Last fall, Bill Evans and Pete Nolan met for lunch at an Applebee's in Midtown.
Over salads, the conversation between the two South Anchorage conservatives eventually turned to the thing that both of them wanted, but only one could have: the Assembly seat in their district that was about to be vacated, after being held by the same man, Chris Birch, for nine years.
South Anchorage had recently elected some of the city's most conservative Assembly members. But Evans and Nolan knew that if they both stayed in the race, they risked splitting the vote and losing, if a more liberal, union-backed candidate decided to enter later on.
Evans, an attorney, had envisioned a convention of the city's conservative elite, who would, as he put it, "get into some smoke-filled room and decide which of us they think was the better candidate."
But both men wanted to stay in the race, and their lunch ended without a resolution. Now, they're locked in a three-way battle for the seat with latecomer Bruce Dougherty, a self-described moderate who has received more than $5,000 in union-tied contributions since registering his campaign in January.
The South Anchorage Assembly race is one of two this year that's expected to be closely fought, and draw heavy campaign spending before the April 1 election. So far, the contest has brought in more than $85,000 in contributions, between the three candidates.
The race pits Dougherty against Evans, a labor attorney who represents management in disputes with unions and employees, and Nolan, a retired Anchorage police officer who now works in advertising and marketing for a local military publication.
They're all seeking to replace Birch, who's barred by term limits from running for reelection.
Dougherty's entry this winter shook up a race between Evans and Nolan that had been brewing for months. Nolan made the decision to run two years ago and registered his campaign in late 2012; Evans registered last July.
Dougherty, 54, says he's a 28-year military veteran of the Air Force Reserve and Alaska Air National Guard, and has worked professionally as a nursing home administrator, and as an inspector of health facilities around the state.
While Dougherty has limited experience with city government, he said he attended some of the public testimony at the Assembly on the controversial labor law, AO-37, which was passed last year.
Dougherty opposes that law, which sharply curtailed the power of public sector unions in Anchorage. He also thinks public employees should get a defined benefit retirement plan, and he opposes vouchers for religious schools -- though that last issue is one the Assembly has little influence over.
Also among his credentials: Dougherty's campaign literature says he's an "award-winning crime watch organizer," based on a citation he received from the Anchorage Police Department for recruiting more than 100 homes in his subdivision into a city program, which includes a mandatory training session.
"It's very hard to crowbar people out of their homes, away from 'Dancing with the Stars,' whatever they're watching," said Natasha Welch, the officer who oversees the program for APD. "Bruce did that."
Dougherty has purchased a voter database from the state Democratic Party, and his wife is the executive director of the Alaska branch of the National Education Association, the country's largest teacher's union. But Dougherty, who is not registered with a political party, says he's a moderate and once voted for Ronald Reagan.
He says he thinks he has a path to victory if Evans and Nolan -- who he calls his "running mates," since "opponents" is too confrontational -- split the conservatives in the district.
"Those two gentlemen will obviously be competing for the same votes," Dougherty said.
That's a contention that's brushed aside by Nolan, who says that the long hours he's spent going door-to-door in the district, and the work he's already done at the community council level, will blunt the political dynamics of the race.
Assembly races, he said, are "about who is going to fix your pothole."
"They're about who came to your door, who you actually saw," Nolan said.
Nolan, 57, is an energetic former Anchorage police officer who retired after being shot by a sniper. He drinks three cups of coffee with breakfast, and was running on his sixth during an interview Thursday afternoon.
Nolan, a registered Republican, supports many of the ideas in the controversial labor law, like the standardization of overtime and holidays across different municipal positions, which he says could save the city money.
But he wants the Assembly to repeal the law and pass a new version, since he thinks the measure is unlikely to pass muster with voters at a referendum scheduled for later this year.
Nolan is backed by the Anchorage police and fire unions, but describes those endorsements on his website as being from "the working men and women" of those two city departments.
"They're the ones that endorse you. The union is simply the mechanism by which you go and talk to all of them, because you can't talk to 500 people," Nolan said.
He returned a $500 campaign contribution from the city police union, because as an Assembly member, he would have to vote to approve or reject the union's contract, he said.
He gets a medical pension from his days as a police officer, valued at between $20,000 and $50,000 annually, according to a disclosure filed with state regulators. While Nolan thinks public safety employees should still get a defined benefit retirement plan like that one, "we can't afford it," he said.
Nolan is unapologetic in his belief that he's more qualified than his opponents; as a former president of the Huffman-O'Malley Community Council, he says he already has a command of the problems in his district.
"My contention is this: They will probably, I hope, learn those issues," Nolan said. "I already know them. I can hit the ground running."
Evans, the labor attorney, appears to be the most conservative candidate in the race. While city elections are technically nonpartisan, he's sent mailers with the slogan, "Vote Republican," and counts Mayor Dan Sullivan among his supporters.
Nolan actually said that he'd initially gotten Sullivan's backing, early in the campaign, but the mayor appears to have switched allegiances, based in part on what Evans said was his firm position in support of the labor law, which was drafted by the Sullivan administration.
Sullivan did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the race; spokeswoman Lindsey Whitt said he was backing Evans.
Evans says his credentials as a labor attorney would help him manage the city's personnel costs, which make up 55 percent of the annual budget. If elected, he says he wants to reduce the overall size of that budget.
While he's typically on the management side of the table in his profession, Evans said he could still work productively with unions, adding that he's known as someone who can listen to opposing arguments.
That assertion was confirmed by Chuck Dunnagan, a labor attorney who typically represents unions and employees, including the city firefighters.
"(Evans) is a good labor attorney, and he is a reasonable guy to work with--although I might prefer a more progressive candidate," Dunnagan said.
Evans has been a board chair of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, and also sits on two municipal advisory boards.
He has raised the most money of any of the three candidates in that campaign, at nearly $39,000. But that includes $15,000 of his own money--a contribution that Evans said was tough on his wife, but was one he felt was necessary if he was going to ask others for cash, and have enough to win the race.
"I thought that if other people were willing to invest in my campaign, I needed to be the main investor," Evans said. "It's important that I put skin in the game, as well."
Reach Nathaniel Herz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4311.
By NATHANIEL HERZ