The Anchorage Assembly expanded its liberal-leaning majority Tuesday night, with former Democratic state representative Eric Croft moving to victory in West Anchorage, replacing an assemblyman who generally voted with the conservative bloc, Ernie Hall.
With 92 percent of precincts reporting, Croft held a strong lead over challengers Adam Trombley, Ira Perman and Dustin Darden in West Anchorage. Hall did not seek a third term.
In South Anchorage, John Weddleton appeared to be the victor, holding a 290-vote lead over Treg Taylor and a large lead over Mark Schimscheimer with 92 percent of the vote counted. The winner will replace a conservative on the Assembly, Jennifer Johnston.
In East Anchorage, Forrest Dunbar scored a decisive victory over challenger Terre Gales, winning 60 percent of the vote to Gales' 39 percent.
Both incumbents seeking re-election, Amy Demboski of Chugiak-Eagle River and Dick Traini of Midtown, kept their seats Tuesday night.
Demboski won with a large lead over Nicholas Begich III. Traini had almost twice as many votes of challenger Ron Alleva.
Turnout was on track to exceed 21 percent of Anchorage voters. About 2,100 absentee ballots were included in the results, but more remained to be counted, said deputy city clerk Amanda Moser. Questioned ballots also still awaiting a count, Moser said. She didn't provide the number of uncounted ballots.
Municipal election vote counts
"The Assembly is going to be more progressive than it's been before. We have less out-and-out right-winger conservatives," Traini, who has already served 17 years on the Assembly, said in an interview at Election Central in the Dena'ina Center Tuesday night. "So we'll see how the Assembly deals with it."
Taylor, Trombley and Gales all pitched themselves as the most conservative candidates in their respective races, and tried to make their campaigns a referendum on Proposition 8, a contentious initiative targeting the calculation of the city's tax cap. The initiative passed handily Tuesday night by a 2-1 margin, but its overt supporters fared less well.
While city elections and Assembly seats are considered nonpartisan, factions form along party and ideological lines. The power balance has shifted back and forth over the years. That happened most recently in 2014, tilting from right to left in the wake of union anger over the attempt by the administration of former Mayor Dan Sullivan to rewrite city labor law.
Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, who took office last year, is a former Democratic state representative who served 10 years with Croft. Political alignment on the Assembly plays a role in how much legislation the mayor will succeed in spearheading.
"I think people want pragmatists," Berkowitz said of the outcome Tuesday night. "They want people that aren't approaching the problems the city has, the challenges we have," he said. "They want people who are oriented toward solutions."
Two competitive races
Against the backdrop of a noisy national presidential race and a state budget crisis in Juneau, the Assembly campaigns were relatively subdued this year.
The most contentious contests were in West Anchorage and South Anchorage. The leading West Anchorage candidates -- Croft, Perman and Trombley -- largely focused on experience, with all three boasting personal histories either in the government or in close proximity to it. In the waning days of the campaign, Perman ran a radio ad that sought to paint Croft as a perennial candidate and a quitter. Croft, meanwhile, turned his direct attacks to Trombley, sending out a letter last week that minimized Perman as a threat and criticized Trombley's positions on social and labor issues.
Trombley made his support for the tax cap initiative his main campaign message. He released a video on Facebook that highlighted Croft's opposition to the initiative, and later a video of he and his wife Stephanie discussing Croft's letter.
The $100,000 Croft raised for his campaign was the most of any candidate running for Assembly this year. A large chunk of the money came from labor unions.
Quirky, as well as partisan, attacks emerged in the South Anchorage race. Taylor, who made his conservative credentials and his support for the tax cap initiative the primary message of his campaign, sent out a mailer that painted his rivals as "liberals."
Schimscheimer posted a photo montage on Facebook that poked fun at the way his rivals' signs were built -- with the implication that he, the engineer, had the sturdiest signs.
On his Facebook page, Weddleton posted rebukes to Taylor, as well as a photo of himself waiting for his rivals to appear at a candidate forum.
Elsewhere in town, candidates stayed positive, at least publicly. Dunbar and Gales posted promotional videos and photos and campaign activity, but stayed away from directly attacking one another. The two candidates were vying to replace Assemblyman Paul Honeman, who decided not to seek a third term and endorse Dunbar instead.
On her campaign Facebook page, Demboski shared a series of prominent endorsements in the days leading up to the election, including from former Mayor Sullivan and state Senators Anna McKinnon and Bill Stoltze of Chugiak-Eagle River.
The first meeting for the new Assembly candidates will be April 19, the date the election is certified.
Mixed election turnout
Turnout for local elections is notoriously low. But at Trinity Presbyterian Church in South Anchorage, election official Ron Parker was in a good mood, calling turnout at his precinct "terrific."
"It's been steady all day," Parker said, adding that the precinct, 120, consistently sees higher turnout compared to the rest of the city. He and his wife have volunteered at the precinct for the past six years. "Mostly retirees and politically active people," he said of the demographics.
Out of 1,700 registered voters, 427 had showed up by about 5:30 p.m., Parker said. That's 37 percent turnout.
Rob Kumpala, 62, came out of the precinct with a tall, notched wooden walking stick in his hand. He said he voted for Treg Taylor, whom he saw as the most conservative candidate in the race.
"The city and the state are spending money left and right," Kumpala said.
Ed Campbell, who is also 62 and an aircraft mechanic, said he voted for John Weddleton. He said Weddleton's campaign was "a little more coherent" than those of his rivals, Taylor and Mark Schimscheimer.
He also said he voted yes on Proposition 8, the tax cap initiative.
"The tax cap is there for a reason," Campbell said.
Earlier in the day at the Loussac Library, a slow trickle of people found their way through a construction-induced maze to the polling area in the Wilda Marston Theater. The precinct offered absentee in-person voting, and voters from all parts of town were turning in ballots there.
Muldoon resident Hal Gazaway, 69, an attorney, said he voted for Forrest Dunbar and against the tax cap initiative.
"When prices are going up, tax caps have a benefit. When prices are going down, market's going down, economy's going down … you can find yourself with an artificially low tax cap," Gazaway said.
One Chugiak-Eagle River voter said he voted to re-elect Assemblywoman Amy Demboski for a second term. He said he liked both Demboski and her challenger, Nicholas Begich III, but knew more about Demboski.
In West Anchorage, voters slowly but consistently flowed in and out of Turnagain Elementary School and another polling place across the street at Turnagain United Methodist Church on Tuesday night.
"We've been seeing a pretty steady pace," said poll worker Elaine Estey. About 370 people had showed up by 6:30 p.m. "A little below average."
Misty Nesvick, 36, voted for Eric Croft "because of his stance on equality."
"He did a good job of expressing himself on social issues and establishing that he was a west side homeowner," she said. "And I don't agree that Adam Trombley should hop districts."
Robert Burgan, a 44-year-old truck driver, said that he voted for Trombley because he wants more conservative representatives on the Assembly.
"We need a little balance," he said.