In a newly redrawn House district, Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system is poised to be critical to the election outcome.
Two highly experienced Democrats are running to unseat the Legislature’s youngest member for the seat representing the northern tier of Anchorage. The seat is now held by Republican David Nelson, 26, a lieutenant in the Alaska Army National Guard who was elected in 2020 to represent a district with some important changes in its boundaries.
The Democrats seeking to unseat him are Lyn Franks, who narrowly lost to Nelson two years ago, and Cliff Groh, who four years ago ran for the legislative seat now held by Democratic Rep. Zack Fields. In the Aug. 16 primary, Nelson won the most votes, but that accounted for only 40.8% of the votes cast. Franks and Groh split the other 59.2%, setting up a situation where voters’ second-place choices will become significant in the general election.
The district is in some ways a showcase of Anchorage diversity. It holds the city’s oldest and most-established neighborhood, Government Hill. It holds JBER, which, like other military bases, has a rapid population turnover and sporadic voter participation. It stretches from the Cook Inlet coast on the west, where families root for the West Anchorage High Eagles, to the inland forested area of the east, home of the Bartlett High Bears. The district includes Ship Creek, a tiny sliver of Mountain View, which is famous for its wide ethnic diversity, and the Alaska Native Heritage Center and surrounding neighborhoods. It spans the northern part of Alaska’s biggest city; Groh likened it to “Anchorage’s headband.”
Groh, an attorney and former prosecutor who lives in Government Hill, is focusing his campaign on fiscal issues – and highlighting his long experience with that subject. A campaign slogan, “Let’s Groh the PFD,” is a reminder of his personal history with the Alaska Permanent Fund. Four decades ago, he was the legislative aide tasked with writing the 1982 bill that created the fund’s annual dividend, likely the most popular state government program. He has been immersed in Alaska’s fiscal issues ever since, including a stint working for the Alaska Department of Revenue, and since the 1990s he has been on the board of the nonpartisan civic group Alaska Common Ground. In his role with Alaska Common Ground, he conducted several public education events around the state, including at the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau. He has taught a university course on the subject and authored several works on it.
“I’m a big believer in staying solvent. And solvency, good public schools, good public health and good goods all take resources,” he said.
If elected, Groh would be a second-generation legislator. Groh’s father, also named Clifford Groh, served in numerous civic posts in the pre-statehood and early statehood years and was in the state Senate in the 1970s. A gallery in the state Capitol is named for him. The elder Groh, who died in 1998, was a Republican, as was candidate Groh’s mother Lucy, who died in 2020.
Franks, who lives in the eastern end of the district and served previously as a board member for the Northeast Community Council, is a bit more focused on social and equality issues.
“I would say I’m more progressive than he is. He’s probably more of a conventional middle-of-the-road Democrat,” she said in an interview.
Education is a big issue for her, which is fitting because she has worked over the past decade as an adjunct instructor at the University of Alaska Anchorage and as a substitute teacher with the Anchorage School District. Other top priorities are women’s health and reproductive rights, which she says are threatened by a possible new convention that would rewrite the state constitution. “That’s a big red flag for me,” she said.
Her position on abortion rights has won her some crossover support, she said. “I know Republican women who are like, ‘I’m ranking you No. 1,’” she said.
As do several other Democratic candidates, Franks lists defense of democracy as one of her top priorities. The issue has become prominent in the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election.
Franks came to Alaska in 1988 with a military husband who was assigned to the Alaska Native Medical Center. Through that experience, she said, she can connect with others who are in military families – important in a legislative district that encompasses Anchorage’s military base. However, even though she still has a military ID, she is not permitted to campaign on the base.
Nelson did not reply to telephone or emailed queries for this story, and he did not submit a completed candidate questionnaire to the Alaska Beacon.
In contrast to Groh and Franks, Nelson is relatively new to Alaska. He moved to the state in 2015 and earned a degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2018. He grew up in Florida, where he was an Eagle Scout. Earlier this month, he received an award from the Council of State Governments for being a leader younger than 40; he was one of 20 winners nationwide.
In 2020, Nelson had the state Republican party’s backing when he took on the district’s incumbent, Gabrielle LeDoux. A Democrat-turned-Republican, LeDoux had alienated the party by joining a majority coalition comprised of Democrats, Republicans and independents. Her reelection bid was derailed by legal charges over elections misconduct.
Nelson wound up beating Franks in 2020 by 95 votes. Then, as now, he uses a slogan that defines ties him to the party: “Honest. Conservative. Republican.”
However, on one contentious issue – the use of Centennial Campground as a de facto homeless camp – he broke with Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson, one of the state’s most prominent Republicans. After the Bronson administration made the abrupt decision in June to close down the Sullivan Arena homeless shelter and bus the clients for drop-off at the campground, which is in the legislative district, Nelson penned a letter of protest. On that subject, Nelson sided with Democrats representing the area in the Legislature and on the Anchorage Assembly.
Since 2020, there have been important changes in the district. Along with the start of the ranked-choice system the district itself has changed. Now called House District 18, it now has all of Government Hill, a Democratic-voting neighborhood, and much less of Muldoon.
What has not changed is the district’s history of poor voter turnout. Turnout for the August primary was no exception to the pattern, with the lowest turnout of all of Alaska’s 40 House districts. Only 1,327 votes were cast in the district during the primary, representing a paltry 10.9% of the voters.
Franks, who lost the 2020 election by an agonizingly slim margin, said she is working “way harder” than she did last time to ensure that her supporters actually cast ballots. Last time around, when she lost to Nelson by 95 votes, there were “over 95 people who said they were voting for me who did not vote at all,” she said.
Residents of the district are hard-working and are possibly pressed for time, making it less convenient to vote, Franks said. That makes mail-in voting especially important, she said.
Groh echoed her assessment of the district residents as busy and with little spare time. “The people in this district are much more likely to have a second job than a second home,” he said.
Franks and Groh differ slightly in their approaches to the statewide elections. Franks said she is firmly backing the Democratic candidates, former state Rep. Les Gara, who is running for governor, and retired educator Pat Chesbro, who is running for the U.S. Senate. She will rank former Gov. Bill Walker and incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski second, she said.
Groh, as of mid-October, had not decided on the order of his ballot rankings in the gubernatorial and Senate races. The most important thing to him in the governor’s race “is stopping Gov. Dunleavy from being re-elected,” and he’ll decide later what that means for his vote choice, he said. “I also view it as most critical in the U.S. Senate race to maximize the chances that Kelly Tshibaka does not win, and I will also decide later as to what that means for my vote.”
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