In Anchorage’s municipal elections Tuesday, liberals gained an edge in the Assembly, and residents supported all but one bond measure put forward passed. Voters also opted to shake up the taxi industry. Amid low turnout, it was candidates and causes aligned with the current administration that won the day.
At Election Central Tuesday night, inside a conference room on the second floor of the Downtown Anchorage’s Denai’ina Convention Center, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz watched results scroll past on a projector screen.
“I’m looking at numbers,” Berkowitz explained. “Right now, I’m looking to see which precincts have come in to get a sense of how much change you expect to see.”
It was still early in the night, with just under half the votes counted, but the results looked good for Berkowitz’s administration. At stake in the Assembly elections was the kind of relationship the representative body will have with the mayor’s office. But Berkowitz was paying just as much attention to the ballot initiatives, projected on a second nearby screen. Voters appeared to be on track to pass almost all of the bonds put forward by the administration, more than $100 million for schools, infrastructure, park upkeep and public safety facilities.
“I think the fact that the bonds are in strong position is a good indication the people of Anchorage feel confident about the direction of the economy,” Berkowitz said.
There were few surprises in the six Assembly races, with incumbents Tim Steele and Pete Petersen holding seats in West and East Anchorage (respectively), and former lawmaker Fred Dyson winning an open seat in the Eagle River/Chugiak district.
But progressive candidates won by large margins in the downtown and midtown races. As results poured in, so did supporters from victorious campaigns, giving brief cheers and waving signs before milling around tables.
In somewhat of an upset, a liberal-leaning political newcomer, Suzanne LaFrance, narrowly won the South Anchorage seat that’s traditionally been held by conservative representatives. LaFrance was a bit surprised by the results, but thinks the positive tone in her campaign and a well-spring of late support the last few weeks helped efforts.
“We had a lot of folks who definitely hit the ground, door-to-door and lit dropping, getting the word out on social media and word of mouth,” LaFrance said during a brief interview, flanked by two of her three children. “If you look at the folks who contributed financially to the campaign it’s a very broad-based group.”
The results nudge the 11-member body slightly more to the left of where it currently sits.
The Assembly will also see its first two openly gay members, Felix Rivera in the midtown district and Christopher Constant downtown.
“We’ve seen a sea-change in the last four years in this town,” Constant said. “It’s time. There’s a saying in the LGBT political community, it’s ‘If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably being served.’ It’s long past the time when we were being served.”
At just under 20 percent, turnout across the municipality was low, even by the standards of municipal elections. In the downtown and Eagle River districts, less than 16 percent of eligible voters showed up. The south Anchorage race, however, was up around 25 percent turnout.
Even though Assembly races are technically non-partisan, political groups from both sides put resources behind candidates. The Alaska Young Democrats aimed efforts at door-knocking and phone-banking for progressive candidates in every district, according to Joshua Spring, who is in charge of organizing volunteers. He was quick to caution that the victories were not from enormous volunteer or voter mobilizations. Involvement, like turnout, was hardly massive.
“I’ve made probably about 250 volunteer request calls this cycle, and the main thing that I think I heard was people feeling burnt out after the last cycle in November,” Spring said. “But the people that are here and are involved are hyper-involved.”
Progressive candidates for one of the two school board seats split the vote, and former Republican state senator Dave Donley won by a large margin. In the second race, Andy Holleman is up by just 58 votes over Kay Schuster with one precinct not yet counted, making results too close to call.
One bright spot for conservatives was the failure of ballot measure 2, which had to do with attaching 14 staff positions to the operations of two new ambulances, a provision that would have cost $23 million over ten years.
“That’s extreme,” former mayor Dan Sullivan said. He was part of a campaign effort to defeat the proposition. “I think that was a mistake by the administration to put that out there like that. If you think that these ambulances are something that’s that vital, they could have rolled it into the regular budget.”
In a proposition about the future of the taxi industry, voters rejected a move to keep the current system, and opted to open up the permitting process. The move will put more cabs on the road in the next few years.