Sitting on a thrift-store sofa in Nick Moe's West Anchorage living room Tuesday afternoon, a forgotten saying came to mind, the one about how politics is the art of the possible. It's refreshing to watch a person run for office who isn't ossified or beholden, even if they probably won't win.
Moe is about a week into a two-week write-in campaign for the Anchorage assembly seat occupied by Ernie Hall. Before Moe launched his campaign, Hall had been running unopposed. The odds are not in Moe's favor, but he's working like they could be. He's taken leave from his job at Alaska Center for the Environment. He and volunteers have knocked on hundreds of doors and made thousands of calls. He barely sleeps. He's raised on average about $1,000 a day since he started his run, putting his fundraising in the same ballpark as Hall's. (Hall has not been campaigning and has had only one fundraiser.)
There is a tendency to talk down to Moe, who is 26. Hall told a reporter recently: "He's a young man. I'm sure that at some time in the future he will be a player in this community."
This kind of condescension might have been justified last time Moe ran for office, in 2006, when he joined the mayor's race. He was 19 then, fresh out of East High School. (Mark Begich won that race and gave Moe a job in his office.) Moe has some modest political chops now. He's been involved with a dozen campaigns over the last seven years, including running the successful effort to elected Assemblywoman Elvi Gray-Jackson. He's worked at City Hall and at the Legislature. He can find his way around the city budget and navigate a tense phone call with someone who doesn't agree with him.
"I've had a lot of opportunities to see the ins and outs of how government works," he said.
Most important, Moe has a way with people. His family has lived in Anchorage for three generations. He may not win this race, but if he runs again, he's probably worth paying attention to.
Moe decided to run when the Assembly decided to cut off testimony recently on the controversial ordinance introduced by Mayor Dan Sullivan that changed how city unions work, limiting their power. Hall, the Assembly chairman and who has been generally seen as a moderate, surprised many supporters by co-sponsoring Sullivan's anti-union measure. Hall also voted to limit the testimony. The assembly is split on the issue. Hall is the deciding vote.
Moe did not support the labor ordinance and thinks ending the testimony was a blow to free speech, he said. A few people asked him to consider a run, he said. So he did. Someone needed to give voters a choice, he said.
"People have a right to know where our elected officials stand on an issue," Moe said.
Union-connected volunteers have been helping his campaign.
At his house on Tuesday Moe sat at the table making calls. He wore a plaid shirt, jacket and a bolo tie fashioned from bullets that his grandfather made. His phone buzzed with a text. He laughed. He was being discussed on the radio.
"You know we're doing well when (conservative talk radio host) Dave Stieren is talking smack," he said.
Every hour of the day was scheduled. There was a phone bank, after that, a fundraiser with other union-friendly Assembly candidates and Begich, and then a stop by the Assembly chambers, where the body was expected to vote on the union measure. After that, a few hours of walking door to door, more strategy, a few hours of sleep.
I caught up with him again at the phone bank a few hours later. He was in the process of making a call to ask someone for money, one of the hardest parts about running for office.
"A lot of people wrote us off. Now I think they're going to write us in," he told the person on the phone and then paused for a while, listening, before he made his pitch.
"Would you be up for making a donation?"
One of the volunteers, Geoffrey Humphreys, a realtor in his 30s, told me he and Moe had met an another political function and hit it off. Being part of an underdog campaign was a thrill.
"If he won," he said. "It would be the coolest thing ever."
Moe's dad, John Backman, sells Volkswagens, Audis and Porsches for a living. He sat on the couch, making calls. He's never worked on a campaign before, he said, though family members follow politics (Mainly on Fox News, Moe told me later). They are independent voters who lean conservative, Backman said. Moe tends to lean the other way, though, his father told me, "He's not for pissing away money. That's for darn sure."
After the phone bank, I drove to the Assembly chambers, where the members were preparing to pass the labor ordinance. The measure, drastic, drafted in secret, amended hastily, and meant to cut deep into city workers' power to negotiate, left me with a lot of questions. The room was full of upset police, fire and other city employees, some in uniform, who knew the deal was already done. The five Assembly members who opposed it pleaded with the others to give it more time. The six voting in favor said little. It was one of those moments in local politics that make it hard not to get cynical.
On Wednesday, Hall told me he supported the measure mostly because the city needs to reign in very large union salaries at the top of the pay scale, and large raises. The salaries he is talking about are well into six figures. Objectively, these are pretty high. I could see that point.
He denied that his support for the measure was about curbing the unions' political power. He said he had no control over the timing of it, which was driven by the administration. He supported union negotiations in the past, but over the time he's been on the assembly, he became unhappy with the process, he said. He doesn't want to cut existing union pay or benefits, he said, but he wants to give the city more control over future increases. He thought the new process would make negotiations easier and might lower taxes. He said he knew some of his supporters weren't happy.
"Any time you go in and make changes and somebody gives something up, they always feel like they've lost a lot," he said.
As for Nick Moe, he knows very little about him. Hall said he expected Moe would be getting union support, and that would give him a little edge, but he didn't seem too concerned about the competition.
It's hard to say whether Hall is underestimating Moe. Going door-to-door and calling in his district, Moe told me, he keeps finding people who were unhappy about what the Assembly has been doing. People in Turnagain are concerned about planned maintenance closures on the Coastal Trail. Union people are upset about the union measure. Some people are mad about Title 21, the city planning code, that was recently passed with a bunch of last-minute revisions. The most encouraging thing, Moe said, was that every day more people ask to volunteer for him and want signs for their yards and like his page on Facebook. He estimated he needed between 3,500 and 4,500 votes to win. I told him that sounded like a lot. It would be hard, he agreed. But not impossible.