Mayor: Trombley's switch on labor law cost him support in E. Anchorage Assembly race

Nathaniel Herz

Assemblyman Adam Trombley's reversal on a controversial city labor law cost him support from his conservative base, according to Mayor Dan Sullivan in an interview after what appears to be a narrow loss by Trombley to challenger Pete Petersen, a former Democratic state legislator.

Sullivan spearheaded passage of the labor law last year, which sharply curtailed union power. Trombley voted for the measure at the time but then changed his mind and voted to repeal the measure in October, which Sullivan said cost the East Anchorage representative conservative votes in Tuesday's election.

"When you alienate that group, you lose your momentum. And this is something that was shared with Assemblyman Trombley many months ago," Sullivan said. "When you don't stick to your guns on key issues that conservatives are interested in, it's really hard to energize that base. And one of the first things you learn in politics is you've got to keep your base strong."

The East Anchorage race drew more than $300,000 in spending from candidates, unions and business interests, with scores of attack ads distributed by mail and radio as control over the narrowly divided Assembly hung in the balance.

When the dust settled Tuesday night, Petersen was the last man standing in the three-way race, with a narrow, 340-vote lead over Trombley.

Absentee and early votes, as well as questioned ballots, still remain to be counted. Exactly how many there are in each district remained unclear Thursday; the municipal clerk's office said there were more than 7,500 spread across six Assembly districts citywide.

The East Anchorage race, however, appears unlikely to be reversed, and even Trombley admitted in a conversation with Assemblyman Patrick Flynn that it would take a "miracle" to turn things around, Flynn said.

Precinct-by-precinct vote totals were not available Thursday, making a detailed analysis of the results difficult.

But in the two days after the election, people on both sides of the race described several factors that they said converged to hurt Trombley's chances.

They ranged from what local conservatives described as division within their movement, to an unexpectedly strong showing by the race's third candidate, Mao Tosi, who may have drawn more votes from Trombley than he did from Petersen -- a reversal of the dynamic that most people expected.

There was also a muscular union effort backing Petersen, which seized on the most controversial elements of Trombley's record.

That record -- most notably, his position on the labor law, known as AO-37 -- may have hurt Trombley with liberal- and conservative-leaning voters alike.

The first group vigorously objected to his initial stance in support of Sullivan and against the unions, while the latter may have been turned off by his about-face when he voted to repeal it, as Sullivan argued.

"I don't regret a single decision or vote I made while being on the Assembly. I'm proud of my record and I stand by it," Trombley wrote in a statement Tuesday evening. "I never ran for the Assembly for the sole purpose of getting reelected, or elected for higher office. I did what I thought was right at the time."

Marc Hellenthal, Trombley's consultant, agreed that his candidate didn't have the full support of conservatives -- which he said left the campaign operating on a shoestring, with just a single person running a phone bank between last Friday and Monday.

Unions, meanwhile, recruited 10 people to their phone banking operation, three nights a week, for at least a full month, according to Joelle Hall, the director of operations for the Alaska AFL-CIO.

"The Republican party was split," Hellenthal said. "(Trombley) didn't get the worker bees. Last time out, he had an army of young Republicans that helped him out."

Technically, city elections are nonpartisan but the parties often end up supporting local candidates.

The state Republican Party did spend more than $10,000 in March on absentee ballot applications, which were mailed to residents of East Anchorage and South Anchorage -- the site of the two most competitive Assembly races -- with a message from Sullivan that "this coming election is too important to miss."

Randy Ruedrich, a former chairman of the party who worked on the mailer, said that the applications were probably more highly concentrated in East Anchorage. But he added that any further investment in Trombley's race would have been counterproductive.

"If it's a nonpartisan election, the Democrats would make it a huge issue if we did anything, and that would be not helpful," he said. "We did what is helpful."

Another problem for Trombley was his sponsorship of an Assembly measure last month that dedicated as parkland 16 acres of city property in East Anchorage -- a move that was ultimately vetoed by Sullivan and got Trombley hammered by conservative talk radio hosts, according to Hellenthal.

While the attempt earned Trombley some support in his district, at least one voter -- former Northeast Community Council president Ainslie Phillips -- said that Trombley had initially fought local residents on the park, which she had not forgotten.

"He was one of the staunchest objectors of the park. And on the labor vote, he went along with that until it became politically correct," she said. "Those were Hail Mary attempts for him to win his seat back. People recognized that."

Bill Starr, one of Trombley's Assembly allies who also switched his vote on the labor law, disagreed, saying that the two were simply trying to back away from a measure that had proven unsuccessful.

"I think we realized the legislation wasn't all that good," he said. "I don't think Adam weighed his decisions based on 'Will this get me re-elected or not?' I think he was genuinely thinking, like I did, that the legislation was wrongly delivered, and it needed work."

But regardless of Trombley's motivation, his retreat from the labor law may not even have registered with voters as much as his initial support -- which was firm when the Assembly voted to cut off public testimony on the measure last year, infuriating local union members and their supporters.

"I heard this from several candidates going door to door: The public was more concerned about AO-37 and the process, than the knowledge of what the ordinance did or didn't do. And Adam had a role in the damaged process," said Derek Hsieh, the president of the city police union, which gave money to a union group that paid for radio ads attacking Trombley. "If we went out and actually tried to explain to people what AO-37 did or didn't do, we lose people. Cutting off public testimony ... they get that in about two seconds."

Another factor that may have hurt Trombley was the 20 percent of voters who ended up picking Tosi, a first-time candidate who's a community organizer and former NFL player.

Petersen's supporters had speculated that Tosi was recruited by Republicans in an attempt to split East Anchorage's more liberal voters, which would have boosted Trombley's candidacy.

But according to Hellenthal, Trombley's consultant, internal campaign polls showed that Tosi's presence in the race hurt Trombley more than it hurt Petersen.

Then there was what Hellenthal described as a last-minute misstep by Trombley's campaign -- a failure to organize groups of sign-wavers at key intersections in the last days before the election.

"It dropped through the cracks," Hellenthal said. "We didn't close out our campaign, where Tosi and Petersen both did."

Ultimately, though, Hellenthal placed much of the weight on conservatives' failure to coalesce around Trombley -- which appears to have cost them control of the Assembly.

"Every time the majority party starts to disintegrate, it's because they infight," Hellenthal said, referencing to the clashes between Trombley and Sullivan. "And they end up divided and conquered."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.


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