Democrats and other critics of Mayor Dan Sullivan said Wednesday that the city election results represent a strong rebuke of his agenda on labor unions and a loss of power for the mayor.
Not so fast, Sullivan and his supporters say. They contend "special interests" commandeered a low-turnout election and that they don't see a bigger message from residents looming. On Tuesday night, Sullivan said he still counts six of 11 Assembly members who lean his way philosophically, assuming Assembly Chairman Ernie Hall wins his surprisingly tight race.
Just five months after the November statewide election in which Republicans won big to gain firm control of the Alaska Legislature, conservatives in Anchorage's non-partisan city election on Tuesday took sharp hits.
Newly appointed Assembly member Cheryl Frasca, who was endorsed by Sullivan, was crushed in her bid to win a West Anchorage seat outright. Conservative School Board member Don Smith was ousted by pro-labor Bettye Davis. Nick Moe, a write-in candidate who only jumped into the other West Anchorage Assembly contest about two weeks ago, threatened Hall in a race still too close to call that was largely over how the Assembly backed a Sullivan measure to weaken unions. Still, Hall said Wednesday that Sullivan should not count him as a sure vote for the administration.
Even Jennifer Johnston of South Anchorage, who like Hall was unopposed on the ballot, saw almost 1,200 voters write in the name of another candidate against her.
The results were noticed in Juneau and bode caution to legislators who want to target unions, Democratic senators told reporters Wednesday.
"There's a price to be paid for interfering with working people and their ability to earn a living," Sen. Hollis French, who represents West Anchorage, said. "It was more than just a union response to the anti-union effort. You can't win elections just on the backs of union voters, you've got to reach out to the middle. And I think the middle yesterday said we want balance, and the mayor had gone too far and the Assembly had gone too far."
In Anchorage, Sullivan's critics said they were startled by the election results.
"I thought it was shocking, really," said Charles Wohlforth, a lifelong Democrat and former Assembly member who works as a writer. "I don't think I've ever seen a local election turn that strongly in one direction from an ideological standpoint."
No one expected Frasca to lose by more than 1,500 votes, or 26-year-old Moe -- who probably was unknown to many Anchorage voters just two weeks ago -- to come "within a hair's breadth" of knocking Hall out, Wohlforth said
"This is big and I think it definitely has repercussions for the mayor and repercussions for Ernie Hall and for how the Assembly does their business," Wohlforth said. "This has to be a wakeup call for them, if they are smart."
The election reflects on Sullivan even though he wasn't on the ballot. "The mayor has just been slapped," Wohlforth said. "His personal popularity obviously has taken a huge blow in terms of all the events this year with the labor ordinance."
Efforts to reach Sullivan on Wednesday were unsuccessful. His spokeswoman, Lindsey Whitt, said he was in Juneau "working on the Anchorage priorities." She wasn't more specific.
Tuesday night watching the returns, Sullivan said he didn't see any referendum against his administration.
"We've re-established the fiscal stability of the city. We've got our bond rating upgraded. We've been leaders in education reform, been leaders in energy issues in Southcentral," the mayor said. "I don't think it's push-back over the overall agenda. I think it's all centered on the one issue."
Labor unions were energized over AO 2013-37, the city ordinance pushed by his administration and co-sponsored by Hall and three other Assembly members that stripped power from the unions. Frasca was a supporter, and it squeaked by on a 6-5 vote.
Of the five candidates endorsed by the mayor, three were winning, though two of them -- Hall and Johnston -- were unopposed on the ballot and the third was Amy Demboski in Eagle River, which is more conservative than the rest of Anchorage. Demboski is a newcomer to the Assembly and replaces a moderate, Debbie Ossiander, who had served the maximum three terms.
Besides Frasca, another Sullivan-backed candidate, Andy Clary, also lost a hotly contested bid, and in both cases, unions backed the winners, former School Board member Tim Steele and incumbent Midtown Assembly member Dick Traini.
"The unions have clearly galvanized because it's in their best interest to elect people who are going to vote to give them the best contracts possible," Sullivan said. "It just goes to show that when special interests pour a lot of money and a lot of resources into an election, it can make a difference."
Rod Harris, president of the Anchorage firefighters union, didn't see things that way.
"To me, if I had to say there was a special interest out there, it was the middle, working class people who just felt like they weren't being heard by the politicians anymore."
In Moe's case, while firefighters volunteered for his campaign in the last days and displayed his campaign signs on a union-owned firetruck that was bought in a surplus sale back in 2009, the young candidate never got a formal endorsement or a campaign contribution from the union, Harris said.
"I didn't meet Nick until two days before the election," Harris said.
Moe said he decided to run because of displeasure over Hall's decision to cut off public comment on the labor law rewrite.
Hall said he is now working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska for procedures on public comment.
And Frasca, who sided with Hall to halt the public debate, said the line of people to testify was never-ending. She called it a "filibuster." People still could have emailed or called their Assembly member, she said.
Both Frasca and Hall said Wednesday that with less than 18 percent turnout (not counting absentees and questioned ballots), the election raises questions about why so few people vote.
"It was about turnout and certainly the special interests were very effective and highly motivated about voting," Frasca said.
Hall said that Sullivan is overly optimistic if he considers him one of six pro-administration votes.
"I am not a counted vote for anyone," Hall said. "If I vote on anything that comes before this body, I am voting that way because I feel that my constituents that have elected me, that's kind of the way they want to go."
He tries for compromise, he said, and mentioned his work in 2010 to protect the Campbell Creek estuary. He helped wrangle a compromise between a conservation trust and the Sullivan administration after Sullivan backed away from the deal.
On the labor law, residents had complained to him about high property taxes and questioned why city workers make so much money. The new law, which eliminates the right of city government unions to strike or have binding arbitration, strikes the right balance, he said.
"For some reason, people constantly say that all you do is whatever the mayor wants you to do," Hall said. "I have never let the mayor influence my decision, period."
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390. Reporter Richard Mauer contributed to this story.