On Dec. 20, the Anchorage Assembly tapped Gretchen Wehmhoff of Eagle River to fill Amy Demboski’s vacated seat until the municipal election in April. The Assembly’s decision was surprisingly quick and uniform. Despite a slate of a dozen candidates, Wehmhoff got the required six votes on the first ballot, without any Assembly member speaking in her favor. She is well-known in Eagle River, having run for office multiple times there in the past. Kudos to her for coming forward for consideration, and may her experience on the Assembly be informative and worthwhile.
But if the Assembly was looking for the candidate who best represents the views of the people of Eagle River and Chugiak, Wehmhoff is a surprising pick, and one that undermines the notion that she is joining a nonpartisan body. The Assembly has a comfortable majority of left-leaning members; this selection pads that number.
Wehmhoff, though she will no doubt do the best job she can at representing her constituents, is almost surely not who those voters would have picked had they cast ballots themselves. Although Assembly races are nonpartisan, Wehmhoff has run in House races in the Eagle River district as a Democrat, as well as against Assemblyman Fred Dyson for his seat. Each time, voters picked the more conservative candidate. There were six Republicans and only two Democrats among the 12 candidates for the interim Assembly seat.
If you had attended the Assembly meeting, you might have found yourself suffering whiplash. Comments made before the vote was taken ran in favor of former Assemblyman Bill Starr — Assemblymen Fred Dyson and Dick Traini both spoke to Starr’s experience and knowledge of the community beforehand, and no other members of the Assembly spoke in favor of other candidates. Traini focused on Eagle River’s constituents. “It’s important that we pick somebody that represents the bulk of the people coming out of that area,” he said. “And I think Bill Starr’s got that ability and I intend to support him through every ballot we’ve got with his name on it.”
Members of the Assembly frequently protest that it is a nonpartisan body — which, strictly speaking, is true. Those who run for Assembly seats don’t have party affiliation listed on the ballot. But if they would like this assertion to be credible, Assembly members would be well advised to not behave in a partisan way, which they appear to have done in selecting a moderate Democrat to fill a strongly conservative Republican’s seat.
The overwhelmingly liberal Assembly chose the candidate whose views most closely matched its own, not the one whose views dovetailed best with those of area residents. That’s their prerogative, of course — when it comes to interim appointments, Assembly members are not bound by past election results or the wishes of residents who turn out to testify for candidates. But there can be plenty of space between what is legal and what is right, and the right thing to do would have been to choose the candidate the voters themselves would have chosen had the pick been theirs.
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