Berkowitz scores big win over Demboski in runoff for Anchorage mayor

Ethan Berkowitz surged to a decisive win over opponent Amy Demboski in the Anchorage mayoral runoff election Tuesday night.

With 98 percent of the vote counted, Berkowitz had more than 59 percent of the vote to Demboski's 41 percent, a margin that was insurmountable. Berkowitz had held a commanding lead over Demboski throughout the evening. As of 11 p.m., 122 of the municipality's 124 precincts had reported.

Berkowitz will take over the mayor's office from Dan Sullivan on July 1.

As his lead over Demboski held strong, Berkowitz stood on a table at his campaign party in a downtown restaurant to wild applause and waving signs. He asked his supporters to continue to help when the night's celebration was over, asking them to work on unifying Anchorage and heal the divisions that marked the final days of the campaign.

"There is a better way," Berkowitz said. "It doesn't matter if you're a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, an independent or you don't even vote. This is our Anchorage!"

As the applause and screams almost drowned him out, he continued, "It doesn't matter if you're a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, a Buddhist or something else. This is our Anchorage! It doesn't matter if you're straight or gay or lesbian or transgender."

At Demboski's balloon-festooned headquarters on Fifth Avenue, a crowd of several dozen supporters noshed on wraps and salsa and chips as they waited for election results. Visitors to the office, in an old storefront, included staff to Republican legislators and to Mayor Dan Sullivan, as well as former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman.

The mood in the room still appeared buoyant even as results came in showing Demboski trailing far behind Berkowitz. Clad in a dark sweater and gray pants, she thanked her supporters in a speech around 8:30 p.m., but refused to allow an Alaska Dispatch News reporter and photographer into the room, and her campaign wouldn't grant an interview with Demboski or one of her staff members.

Demboski told television station KTUU she had left a message on Berkowitz's phone to congratulate him.

"I'm proud of the race we ran, and despite the challenges within the media -- there were issues, no doubt -- but despite those we overcame and put forward a strong message," Demboski told the TV station.

At Election Central in the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center Tuesday night, Mayor Sullivan arrived shortly after Berkowitz showed up with a throng of exuberant supporters. Sullivan supported Demboski in the election, but he said he wanted to congratulate Berkowitz and start talking about the transition process.

"I look forward to working with him and letting him know the key challenges facing the city," Sullivan said. "It's important to cooperate or things don't work."

29 percent voter turnout

More than 29 percent of the electorate turned out to vote, and election officials had not yet finished counting absentee ballots. Turnout was nearly 28 percent in the first round of voting on April 7, when Berkowitz polled 37 percent and Demboski 24 percent.

Throughout Election Day, election officials reported steady numbers at Anchorage polling locations as the last batch of voters went to the ballot box. Residents had until 8 p.m. to vote.

Tuesday marked the last day to vote for either Demboski or Berkowitz in the mayoral runoff. The contentious campaign drew a record number of Anchorage residents to vote early. Deputy municipal clerk Amanda Moser said at least 12,200 people cast votes ahead of Tuesday, up 60 percent over the April 7 election.

Elections officials planned to count roughly 6,000 absentee ballots cast between April 22 and 28 on Tuesday night with ballots cast at regular precincts Tuesday, Moser said.

Moser said officials had received at least 3,900 more absentee ballots that will likely be counted by Friday, along with any additional absentee by-mail ballots that arrive later in the week but were postmarked by Tuesday.

In the days leading up to the election, the campaign saw twists that included the release Monday of an October talk radio exchange between KFQD host Bernadette Wilson and her co-host Berkowitz about same-sex -- and father-son -- marriage. The release of the audio was the latest in a weeklong series of events that brought social and personal issues to the forefront of the campaign, in some ways eclipsing debate about city budgets and property taxes.

Carl Roberts, 46, a registered Republican and federal government employee, was voting Tuesday at Loussac Library, where there were about 25 people in a steadily moving line. He said he voted for Demboski because of her more conservative views and her pledge not to increase property taxes.

"We're still in a really difficult economic time, and both of the candidates were saying we need to change the direction the city handles its services," Roberts said. "Berkowitz was saying we need to do more things. Demboski was saying we need to do a few things and do them really well."

Berkowitz, he added, didn't answer the question of how he would pay for what he wants to do without new taxes or raising taxes.

Roberts voted for Andrew Halcro in the April 7 election and said his mind was made up to vote for Demboski before the talk-radio exchange surfaced.

"I thought it was just blown way out of proportion," Roberts said.

In East Anchorage, Joe Seyfried, 36, called the KFQD audio controversy "nonsense."

"If you say something like that -- if it was a legitimate proposal -- there would have been an absolute uproar and I would have absolutely joined in," he said. "I've got a kid."

Seyfried said he voted for Berkowitz because the former Alaska legislator seemed "more honest, more experienced and better qualified." He said Demboski, a first-term Assembly member, is still "new to the scene."

Another Loussac voter, 19-year-old Kyler Sene, lives in Midtown and works part-time as a barista and part-time at Bear Tooth Theatrepub. Sene, who described himself as a cyclist and skater who uses public transit, said he decided to vote for Berkowitz after hearing Demboski's statements in a debate about bike safety. He didn't vote in the April 7 election.

"I'm a total advocate for pedal power. America has gotten into a problem and it's not the weed that's the problem -- it's the laziness that's the problem," Sene said.

He also said he's bisexual and wants a mayor "that will accommodate everybody," referencing Demboski's opposition to legislation that would add protections for members of Anchorage's gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual community.

In Stuckagain Heights on Campbell Airstrip Road, Chelsea Gallen said the debates over social issues didn't factor into her decision. She said she made her choice based on property taxes and the candidates' political affiliations; Demboski is a Republican, and Berkowitz is a Democrat.

"I'm a Republican so that's how I made up my mind," Gallen said. "I know if we don't get Amy, taxes are going to go up."

As the campaigning entered the home stretch, Berkowitz added to his fundraising edge over Demboski, collecting about $18,900 in contributions compared to Demboski's $13,450 in the final week before election day.

Berkowitz's recent donors include former Mayor Rick Mystrom, a Republican who contributed to Dan Coffey, who finished fourth in the first round of the election. Berkowitz also received a $1,000 donation from the Anchorage Home Builders Association and a $500 donation from developer Mark Pfeffer.

Berkowitz raised more than twice as much money

Berkowitz reported raising $393,473 overall in the election, while Demboski raised $218,937, campaign finance reports show.

Meanwhile, in the last week of the race, an environmental organization and union-backed political group spent about $40,000 in support of Berkowitz, independent of his campaign.

The union-backed group, Berkowitz for a Better Anchorage, bought about $12,000 in online ads and spent another $10,000 on radio commercials.

The environmental group, Alaska Conservation Voters, spent $6,000 on phone calls, $9,000 on ads in Alaska Dispatch News and $500 on Facebook ads.

A conservative Christian group, Alaska Family Action, spent about $37,000 on Demboski's behalf, also independent of her campaign. That included about $16,000 on radio ads, $10,000 on social media ads and $10,000 to print and send postcards, fliers and voter guides.

A significant chunk of Alaska Family Action's funding came from local developers and builders. The group collected $5,000 from Larry Partusch, the founder of a local plumbing and heating company, and $5,000 from two companies led by Chuck Spinelli, the founder of a large Alaska homebuilding company.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the overall fundraising tallies for the Berkowitz and Demboski campaigns.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a contributor and former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.