3-way East Anchorage race pits former basketball player against ex-legislator, with Tosi as wild card

Nathaniel Herz

The highest profile race of this year's Assembly elections is the fight for the East Anchorage seat held by Adam Trombley, the former East High basketball star turned conservative politician.

Up until February, the race was expected to be a dogfight between Trombley and Pete Petersen, a two-term Democratic East Anchorage legislator who narrowly lost his re-election bid two years ago.

The campaign is still a dogfight, with both candidates and their supporters running negative advertisements in the weeks leading up to the April 1 election. But the last-minute entrance by Mao Tosi, the community organizer and former NFL football player, has shaken up the race.

With little money or mainstream support so far, Tosi appears unlikely to win the seat. But he could draw enough votes to have an impact--and those votes are likely to come from Petersen's base, said Taylor Bickford, an Anchorage political consultant who's not involved in the race.

"Mao Tosi's presence in the race scrambles the math," Bickford said in an email. "Whether or not he will have enough of an impact to tip the scales remains to be seen."

The race is representative of both traditional and changing Anchorage politics.

East Anchorage has been the site of some of the most hard-fought elections between left- and right-leaning candidates in recent years--both at the city and state level.

It's also one of the more diverse parts of the city, where minorities represent more than 50 percent of the population in some neighborhoods. Tosi, who was born in American Samoa, grew up in East Anchorage.

He has said that if he doesn't win this year's election, he's interested in running again.

So far, the city's political establishment has coalesced around the two other candidates in the race, with unions lining up behind Petersen, and conservatives and business interests supporting Trombley.

Trombley, 34, is especially close with the building and construction industry, which has contributed thousands of dollars to his campaign, while also mounting an independent spending effort that plans to put more than $20,000 towards ads on his behalf.

Builders didn't give large sums when Trombley was first elected, but they have responded to his initiatives to remove what some in the industry have described as hurdles to development -- like a measure that he sponsored in 2012 that allows independent engineers to examine structural plans, bypassing city reviews.

"We didn't go to Adam Trombley and ask him to do anything for homebuilders, but he started doing things that homebuilders really appreciated," said Chuck Spinelli, the head of a large building company.

Some of Trombley's proposals have drawn skepticism from city planners and engineers, who question whether private reviews ensure the same degree of safety as municipal ones.

But Trombley still says he would like to do more to help builders if he's re-elected, such as exempting more and larger types of buildings from the public plan review.

The industry's contributions to his campaign may have come because of his positions, but they don't determine them, he says.

"That's the nature of our political system--you can contribute to people who you think will be good for the issues you care about," he said.

Trombley works in sales for a company that manages chemicals for the oil and gas industry. He has two young daughters, and says he manages to get everything done with the help of a "phenomenal" wife.

"She never complains," he said. "She appreciates my passion--she supports the dream to do what I want to do."

Trombley is a fiscal conservative, like Mayor Dan Sullivan, who has also donated $250 to Trombley's re-election campaign.

But Trombley's campaign also stresses what it says is his independence, with a special section of his website that lists nine "positions different from the mayor."

One that's not there: his flip on a controversial labor law that passed the Assembly a year ago.

Trombley originally voted for the measure, which sharply curtailed union power. But he has since switched to favoring repeal, saying that the Assembly had "failed" in its push for "good government."

That labor law, combined with the Assembly's decision to cut off public testimony on the measure while people were still waiting to speak, was what prodded Petersen to enter the race.

"A major part of your job is listening to the people you work for," he said. "That's when I first thought that maybe they needed a little common sense downtown."

Petersen was a Democrat when he was a state representative, but he describes himself as a moderate and says one of his political idols is Dwight Eisenhower.

He cited the passage of a bill that required insurance companies to cover autism as one of his main accomplishments, and choked up during an interview when he described how a woman with an autistic son had thanked him for it during the current campaign.

Petersen is 63 and recently retired, but owned a popular take-out business, Dinner Dispatch, and coaches Little League baseball.

He wants to lower property taxes, fix East Anchorage roads, and improve neighborhood schools--though the Assembly's only direct form of control over schools is approving the school district's budget limit and taxes, and approving its bonds before they go on the ballot.

Asked how it would be possible for government to fix roads and improve schools while simultaneously taking in less money from taxpayers, Petersen said that roads could be paid for with state money--adding that as a former legislator, he could lobby elected officials inside Juneau's legislators lounge. Trombley, he noted, could not.

Petersen also said that the Sullivan administration had paid more than it needed to for a new city payroll system that has gone over budget, and taken much longer than originally planned.

Petersen has raised thousands of dollars in campaign cash from unions, but he said that "just because I'm taking money from people and organizations doesn't mean I'm always going to vote in their favor."

Unions have already been on the ground for a month in East Anchorage, talking with members of union households.

Out of the district's 36,000 voters, 6,000 either belong to the Alaska AFL-CIO, or live with someone who does, said Joelle Hall, the political director of the group, which is the state's largest labor organization.

Hall said that there's a "harmonic convergence" in the East Anchorage race.

"We have a guy here who had served in the Legislature who has been somebody that we can have a relationship with for a number of years, who has never gone out of his way to hurt us--running against someone who has," Hall said. "It's one of those best-of-both-worlds situations."

Bickford, the political consultant who's not affiliated with either campaign, said that Petersen should get a significant boost from union efforts to get-out-the-vote, in what's expected to be a low-turnout race.

"The importance of voter turnout cannot be overemphasized in low participation races such as this one," he said.

Marc Hellenthal, Trombley's consultant, acknowledged that their campaign doesn't have its own "army." But he said the campaign had tried to counteract that disadvantage by distributing inserts with the newspaper.

"That's our door-to-door campaign," he said.

He said that the campaign had worked hard early in the race in an attempt to build a lead, and was now girding for attacks. As Hellenthal said he told Trombley: "You hang on for dear life, and just hope we survive the last two weeks with the union onslaught."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.