In Chugiak-Eagle River Assembly race, big names compete for recognition

Incumbent Anchorage Assembly member Amy Demboski is facing a familiar political name in her re-election bid from Chugiak and Eagle River.

It's an open question whether that name, Begich, will help or hurt the candidate it belongs to.

Demboski, who ran for mayor last year and lost in the runoff race against Ethan Berkowitz, has gained a reputation as a forceful advocate on issues in her community, including private property rights, government spending cuts and restrictions on pot businesses.

She's one of the most conservative members of the Assembly, and has been outspoken on both fiscal and social issues. Her political leanings are probably closer to those of her district, which is more conservative than the rest of Anchorage.

Her opponent, Nicholas Begich III, entered the race just before the filing deadline in February. He hadn't participated in local politics until then.

Begich is an entrepreneur. He said he's spent the past decade focusing on building his software development company. He's also a registered Republican and describes himself as conservative.

But as the nephew of former Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and the grandson of former Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Begich, the candidate's biggest challenge in the conservative district may be setting himself apart from his more famous relatives.


Drilling down on issues

Demboski supporters say she's proven herself on the Assembly as a hard worker who drills down on issues and defends the interests of her district — a collection of suburban and rural residential communities northeast of downtown Anchorage, separated by a big military base.

"She leaves no stone unturned," said Karl von Luhrte, a member of the South Fork Community Council, adding that he was speaking for himself as a voter. Von Luhrte waved signs for Demboski in her first race, and both were presidents of neighboring community councils at the same time.

Demboski grew up in Chugiak-Eagle River and graduated from Chugiak High School in 1994. She served as president of Chugiak Community Council, chair of the city budget advisory commission and as a member of the Chugiak-Eagle River Parks and Recreation Board of Supervisors before she was elected to the Assembly in 2013.

Demboski declined to be interviewed, but in a response to written questions, Demboski highlighted ways she has worked to save taxpayer money, like cutting the budget for the city's Centennial celebration by $500,000 and reducing registration fees for burglary alarms.

She pointed to her efforts related to public safety -- ordinances to set aside $190,000 in reserve funds for an additional van for the Anchorage Safety Patrol, the service that picks up drunk people from Anchorage streets, and $400,000 to boost paramedic staffing in downtown Anchorage. Demboski has also been a critic of the city's troubled SAP software project and co-sponsored an external review measure.

While often allied with former Mayor Dan Sullivan on fiscal issues, Demboski opposed Sullivan's efforts to spend public money on a West Anchorage recreation center with tennis courts. She also introduced a measure to require disclosure of any political fundraisers held by city officials on publicly funded trips and reimbursement in proportion to the amount of time spent on them, after Sullivan held a campaign fundraiser while on a city-funded trip to Washington, D.C.

Randy McCain, vice chair of the Chugiak council and chair of the Chugiak-Eagle River road service area board, said Demboski has regularly attended community councils since she was elected, not only in campaign season. He said he supports Demboski more now than when she first ran.

"She's asked the right questions. She doesn't win every battle. But she does represent the interests of the community," McCain said.

In early February, Demboski organized a Saturday town hall in Eagle River about marijuana businesses in the community. Members of the Chugiak-Eagle River zoning advisory board attended and voiced concern about the pot industry taking advantage of the expanses of vacant land in the area. A majority of Chugiak-Eagle River voters opposed the initiative that legalized marijuana in Alaska.

Demboski put the feedback into legislation, and the Assembly approved stricter rules for Chugiak-Eagle River, such as requiring a 1,000-foot separation between pot businesses and schools instead of the 500 feet in the rest of town.

Investment background

Begich graduated from high school in Florida, where he moved with his maternal grandparents after his parents divorced. He spent his summers in Eagle River with his father, Nick Begich Jr., the oldest son of Rep. Nick Begich, who is presumed to have died in a plane crash just before the 1972 election.

