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Sullivan, critics differ on balance between mayor's job, political campaign

Nathaniel Herz

In 2008, as then-Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich geared up for a run for the U.S. Senate, one of his chief critics on the Assembly argued that Begich should resign on the grounds that being mayor is a full-time job.

Six years later, that critic finds himself in a similar position to Begich. For the past 11 months, Mayor Dan Sullivan has been running the city while simultaneously running for lieutenant governor.

His campaign is now heating up, with just three months until the Republican primary. Sullivan spent a week away from the city earlier this month on a campaign trip to Southeast, with stops in Sitka, Ketchikan, and Petersberg. A Facebook post said his campaign was headed to Kodiak over Memorial Day weekend.

Sullivan says he's balancing the bid for lieutenant governor with his executive job and draws clean lines between city business and politics, just like the many other candidates who run while holding elected office.

After declining to answer questions about his campaign at a Wednesday news conference, Sullivan offered to conduct an in-person interview before subsequently insisting on being sent written questions.

In a prepared statement, he said he balances his two roles "the same way Mayor Begich did when he ran for Senate while mayor."

"You work extra long days, prioritize your schedule, and you do work as needed while traveling," he said. "You also hire really good people to run your departments."

His critics, meanwhile, say Sullivan has lost focus on local issues and is blurring the boundaries between public office and personal gain.

Assembly members and a union opponent have questioned his use of a city spokesperson to respond to campaign-related criticism, as well as a promotional flier with Sullivan's photo that was mailed with property tax bills earlier this month.

Assembly member Dick Traini, one of Sullivan's chief critics, said that the mayor has been "checked out since he got re-elected" to his second three-year term in 2012. Aside from pushing for passage of a controversial labor law, "he's done nothing else," Traini said.

As he prepared for a meeting at Anchorage City Hall on Wednesday, Traini also aired his frustration to a colleague about the flier mailed with the property tax bills.

It included a photo of Sullivan next to a banner that reads: "STRONG FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT" and "Five years of responsible leadership," as well as information about the city departments that tax payments support.

"That's not how we should be using tax notices for the public -- running a campaign ad for his next election," Traini said in an interview.

On Wednesday, Alaska AFL-CIO President Vince Beltrami also filed a complaint against Sullivan with the state agency charged with enforcing election laws, alleging that the mayor had illegally used his municipal spokesperson to respond to criticism of remarks he'd made at a candidate forum.

Sullivan responded by saying in a prepared statement that the claim was "without merit."

A year on the campaign trail

Sullivan announced his candidacy for lieutenant governor last June, more than a year before the Republican primary and nearly 17 months before the general election.

He said at his news conference Wednesday that he planned to open a campaign office, but he did not respond to emailed questions about its location or opening date or his campaign staffing.

Sullivan has not used a campaign spokesperson and typically responds to campaign-related inquiries with calls and text messages from his mobile phone.

Begich kicked off his 2008 Senate campaign on April of that year, which meant he was a candidate for fewer than seven months -- though he'd formed an exploratory committee earlier and had been traveling around the state. At least four members of his municipal staff, including his press secretary, left their city jobs to work on the campaign.

In an interview, Begich acknowledged that his family life had suffered from the dual demands of his Senate bid and mayoral job. But he refused to concede that his candidacy hurt his ability to run the city, ticking off initiatives he worked on in his final months as mayor, like the completion of the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center and improvements to Cuddy Family Midtown Park.

"If I was traveling at any point outside the state, I was on my phone to my team on a regular basis, getting reports," he said. "You answer the phone on the first or second ring no matter what time of day."

Assembly members offered different takes on Sullivan's performance over the course of his campaign.

Assembly member Amy Demboski, who was elected two months before Sullivan announced his candidacy last year, said she hadn't noticed any changes in the mayor's leadership.

"I think he's been doing fine," she said. "I honestly haven't noticed any impact."

Assembly member Bill Starr, who was elected in 2007, said he'd seen Sullivan leave early from the last two Assembly meetings and observed Sullivan had made "a little bit more of a departure" earlier in his campaign than Begich did.

"Did it particularly bother me? Nope," Starr said. "I have a dependency on his staff, and so far they're doing a good job."

Demboski did question the layout of the flier that was mailed with tax bills, saying she would have left her picture off if she'd been in Sullivan's position. But she added it was in a "gray area."

Sullivan's city spokesperson did not respond to questions about the cost of printing the flier or about whether similar flyers were included with tax bills in the past.

'An important job to do'

Sullivan has also drawn criticism from the state Democratic party for running ads on Facebook promoting his official mayoral page.

One recent ad referred people to a post with an editorial written by Sullivan in response to criticism of comments he made about teachers immediately following a candidate forum in Juneau.

"Crazy he's using public dollars on this kind of transparent self promotion," Democratic spokesman Zack Fields wrote in an email.

Sullivan's municipal spokesperson provided a report showing that the city had spent $1,800 on Facebook advertising for the 12-month period that ended May 1. She did not respond to a question about the purpose of Sullivan's Facebook page.

She also did not respond to a question about a city videographer who appeared to use the same camera and equipment to record Wednesday's mayoral press conference as well as a candidate forum earlier this month where Sullivan appeared.

Ivan Moore, a liberal-leaning political consultant who's not actively working for any of the lieutenant governor candidates, said there's no doubt the demands of campaigning detract from Sullivan's ability to do his job, just like they do for other full-time elected officials.

But promotional efforts like Sullivan's are benign and nothing new, he added.

"The reality is: These are politicians," he said in an interview. "They're in it to tell people how marvelous they are, and that's what they do all the time.

"You can't stop that," he added. "All you can really do is make sure that overt things about lieutenant governor don't get faxed out on the mayor's office fax machine."

Taylor Bickford, a political consultant who has worked for the Republican Party, also said he hadn't seen any improper or unethical behavior by Sullivan or by other candidates for statewide office like Begich or Gov. Sean Parnell, who is running for re-election.

"If it wasn't an election year, you wouldn't raise an eyebrow," said Bickford, who is not affiliated with Sullivan's campaign. "People expect him to be out there and active and talking about his agenda and his administration's record -- and it just so happens those things are also helpful out there on the campaign trail. But that doesn't necessarily mean it's unethical."

The Assembly, meanwhile, last month amended Anchorage's ethics code to require municipal officials to disclose and pay a pro-rated share of travel costs any time they conduct political fundraising while on a city funded trip.

The measure came after Sullivan acknowledged holding a fundraiser at the office of a city lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., on an official mayoral trip there. He initially did not reimburse the city for any travel costs but subsequently paid back $214 to cover fundraisers he held on the trip to Washington D.C. and one other he made on the Kenai Peninsula following a recommendation made by an official at the state agency charged with enforcing election laws.

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

 


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com