The conservative group Americans for Prosperity brought national politics into the Anchorage mayoral race this week by running radio and Internet ads tying candidate Ethan Berkowitz to President Barack Obama. The ads also paint Berkowitz as a big spender.
The Virginia-based organization, founded by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, pushes for smaller government and lower taxes and against increasing the minimum wage. An Alaska chapter began operating in August, and the Berkowitz ad appears to be the group's first foray into a local mayoral race.
Berkowitz's campaign fired back at the ad by saying it distorts the former Democratic state representative's record and diverts attention from city issues.
"Anchorage voters are going to vote on Anchorage issues," said Nora Morse, a spokeswoman for Berkowitz. "The Koch brothers are trying to make this another race about President Obama, but it's about police in Anchorage and education in Anchorage."
The AFP's 30-second radio ad starts with a narrator asking, "Has President Obama been good for Alaska?" A clip of Berkowitz's voice begins to play.
"Barack Obama has been a fairly centrist, left-of-center president," Berkowitz can be heard saying. "We've got massive amounts of stimulus money. ... On balance, he's been pretty good for us."
The ad then links Berkowitz to big government spending and cites a Berkowitz vote in favor of a state income tax. It also cites what it describes as a Berkowitz vote for "cap and trade," a policy approach to controlling carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
"More taxes, more spending. Just like President Obama," the ad's narrator concludes.
Americans for Prosperity spent $15,000 on the ad campaign, which will conclude a weeklong run on Friday, said Jeremy Price, director of the group's Alaska chapter.
That's just in time to avoid a filing requirement with the Alaska Public Offices Commission. Tom Lucas, APOC's coordinating director for groups, said that if a group directly or indirectly identifies a candidate and their own position on a political issue within 30 days before a municipal election, the group would have to register with APOC. Friday falls just over a month before the April 7 election.
Price said the group decided to run the ads "because we saw an opportunity to make a difference." He said the ads are not meant to promote a mayoral candidate but are meant to be educational.
Despite the fact that only one candidate is mentioned by name, Price said, "we're not campaigning against Ethan."
"Our organization is one that is focused on reducing the size of government, reducing spending, keeping taxes low, and Ethan's record on those issues we think is worth educating the public on," Price said.
Whether the ad as a whole exhorts voters to vote for or against a particular candidate, therefore requiring Americans for Prosperity to file an independent expenditure report with APOC, is a matter of interpretation. Paul Dauphinis, director of the agency, said APOC is not offering an opinion on the anti-Berkowitz ad at this point.
On Friday, Berkowitz's campaign released a statement saying the ad is "riddled with factual inaccuracies and distortions." The statement specifically takes issue with the ad's claim that Berkowitz voted for an income tax and a cap-and-trade program as a state representative.
The income tax claim stems from Berkowitz's 2002 vote in the Alaska House for a state fiscal plan that emerged from a bipartisan fiscal policy caucus. That plan included a proposal for a state income tax. The plan's other supporters included then-state Reps. Lisa Murkowski and Andrew Halcro. Halcro is now Berkowitz's rival in the mayor's race but was not mentioned in the ads.
In claiming that Berkowitz supported a cap-and-trade program, the Americans for Prosperity ad is referring to a 2002 carbon sequestration bill that Berkowitz sponsored. The bill, which was signed into law by Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski, directed a committee to investigate ways that Alaska could participate in programs that set a market price for carbon reduction. Berkowitz said at the time that if Alaska could find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, earn credits and trade them for a price, the state could gain revenue.
Cap and trade is an example of a trading scheme that allows entities to make money for reducing the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, and carbon sequestration is one method of reducing those emissions.
Berkowitz's legislation did not set up a cap-and-trade program. The statement from Berkowitz's campaign referred to it as a "resource development bill."
"Anchorage voters deserve better than negative ads designed to pander to prejudice and fear," Berkowitz said in a prepared statement. "I've always run positive campaigns because I believe that substance and civility bring out the best in the political process, and that this campaign is focused on building a safe, secure and strong community."
Once the radio campaign ends, Americans for Prosperity will move to running phone banks and going door-to-door, Price said.