervously described the status of the race as, “Fuuuuuck.”

With 9,866 votes split between the two, LaFrance currently enjoys a 558 vote lead; 52.49 percent to 46.87. A razor slim margin of victory, but a likely insurmountable one with over 99 percent of the vote already tallied.

Suzanne LaFrance and Pete Petersen watch as election results trickle in.

School Board Only Unfinished Business

Two seats on the district-wide Anchorage School Board were in play tonight, but only one has officially been decided.

I initially cast Seat C as a three-way race between James Smallwood, Tasha Hotch, and Dave Donley, but get to eat some humble pie while acknowledging additional egg on face for discounting Alisha Hilde. My honest apologies.

Donley, a former Republican state legislator, won the seat easily in a five-way race in which he nearly doubled the votes cast by supporters of his closest competitor, James Smallwood. Donley won easily with just under 43 percent of the vote.

Hilde edged out Hotch for the third runner up with over 6,000 votes compared to Hotch’s 4,100.

Seat D bears a winner to be named later, as Andy Holleman and Kay Schuster are in a virtual tie with Holleman ahead by just 58 votes out of 31,836 cast between them.

That’s what political professionals nervously refer to as an “Eek.”

“It’s not really the end. After counting all the early votes and votes cast Tuesday, the margin is about 60. The good news is, I’m up,” Holleman posted on Facebook just before 2 in the morning. “The bad news is, the question ballots and absentee ballots could easily change who is. The Clerk’s office will be working on this for several days. I’ll be down with other observers eyeballing the process.” ”

“It’s not over,” Holleman concluded.

Bonds, Bonds, and Taxi Cabs

All but one of the seven bond propositions passed, mostly by healthy margins. The lone bond to fall was Prop 2, an areawide proposal with a price tag of $2.3 million to fund new ambulances and public transportation vehicles, as well as update school safety infrastructure.

Prop 2 was vocally opposed by former Anchorage mayors Rick Mystrom, Dan Sullivan, George Wuerch, and Tom Fink.

Berkowitz supported it. But, you can’t get everything you want in a night.

Prop 8, which sought to repeal an ordinance carried by Bill Evans and voted through by the Assembly, was rejected despite a surplus of cash supporting the measure — including a single contribution of $50,000 from the Anchorage Taxicab Permit Owners Association (ATPOA) and an influx of weird arguments claiming more cabs would increase prices.

Prop 8 was a complex issue fueled by well-funded support versus no organized opposition.

But, Alaskans travel. Likely to states with ridesharing services. Which people want here.

Obviously, Alaska is not the same as Philadelphia or San Francisco or Seattle where these rideshare services prosper and shore up all the transportation gaps, but Alaskans have enough experience in the Lower 48 and abroad to recognize a monopoly when they see one, and shoddy services in the absence of competition, and they’d like to at least entertain the idea of pursuing other options — even if, at first blush, it’s simply an increase in the amount of cab permits doled out by the municipality.

Backlash Avoided Entirely

With Pete Petersen defeating conservative challenger Don Jones — a Demboski ally in the Greg Jones fiasco — by a healthy 57-43 margin, and Tim Steele easily fending off perennial candidate David Nees by 24 points, the Berkowitz administration avoided risk of a backlash of conservative voters for a third straight year and actually picked up ground, with the Assembly now poised to enjoy a 9-2 split — not an easy feat.

It’s going to be lonely in Eagle River for awhile, where Demboski and newly-elected Fred Dyson now comprise the extent of conservative representation on the body.

“There’s going to be new energy on the Assembly and that’s going to be positive,” Mayor Berkowitz told me Tuesday night. “I have friends who were running on both sides of the aisle and, so, some of them did very well, some of them didn’t do as well as we might have hoped. But, I’m looking forward to serving with all of them.”

He added, “I think the fact that the bonds that are passing shows that the people of Anchorage have confidence in the direction we’re heading. It also is a sign that the AAA bond rating that we have has meaning.”

“It’s all very encouraging,” Berkowitz concluded.