Christmases with the Begich family were interesting, with a diversity of political opinions, he said. His mother's family was staunchly Republican, Begich said, and his father is a registered Libertarian. He said he signed up as a Republican when he first registered to vote at age 21.

After earning a master's degree in business administration from Indiana University, Begich started a software development company, FarShore Partners, which he said now has 150 employees worldwide, mostly in India.

In his disclosure reports, Begich reported more than $1 million in annual income from his work with FarShore Partners, and hundreds of thousands more from consulting.

Sitting at a table at his rented office in the Boardroom in downtown Anchorage, Begich flipped through a bound book listing clients of his business. They were mostly startups — for weight loss, shoes, hotel booking and a high-end online consignment store. Begich said he's invested in more than 40 startups in the past five years.

He easily drops corporate lingo like "zero-based budgeting" (starting a budget each year at zero to justify each expense). But he said his experience, including work on a large-scale IT upgrade project at Ford Motor Co., can help him navigate and advise on complex city issues, such as the troubled SAP software project.

In a phone interview from Chicago, Begich's business partner, Rick Desai, said Begich spends a lot of time listening, and does not act impulsively. He said that's one of the reasons Begich waited to venture into the local political scene. (Begich is married to Desai's cousin, Dharna, and Begich and Desai became business partners in 2009.)


On business cards and campaign signs, Begich has included the word "Republican," and his last name in red. He said said there are two reasons for that. In one of the most conservative areas in the state, Begich said, he's trying to distinguish himself from his more well-known Democratic relatives.

He also recalled an incident from the 2013 Chugiak-Eagle River Assembly campaign, when someone notoriously vandalized several of candidate Pete Mulcahy's campaign signs with the words "vote democratic" on Election Day.

Policy contrasts

Begich said he voted against the state marijuana legalization initiative, which he said concerned him as the parent of a 4-year-old boy. But he said as an Assembly member, he would support entrepreneurs who "seek out to responsibly develop businesses around that product."

"We're one community, one town, one Assembly," Begich said. "With the exception of just a few land-use cases … we need to make sure regulations are consistent among areas of Anchorage."

Chugiak-Eagle River and Girdwood have separate sections in city land use code, allowing for autonomy.

Begich, however, said he's molding his platform on unity.

"To be the most effective you can be in that role requires not only that you have strong principles, but that you maintain the respect of your colleagues on the Assembly," Begich said. "I believe I can be effective in doing that."

Demboski said she too believes consensus can be important. In an email, she said almost every piece of legislation she'd authored had been co-sponsored by a fellow Assembly member.


She questioned Begich's conservative credentials in his promise of "unity." Von Luhrte, meanwhile, said unity isn't why Chugiak-Eagle River representatives are elected to the Assembly.

"That's exactly what I don't want up here," von Luhrte said. "No, she represents the people of Eagle River."

In an area that prides itself on some autonomy in its own government -- Chugiak-Eagle River briefly seceded from Anchorage and elected its own mayor in 1974 -- Demboski and other community leaders noted Begich's absence from area politics until now.

Debbie Ossiander, a former Chugiak-Eagle River Assembly member who reached her term limit in 2010, said she had a long talk with Begich on the phone. She said he "wasn't who I expected," based on his uncle and father. She described him as a "young, go-getter business guy."

Ossiander said she warned Begich people would judge him on his last name. She encouraged him to get involved locally, such as serving on community council boards or attending meetings, to prove himself. She said she and Demboski have disagreed at times, but Demboski has done a good job and she'd be voting for her.

In the latest campaign finance reports available, Begich hadn't raised much -- $9,602, about a third of which was his own money. About half his campaign contributions came from out of state, from family and friends, Begich said.

Demboski's $16,074 in contributions, by contrast, came almost exclusively from donors in Chugiak-Eagle River and Anchorage.

Correction: This story was updated to correct year that Chugiak-Eagle River briefly seceded from Anchorage. It was 1974, not 1964.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.