On Election Day in Anchorage, incumbents prepare to face off against conservative opponents

a person waves while holding a sign that says "John Weddleton - Assembly - balance, experience, commitment"on a snowy day. Others in the background wave the same sign
South Anchorage Assemblyman John Weddleton is running for re-election. He waved signs Tuesday morning at the corner of O’Malley Road and Old Seward Highway. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Candidates braved the snow and took to street corners to wave signs Tuesday morning in a last-minute effort to reach Anchorage voters before polls close at 8 p.m.

“It’s going great,” said South Anchorage Assemblyman John Weddleton, who’s running for re-election. ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” played on a speaker. “It’s gorgeous out here — if you love to ski.”

Weddleton is competing for one of five Anchorage Assembly seats on this year’s ballot, in an election that’s notable for the amount of money pouring into the races and for coordination among candidates. The city races have brought in more than $1 million in donations, as a group of conservative Assembly and school board candidates aims to unseat incumbents.

a person walks across an intersection on a snowy day while holding a sign that says "Forrest Dunbar - Assembly - dedicated leadership"
East Anchorage Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar is running for re-election. He waved signs with supporters Tuesday at the corner of Boniface Parkway and Northern Lights Boulevard. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Forrest Dunbar is also among those running to keep his Assembly seat. Standing with sign-wavers on the corner of Boniface Parkway and Northern Lights Boulevard Tuesday morning, he said he noticed more TV ads and mailers during this election.

“That’s a function of how much money came into all of the races,” he said. “I think it made it feel a little bit more like a mayoral.” 

In March, the Alaska Public Offices Commission declined to adopt new campaign contribution limits. The Alaska House has passed a bill limiting individual contributions to $2,000, but it hasn’t left the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Dunbar had raised nearly $265,600 as of Tuesday, the most of any municipal candidate, according to campaign disclosure forms.

Dunbar said collaboration between campaigns has also increased fundraising.

School board members Margo Bellamy and Kelly Lessens held a joint fundraiser last month for their re-election campaigns. They’ve both received support from the Anchorage Education Association teachers union and several other labor unions. 

Meanwhile, a slate of conservatives have fundraised and campaigned together, too. The group includes Assembly candidates Kathy Henslee, Randy Sulte, Stephanie Taylor and Liz Vazquez, plus school board candidates Mark Anthony Cox and Rachel Ries. They had a joint phone banking event planned for Tuesday evening followed by a party.

And on Tuesday morning, Cox and Taylor waved signs together in Midtown. Supporters held signs for the two of them, plus the other conservative candidates on the ballot.

Anchorage Assembly candidate Stephanie Taylor (center) waves at cars while campaigning on Election Day. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Cox said hosting events with other candidates helps show voters the importance of the different races. Assembly members are elected by district, while school board seats are decided by all Anchorage voters.

“Instead of just going to an event for an Anchorage Assembly member, they go to an event for an Assembly member and a school board member,” he said. “They get to have a broader perspective of what’s going on in our city.”

RELATED: 2 Anchorage School Board candidates drop out of the race, endorse their like-minded opponents

While the Assembly and school board races are technically non-partisan, conservative candidates have received support from Mayor Dave Bronson. Bronson and his wife joined Cox and Taylor in Midtown on Tuesday morning. Cox said he appreciated it.

“To wake up early, before even heading to work, and supporting candidates as a citizen, it’s awesome to see anyone do that,” he said.

Anchorage First Lady Deb Bronson (right) waves a campaign sign. The campaigns for Kathy Henslee, Stephanie Taylor, Randy Sulte, Kevin Cross, Liz Vazquez, Mark Anthony Cox and Rachel Ries threw a sign waving event on Election Day. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson waves at cars while campaigning with a few Assembly candidates on Election Day morning. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)
Anchorage School Board candidate Mark Anthony Cox waves signs. He’s running for Anchorage School Board seat A. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

But some incumbents didn’t see it the same way. Bronson has regularly sparred with the Anchorage Assembly since taking office last summer.

“The mayor has been very clear: He chose these candidates,” Dunbar said. “He wants an Assembly that won’t hold him accountable, that will get rid of what little transparency there is in this administration.”

RELATED: The Anchorage municipal election is today. Here’s what to know.

Lessens, an incumbent school board candidate, was also out waving signs early Tuesday. She’s in a three-way race for school board seat B, up against Ries and Dustin Darden. She said the pandemic has brought more attention to school board races.

“School board races nationwide have come under closer scrutiny and are gaining greater interest,” she said. “I ran last year, and it was a very close race. I learned that every vote counts.”

a person holds a sign that reads "Kelly Lessens - school board -" on a snowy day
Kelly Lessens is running for re-election in a three-way race for school board seat B. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The school board race was a priority for voter Charlotte Kair. She drove into the Anchorage City Hall parking lot early Tuesday to deposit her ballot in the drop box.

“I have a child in school, so I was looking for school board candidates who were looking for the future for our children,” she said. “COVID has really hurt our children from a social perspective, from an educational perspective, and we need to figure out how to get it back on line and regain that distance.”

She said she was also carefully considering the series of propositions on the ballot. They include bonds for the Anchorage School District that would pay for the replacement of Inlet View Elementary School, security upgrades at school entrances and other projects.

“The economy isn’t great right now, so how are we spending our tax money?” she asked. “Are the ballot propositions things we really need as opposed to want?”

City Hall was one of three locations where Anchorage residents can vote in person. 

At the Eagle River polling place, Gail Gerk said it was busy on Monday, but there was a lighter turnout on Tuesday morning.

“We were surprised we didn’t have a line up outside this morning to start, for people going to work,” she said. “Because it’s not a mayoral election, I think it’s less. But it’ll pick up tonight after school is out. People can pick up their kids and they come.”

Eagle River poll worker Gail Gerk helps a resident vote. Gerk has been an election worker in Alaska for more than 25 years. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage held its first vote-by-mail election in 2018, and Gerk said people have slowly been getting accustomed to sending in their ballots or dropping them off in secure drop boxes. But, she said, there are still residents who like the old-school, in-person way.

“Everybody that comes in here to vote loves to vote, and they want to come in and do it in person,” she said.

Ballot box and in-person voting locations are listed on the municipality’s website. Initial election results will be available around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, with the city providing updates as ballots are counted. The Assembly will certify the results at its April 26 meeting.

[To learn more, check out this Q/A with Anchorage Assembly candidates and this Q/A with school board candidates.]

Alaska Public Media’s Wesley Early contributed reporting to this story.

two election workers let voters know where to go
Election workers Ann Rittal (left) and Jane Murphy let voters know where to go Tuesday morning at the Loussac Library in Anchorage. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)
an election worker shows a voter where to drop their ballot off
A voter turns in a ballot Tuesday morning at the Loussac Library in Anchorage. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

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