Union and business groups have unleashed a wave of attack ads this week in the quickly escalating city Assembly race in East Anchorage.
A union-backed ad targeting incumbent Assemblyman Adam Trombley hit radio stations Monday, as part of a $30,000 campaign backed by police officers and electrical workers.
And on Tuesday, a group of conservatives and business owners who support Trombley debuted an attack ad of their own, hitting challenger Pete Petersen.
The pro-Trombley group's chairman, Bruce Schulte, said he didn't know how much the ads had cost, but he estimated the group had raised more than $20,000 and aims to spend all of it before the April 1 city election.
The campaigns are a big investment by labor and business groups leading up to the April 1 vote, which could see control of the 11-member Assembly tip towards unions and away from the fiscal conservatism of Mayor Dan Sullivan.
Trombley, a registered Republican, is running against Petersen, a former Democratic state representative who has attracted broad support from unions. City firefighters have also paid for and produced a series of pro-Petersen radio ads.
A third candidate, community activist Mao Tosi, is not registered with a political party, and at this point appears to have generated little money or outside support.
The firefighters' spots, and the new ads that began airing this week, fall into a category called independent spending -- Anchorage's equivalent of the so-called super PACs that poured more than half a billion dollars into the 2012 presidential campaign.
Independent spending groups can accept an unlimited amount of money from unions, or from individual donors; they don't have to abide by the strict contribution limits faced by candidates.
But the groups are not allowed to coordinate their efforts with candidates' campaigns.
The union-backed radio ads that launched Monday were produced by Anchorage political consultant Ivan Moore, who said in an interview that he'd had "no involvement" in the East Anchorage race.
"Putting this ad together for my client didn't involve any collaboration with the Petersen campaign," he said.
The 60-second spot draws on last fall's Assembly fight over a state grant for an indoor tennis center, which some Assembly members and legislators have alleged was slipped into the state's capital budget at the last second.
It opens with polite applause that's silenced by an official-sounding voice, which then says: "first service."
A tennis rally then plays in the background as an actor launches into a series of attacks on Trombley's record, including his vote in favor of accepting state grant money for the tennis center, which had been proposed for West Anchorage.
The spot was commissioned by a group called Putting Alaskans First Committee, which disclosed $33,000 in contributions from city and state union groups in a recent filing with state campaign finance regulators.
Vince Beltrami, the committee's chair and the president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, the state's largest labor organization, said the intent of the ads was to "beat the crap out of Adam Trombley."
Trombley voted last year in favor of a controversial new city labor law that local unions vigorously opposed, and while he has since switched his position and supports a repeal of the law, Beltrami said Trombley "has not been our friend."
"Sometimes the gloves need to be taken off," Beltrami said. "We're not going to sit back and let them ramrod something through on city workers, against the will of the city, without having to pay for it."
The city firefighters have also been running ads in the East Anchorage Assembly race, with about $27,000 in spending planned for this year's city election, union officials said -- the majority of it on spots supporting Petersen.
Meanwhile, Trombley's independent backers launched their own spot Tuesday, which attacks Petersen's record as a state legislator, according to Schulte, the chair of the group.
Schulte is a district leader with the state Republican Party, but he said the party has no role in the independent spending effort.
Chuck Spinelli, the head of a local home building company, said he's one of the pro-Trombley group's biggest backers. He said he and two other top contributors were committing a total of $15,000 to the effort, which Spinelli characterized as a response to the unions' campaign.
"We would never be in this thing, spending money, if it wasn't for the unions trying to just bust the whole thing open," he said in a phone interview. "We're not going to let the unions buy the election."
Trombley's campaign also started running its own ads Tuesday responding to the union group's message.
Trombley's consultant, Marc Hellenthal, said the East Anchorage race is attracting so much money because it's one of just two Assembly seats currently held by a conservative that has the potential to flip to a more moderate office holder in the upcoming election.
"Luck of the draw," Hellenthal said. "This is business -- it's not to be taken personally."
Unions made no significant independent expenditures in city races in 2012 and 2013, but the money being spent this year by the labor and pro-Trombley groups could end up surpassing the sums raised by each candidate's campaign.
Moore, the consultant who worked with the unions on the tennis spots, stressed that the independent money doesn't go as far as the candidates' spending, because radio stations are required to give candidates much lower rates on their advertisements.
Reach Nathaniel Herz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4311.
By NATHANIEL HERZ