The field of candidates who will vie to become Anchorage mayor next year is expected to crystallize in the next few weeks, as one figure looms over the local political landscape: outgoing U.S. Sen. Mark Begich.
Begich, who served two terms as Anchorage mayor before his election to the Senate in 2008, is said to be considering another bid to be the city's chief executive. And some prospective candidates say they're waiting to decide whether to launch their own candidacies until Begich makes up his mind.
"If he gets in the pond, the pond is full," said Dick Traini, an Anchorage Assembly member who's been mulling a run for mayor. Traini said he would drop his plans to run if Begich enters the race, and he added that Begich told him in a text message recently that he was getting close to making a decision.
The mayoral election isn't until April, and candidates can file to appear on the ballot all the way through mid-February. But serious campaigns are expected to begin by December, to allow candidates to collect the maximum in legally allowable campaign contributions in two different calendar years.
As of Wednesday, six candidates had filed fundraising-related paperwork, three of whom have local political experience. Those three -- former Assembly members Dan Coffey and Paul Bauer, and current Assembly member Amy Demboski -- are all known as conservatives, which leaves an opening for a more liberal or moderate candidate like Begich, who declined to comment.
"There is a huge vacuum there, with the current field," said Andrew Halcro, the president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, who is also considering a mayoral run and said he'd reveal his plans in the next two weeks.
Halcro had coffee with Begich last week and said the senator was "regrouping" after losing his re-election campaign in November.
"He said he was thinking about everything and seeing about getting his thoughts together in the next week," Halcro said. "I think he's considering all his options -- that's what he said to me."
In an interview with Begich on Anchorage's KTVA-TV Wednesday, host Megan Mazurek mentioned that the senator been rumored to be running for mayor and asked if he had anything to announce.
"There's been a lot of inquiries -- as you can imagine, my cellphone rings off and on with people asking, emails and text messages," he responded. "People have ideas for me, I guess, and speculation -- and I'll leave that out there for right now."
Beyond Begich, several other left-leaning political figures are pondering whether to enter the mayoral race, including Traini and two of his Assembly allies, Elvi Gray-Jackson and Paul Honeman.
Like Traini, Gray-Jackson and Honeman said they'd step aside if Begich decided to run.
"Are you kidding me? Of course I would," Honeman said in an interview Tuesday. Begich, he added, "would be a shoo-in."
But another prospective candidate, Hollis French, was less deferential. French is a state senator who agreed to drop his bid for lieutenant governor to facilitate the formation of the successful "unity" ticket, and he said in a phone interview that after that experience, he's unlikely to set aside his own political ambitions for the benefit of a like-minded candidate in the mayoral election.
"I went through that in my last election cycle," French said. "I'm thinking once I decide to go, I'm going to go."
He added, however, that it would be "foolish to go head-to-head" with Begich.
"I guess I'd cross that bridge when I'd come to it," said French.
French said he's still in a "decision-making phase," though he claimed that one advantage he'd have in a mayoral campaign is the roughly $50,000 he raised for his lieutenant governor campaign that can be rolled over into the municipal election. Another factor, French said, is a potential job offer from the new governor, Bill Walker -- though there's a mandatory one-year waiting period before French can serve in a post in the administration after his Senate term expires.
Other possible candidates include Patrick Flynn, a moderate who chairs the Assembly, as well as Mead Treadwell, a Republican who just finished his term as Alaska's lieutenant governor.
Treadwell said in October that he hadn't ruled out running but declined to comment about his intentions when reached by phone on Tuesday.
One dynamic that several left-leaning political figures said they wanted to avoid was a pack of allied candidates who split the vote -- a dynamic that some said led to the election of the current mayor, Dan Sullivan, in 2009.
"I'm surprised with the discipline I've seen so far," said Vince Beltrami, the president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, the state's largest labor group, referring to the fact that few serious candidates had so far entered the race.
While rumors about prospective mayoral candidates have swirled for months, it's unlikely the suspense will last beyond the end of December, given the need to raise money this year.
If anyone can afford to wait, however, it's Begich, said Jim Lottsfeldt, an Anchorage political consultant who ran a political committee that aided the senator in his failed re-election bid.
"If he wants to run for mayor, I think he should wait as long as possible," Lottsfeldt said, citing Begich's name recognition and his past success raising money.
Lottsfeldt said he'd urged Begich to take his time in making decisions about his political future, and he acknowledged that if Begich ran for mayor and lost a second consecutive election, it could damage his brand and hurt his future hopes of holding elected office.
For his part, Coffey, one of the declared candidates, said he couldn't envision Begich going back to city politics.
"Not in 100 years. He's been a U.S. senator. He's been mayor. If Mark ran and lost, he'd probably be done," Coffey said.
Coffey acknowledged, however, that the lingering question is: "Who are the left-side guys going to put up?"
"I don't know," he added. "It's like, 'Is it going to snow, rain or be sunny?' Who the hell knows? I'm in."
Devin Kelly contributed reporting to this story.