Election in West Anchorage could be key to control of Alaska Senate

claman costello

The state Senate race in West Anchorage pits two seasoned lawmakers against each other and could be critical in deciding the makeup of the majority caucus that controls the body’s business.

For Democratic Rep. Matt Claman, who represents the House district that comprises the northern part of the newly drawn Senate district, the prospect of a consensus-building majority comprising members of both parties is promising. It is the reason why supporters encouraged him to run for the Senate seat, he said.

“A lot of people asked me to run for the Senate because they wanted my approach that’s very bipartisan and working together to find solutions,” he said. “I think coalitions are really good for Alaska.”

But for incumbent Sen. Mia Costello, a Republican, the idea of a bipartisan coalition controlling the Senate is a threat. Her supporters want her to prevent that from happening, she said.

“I think to a lot of observers, they believe that if I were not to return to the Senate, some of the policies that were favored by a bipartisan organization may come up again,” Costello said. Those policies include “taxing some of our resources, going backwards in terms of the progress we made on crime,” she said. “I think there’s concerns that would happen again if I don’t return to the Senate.”

Both are veteran public servants with longtime high profiles in their district and in Anchorage as a whole.

Mia Costello

Costello, a former teacher, served two terms in the House, then moved to the Senate in 2015 for two terms there, which included a stint as majority leader. She grew up in the Turnagain neighborhood in the northern part of the district and attended West Anchorage High School, and now lives in the southern part of the district. “I’ve spent my entire life in this district,” she said.

Claman, an attorney, served on the Anchorage Assembly from 2007 to 2010, including a period as chairman, and he was an acting mayor for several months in 2009, filling in after former Mayor Mark Begich began his term in the U.S. Senate. Claman was first elected to the House in 2014 and has served there ever since.


Claman, who lives in the Turnagain area, and Costello, who lives in the southern part of the Sand Lake area, both said the redrawn borders for Senate District H will not be much of a factor in the race. By Costello’s estimate, the district is 88% the same as it was previously – a little narrower and extending a little farther south to take in the Bayshore neighborhood, a precinct that she won in the August open primary.

In all, she said, she carried more of the district’s precincts than Claman did in that primary. But in total votes, Claman edged Costello 52.6% to 47.4%, according to the official results.

Both predict a close race in November.

To Claman, one of the top priorities is “putting partisanship aside” to work together across party lines. He is focused on what he called “fiscal responsibility,” as he defines it. “We really need to protect our savings accounts, and the dividend is not the biggest priority of government,” he said, referring to the annual payout to every resident from the state’s oil-wealth fund, the Alaska Permanent Fund. Another top priority is protecting “constitutional rights and the right to privacy,” with a focus on abortion rights.

To Costello, top issues include public safety, economic development and also fiscal responsibility. But her concept of fiscal responsibility differs from Claman’s. Costello has consistently backed Gov. Mike Dunleavy and others on the right who prioritize large dividends. To Claman, those large dividends that Costello and like-minded legislators want are unsustainable without new taxes, which he said he opposes. Costello, too, opposes additional taxes. “We need new jobs, not new taxes,” her official Division of Elections candidate statement says.

On crime, Costello characterizes a past reform bill as “catch-and-release” legislation, and she characterizes herself as a bulwark against future softening of policies. Still, she and Claman have agreed on follow-up criminal justice legislation, the latter pointed out, including a recent bill to increase pay for state prosecutors, which he said is needed to effectively enforce laws and fight crime.

Their positions on abortion are in direct opposition.

“Alaska’s right to privacy protects the individual right to make private, personal health care decisions, including reproductive health care decisions,” Claman said in his Alaska Beacon candidate questionnaire.

Costello characterizes herself as “pro-life” and has consistently supported bills and other efforts to limit abortion access, though her efforts have often failed in the legislature or been blocked by the courts.

Outside of politics, the candidates have a lot in common.

Both have degrees from prestigious universities – Harvard in Costello’s case, Colorado College and the University of Texas at Austin in Claman’s case.

Both tout the district for its abundant recreational opportunities, including Kincaid Park, the majority of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail and several lakes. Both laud their districts’ schools and their neighbors’ commitment to community involvement. Both are athletic and outdoorsy, enjoying the recreational amenities in their district.

Costello was a star swimmer at West High School and at college, where she took some Ivy League championships. Her husband was also a top swimmer and competed for University of Alaska Fairbanks; their sons are on the Dimond High School swimming and diving team. Claman is a wilderness guide and accomplished hiker, boater, skier and cyclist.

“If this race were being decided in a swimming pool, she would win,” Claman said. “And if the race were being decided on road bikes, I would win.”

What if it were a triathlon? “We’d both suffer in the run,” he said.

Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.