With less than three months until the April 1 municipal election, there are serious races shaping up for just two of the six Anchorage Assembly seats that will be on the ballot -- even as two of the city's largest union contracts are due for renewal, and with the fate of a controversial new labor law still uncertain.
In East Anchorage, former Democratic state legislator Pete Petersen is challenging incumbent Adam Trombley in what's expected to be a fiercely contested race.
And in South Anchorage, two conservatives are fighting to replace Chris Birch, who is barred by term limits from running for a fourth term.
Of the four remaining seats, three are held by long-serving incumbents, which makes a challenge more daunting. And there is still plenty of time for candidates to pop up.
But the lack of a viable challenger for the fourth seat, held by Tim Steele in West Anchorage, is somewhat surprising, given that Steele was elected to a partial term just last April -- leaving him, in theory, easier to take out.
"This is when he's vulnerable -- he's only been there a year," said Marc Hellenthal, a pollster and consultant who is working with several conservative Assembly candidates. But, he added: "We haven't been able to recruit."
Steele is a former school board member who has worked as a real estate agent, contractor and as an officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
For his part, Steele maintains that his decisive victory last year -- he got 58 percent of the vote in a three-way race that included a better funded, more conservative opponent -- has scared away potential rivals. And he says he wouldn't mind running unopposed.
"That would be okay with me," he said in an interview. "It's kind of a pain in the ass to have perpetual campaigning, which is what I've had to do for the last two years."
The elections for the 11-member Assembly are non-partisan, though the current group can be loosely split six to five, with the majority tending to support the positions of Mayor Dan Sullivan, a conservative. In the past, political parties have helped recruit candidates and back campaigns.
The Assembly sets city policy by passing laws; it also approves contracts and budgets, and has authority over planning and zoning decisions. As a result, groups like municipal unions, builders, and developers are among the most politically active in Assembly elections.
The narrow, six to five split in the current Assembly means that the gain or loss of a single seat could flip the balance.
So far, though, only two of the six seats on the ballot appear to be in play.
In South Anchorage, there are two declared candidates -- Pete Nolan, a former Anchorage police officer, and Bill Evans, a labor lawyer who typically represents management.
But both seem to hold similar values: Evans' website touts "strong conservative leadership," while Nolan's boasts of "strong, ethical, conservative leadership."
The other competitive race is in East Anchorage. Petersen, a former state representative who lost his re-election bid in 2012 after his district was combined with Lance Pruitt's, is taking on incumbent Assemblyman Adam Trombley, a conservative who voted for the controversial labor ordinance that passed last spring.
Unions despise the ordinance and are likely to line up behind Petersen -- who Dan Repasky, the president of Anchorage's Central Labor Council, calls "a good friend of labor."
That race that could see each side spending $100,000, according to Hellenthal, the consultant.
Of the four other seats, one belongs to Steele.
The other three are held by long-serving incumbents, all of whom have been in office for at least five years -- making them difficult to unseat.
They are Elvi Gray-Jackson in Midtown and Patrick Flynn in downtown Anchorage, whose views typically diverge from the mayor's, and Bill Starr, who represents Chugiak and Eagle River and tends to be more aligned with Sullivan.
Starr is the only one with a potential challenger -- a woman named Sharon Gibbons, who filed a letter of intent with the Alaska Public Offices Commission late last month to run for city office, and listed an Eagle River address.
It's unclear, however, whether Gibbons plans to run for Assembly or for the school board, and she did not return calls to a phone number she listed with APOC.
The deadline to enter any of the races is not until Feb. 7, and official filing with the city doesn't start until later this month. But every day that goes by makes it more difficult to challenge an incumbent, as several of the sitting Assembly members have been raising money for their re-election bids since last year -- giving them a head-start over potential opponents.
That's certainly the case for Steele, who has held multiple fundraisers in the last six months, including one on New Year's Eve. He wouldn't say how much money he had in the bank, though he did note that he'd had to return $4,500, based on a ruling from APOC limiting his ability to collect money from people who donated to his campaign last year.
Why so little competition, at least so far? On the conservative side, some of the typical players involved in recruiting candidates are on the sidelines, like former assemblyman Dan Coffey -- a prolific fundraiser who is running for mayor in 2015, and says he plans to stay out of this year's elections.
"This is their battle," he said. "Why poison the well?"
Former state Republican party chairman Randy Ruedrich was also known for trying to influence city politics, but he left his post last year.
While several people suggested Ruedrich would still play a role this year, he declined to comment. The new party chairman, Peter Goldberg, said he had barely started thinking about the April elections -- although he acknowledged that he had a map of the Assembly districts on his wall and was "trying to figure this all out."
Mayor Dan Sullivan, who has supported conservative candidates in past years, declined to comment through a spokeswoman, who said in an email that "it's too early to talk about the Assembly elections."
As for unions, the Central Labor Council plans to make endorsements, but probably will not recruit, said Repasky, the group's president. The council's work will intensify later this spring, he said, as it is currently focused on the upcoming state legislative session.
With big contracts for police officers and firefighters up for renewal -- and requiring Assembly approval -- unions are expected to play a major role in the election.
Repasky said his group would like to see a challenger for the South Anchorage seat who is "more in line with the philosophy that the labor movement possesses." But he stressed that there was still ample time for the Assembly races to heat up, and for more candidates to declare.
"The fact that that hasn't occurred yet -- that doesn't worry us," he said, noting what happened in the contest for a West Anchorage seat last year.
Two weeks before the election, Nick Moe declared that he was challenging incumbent Ernie Hall as a write-in candidate -- and Moe got more than 45 percent of the vote.
Reach Nathaniel Herz at email@example.com or 257-4311.
By NATHANIEL HERZ