With a little over a week until the Anchorage mayoral election, candidates Ethan Berkowitz and Amy Demboski sparred in their first head-to-head debate Monday over the Knik Arm bridge project, labor contracts and gay rights legislation.
More than 200 people attended the lunchtime debate hosted by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, and the candidates sought to emphasize their business experience while attacking their opponent's. Demboski dismissed Berkowitz as being a "political strategist" instead of a business manager, while Berkowitz questioned how Demboski's experience managing dental practices would translate into negotiating complex labor contracts.
The format consisted of three mini-debates, with time for each candidate to ask the other questions and offer rebuttals. Moderator Steve Johnson, head coach of the University of Alaska Anchorage debate team, referred to it as "the Twitter version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates."
Corey Hester, the Chamber of Commerce events and communications coordinator, said the chamber's legislative committee picked seven topics and forwarded them to the candidates. The chamber asked for and compared the candidates' positions, and gave each the option of eliminating one question.
The process left three topics for Monday's debate: anti-discrimination legislation for the LGBT community, the Sullivan administration's attempt to rewrite city labor law, and funding for the Knik Arm bridge. On each of the issues, audience members were invited to vote their opinion via text message.
The question of anti-discrimination legislation that would make sexual identity a protected status in Anchorage was debated in front of business leaders who have taken steps to embrace the city's LGBT community in recent years. After the failure of Anchorage's gay rights measure in 2012, the Chamber of Commerce, led by then-president and recent mayoral candidate Andrew Halcro, adopted an initiative encouraging businesses to embrace the LGBT community.
In stating his support for such legislation, Berkowitz, who worked on the 2012 campaign through his job as a senior vice president of the marketing and consulting group Strategies 360, referenced the chamber's initiative. He echoed statements by Halcro earlier in the campaign that "talent, tolerance and technology" all help improve the local economy.
"That's why I support this, not just for moral reasons and treating people equally and treating people fairly, but because it makes business sense," Berkowitz said.
Demboski, meanwhile, argued that the legislation would "effectively discriminate against people of faith." She restated her previous position that no examples of LGBT discrimination in work or housing surfaced during testimony before the Anchorage Assembly on the 2009 ordinance. She said Anchorage is already a tolerant community.
"Why do we have to make another law to reaffirm something that isn't existing in our community?" Demboski said. She said she would instead support continued investment in the city's Equal Rights Commission.
Demboski cited examples of how similar legislation had played out nationally, including the Houston mayor's effort to subpoena pastor sermons as part of a lawsuit involving an equal rights ordinance. The subpoenas were later withdrawn, according to local media reports. During the debate, Demboski called it a "war on Christianity."
Her remarks came after a Sunday afternoon Facebook post by Anchorage Baptist Temple's chief pastor, the Rev. Jerry Prevo referenced conservative Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and urged support for Demboski. Prevo wrote that Berkowitz "supports same-sex marriage and ordinances that will take away the rights of those who do not agree with him."
Berkowitz said during the debate he supports religious freedom, but "once people enter the public arena, we have to treat everybody equally."
In an audience vote after the debate, 62 percent would support anti-discrimination legislation while 33 percent said they would not. Five percent weren't sure. A total of 155 people voted via text message.
In another segment of the debate, the question of whether Anchorage was better off had Ordinance 37, or AO-37, become law led to the two candidates attacking each other on business experience.
Demboski, speaking in defense of AO-37, referred to the labor law rewrite -- rejected by voters in a November referendum -- as "sound fiscal policy" and said she agreed with a number of its elements. But she said she had issues with safety and staffing components, as well as the public process associated with the law after Mayor Dan Sullivan introduced it in February 2013.
Berkowitz called the labor law "unnecessarily divisive." He also said it was about the ability to negotiate, and he asked Demboski what she had done in the private sector that showed she was ready to negotiate difficult labor contracts.
Demboski pointed to her experience on the Anchorage Assembly ratifying contracts. She also said she has worked in human resources, which she said included hiring and firing employees and working with labor law. She also said she managed "a million-dollar budget."
Berkowitz, meanwhile, cited his two years working as a prosecutor and "negotiating" legal cases in the early 1990s, and his legislative experience in Juneau working on large-scale state budgets. He also cited private sector experience that includes consulting on a geothermal project in Nome and co-founding a startup that focused on developing a fiber-optic project between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay.
Demboski called him a "political strategist … (who) wouldn't know how to manage his own businesses." She also criticized Berkowitz's political endorsements from unions, and sought to tie him to what she has described as excessive union contracts negotiated by the last Democratic mayor of Anchorage, former Sen. Mark Begich.
Berkowitz responded by pointing to his proposals as a state legislator for a balanced budget amendment and cuts to corporate income taxes.
"It's easy for you to throw out stereotypes and play to certain crowds," Berkowitz told Demboski. "But if you look at my record and the history of what I've done, you'll see someone who has been a fiscally conservative, fiscally disciplined member of the state Legislature."
Berkowitz returned to the phrase "fiscal conservative" a short time later in explaining why he doesn't support spending money on the Knik Arm Crossing project. He said there's no way to pay for the proposed bridge and that scarce resources should go toward more pressing infrastructure projects such as Port of Anchorage improvements.
Demboski, meanwhile, argued in favor of the bridge project as a way to address population growth that is outpacing infrastructure capacity. She said it's more cost-effective than expanding the Glenn Highway. She accused Berkowitz of lacking a long-range transportation plan and said it's the government's job to build infrastructure.
Berkowitz asked Demboski if she supported the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities buying properties in the Government Hill neighborhood and relocating residents to make way for the proposed bridge and access roads. Demboski said she does support the limited use of eminent domain.
"In spite of the difficulties presented by some landowners ... unfortunately, that's what happens in a growing community," Demboski said.
In the text-message vote results revealed at the end of the debate, the majority of audience members sided with Berkowitz's stances on AO-37 and Knik Arm bridge funding.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said there were no examples of LGBT discrimination to surface during testimony before the Anchorage Assembly in 2012. That testimony actually occurred before an Assembly vote on a 2009 ordinance. There was no Assembly testimony prior to a referendum on the issue in 2012.