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Interesting political battles underlie low-key local election campaigns

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 2
  • Published March 17

Vince Beltrami and his campaign manager Felix Rivera, now a candidate for the Anchorage Assembly, talk to volunteers before sending them off to canvas voters in Anchorage in 2016 (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Voter turnout is likely to be low in Anchorage's upcoming local election. When that happens, the inside game grows large.

The ballot includes only candidates for the Anchorage Assembly and School Board and basic bond issues, plus an initiative to reverse an Assembly decision to open up the taxi industry. It lacks hot issues that could bring out voters beyond the committed core.

Besides, candidates and other political types say voters generally are burned out on politics after a year of big elections.

Those who were activated by the election of President Donald Trump are focused on national issues. We also had consequential legislative elections last year and state budget issues are still soaking up attention. On the local level, people seem relatively content.

But the inside game can be interesting and fun.

Downtown a couple of progressive candidates are facing off for a seat that has never been lost by a liberal incumbent. Christopher Constant and David Dunsmore are splitting Democrats as their supporters, even within at least one political family.

In Midtown, a young, gay, Hispanic candidate, Felix Rivera, is facing an old conservative, Don Smith, who as an Assembly member cast a critical vote against LGBT rights at the dawn of the municipality's existence 41 years ago.

Rivera said that if either he or Constant win, Alaska will gain its first openly gay elected official. We're one of the last states not to have one, he said, citing research by the national Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which tracks these facts.

Those two seats are also conservatives' best chance of gaining against the dominant progressive bloc on the Assembly.

Conservatives are likely to win in South Anchorage and Eagle River, but those seats were not part of the bloc in the first place. In East Anchorage and the west side, progressive members seeking re-election will probably win.

Downtown is a consistently liberal district and has only grown more so over the years, as has Anchorage as a whole. Constant is a longtime Fairview activist. He is running an impressive campaign and has raised the year's largest campaign treasury, around $90,000.

Dunsmore has been active in local and state politics, working as a political campaigner and staffer. He has raised less money, but Constant said Dunsmore has gone to more doors (I called Dunsmore Friday but didn't hear back from him).

Hopes for a conservative pick-up downtown rely on Constant and Dunsmore splitting the liberal vote so a conservative wins. Chris Cox, a less active candidate, is supported by Randy Ruedrich, the former Republican Party chair and conservative political operator.

In 1993, I was a candidate for the seat, with two other progressives. All three of us ran active campaigns raising significant money. Ruedrich's wife, Gloria Shriver, sent out mailers on the last weekend and did little else, but came within 5 votes of winning with the small conservative vote.

I served two terms, then recruited Allen Tesche to run and organized politicos in the district to support him. I didn't want to see another vote split. Tesche served nine years, as did Patrick Flynn, again without facing a split progressive vote.

But folks still remember 1993. Union leaders, who split their support between Constant and Dunsmore, tried to get one or the other to drop out.

"This is the nightmare of nightmares to me, and that is the one thing that David and I have sat and talked about," Constant said. "I've done the math. I think that is something that could happen."

Some observers agree, but others see little chance of Cox winning.

State Sen. Tom Begich and former U.S. Senator Mark Begich are supporting opposing candidates — Tom for Dunsmore and Mark for Constant — but the brothers said there are plenty of progressive voters in the district to go around. (Both are old friends of mine, as well.)

It's true, progressive numbers have grown in the district, as they have across the city, except in Eagle River.

The Midtown district is a bigger question mark than downtown. Each candidate has significant liabilities, but those liabilities couldn't be more different.

Political consultant Marc Hellenthal said Don Smith is known by voters, but not in a good way. "He's got a big negative," Hellenthal said.

Smith has been around forever, having held seats in the Legislature, Assembly and School Board a combined 18 years. The negatives Hellenthal mentioned probably came from divisive issues over the years.

He was on the Assembly in January, 1976, when he voted to uphold Mayor George Sullivan's veto of an equal rights ordinance for homosexuals (as the issue was called in those days). That was the first of three painful community debates on the issue until the Assembly resolved it in 2015.

In the 1980s, Smith led a successful petition drive to strip Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s name from the theater facility that subsequently was renamed the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.

In 2014, while running unsuccessfully for the School Board, Smith created a controversy with comments blaming refugees for low performance of Anchorage schools.

Smith isn't just old, he's a throw-back.

Rivera, on the other hand, is only 27 years old and has worked mostly as a political campaign worker. He came to Anchorage from Texas to study at Alaska Pacific University, where he concentrated on journalism. He said the nine months he worked in the office of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, ending last year, was his only nine-to-five job.

Rivera's campaign is well-funded and strongly supported by the departing incumbent, Elvi Gray-Jackson, and the Assembly majority. But Smith is fairly accurate when he says, "It looks to me like he's been a political wannabe since he first got out of college."

For those of us paying attention, it will be interesting to see how voters choose between new and old in Midtown, and how the numbers line up downtown. But, barring something no one seems to expect, Mayor Berkowitz will still have all the support he needs on the Assembly.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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