Another big Alaska election involving a write-in candidate -- this time in whale-hunting country -- will go into extra innings.
The big question in America's northernmost city? Which two candidates will run off to become mayor of the powerful North Slope Borough, giving them an outsized voice in oil development in the Arctic and, therefore, the economic future of the state?
Key questions about the vote's outcome could be up in the air for days because the race is tight and the second-leading vote-getter in yesterday's race happens to be "write-in." It's uncertain how many of those write-in votes were for the one write-in possibility among the six candidates, Fenton Rexford of Kaktovik.
"I can guarantee you all those votes are not for Fenton Rexford," said Jeannie Brower, borough clerk. Santa Claus got at least one vote, she said.
In another big Barrow election on Tuesday, this one confined to the city, voters rejected the idea of a city-run liquor store in the damp community. That vote failed 609 to 485, according to unofficial results provided by city Mayor Bob Harcharek. Ninety questioned and absentee ballots remain to be counted. Such city-run stores have been tried in other rural Alaska communities. Proponents like them because the cities earn extra money on liquor fees and can tightly monitor sales.
The dual election appears to have boosted turnout across the borough and its eight Inupiat communities, said Jeannie Brower. In one of the two precincts in the city of Barrow, population 4,200, an estimated 50 percent of the voters went to the polls.
But many ballots remain to be counted. In the borough mayoral race alone, more than 200 questioned and absentee ballots remain uncounted.
What is certain is that Charlotte Brower, a former assembly member and wife of whaling captain Eugene Brower, holds the lead.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Brower had received 592 votes. The write-in received 552 votes. Running third is former mayor George Ahmaogak, with 540 votes.
Well back are Dean Olemaun with 212 votes, Ned Arey Sr. with 103 votes and Charles Hopson with 50.
Unofficial results sufficient to determine which two candidates will run off should be available Friday, said Jeannie Brower. The results will be certified Oct. 11, a Tuesday.
To avoid a run-off, the leading candidate would have needed 40 percent of the vote. Brower had 29 percent, "write-in" had 27 percent and Ahmaogak had 26 percent. Here's how the race shaped up headed to election day: Alaska's other big write-in campaign
Ahmaogak's campaign was recently rocked by news that his wife, Maggie Ahmaogak, was indicted by a federal grand jury for theft stemming from her days as former executive director of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.
Ahmaogak, 62 and a former five-term mayor, has said he wants increased oil development, including offshore, to pay for services that address social problems like joblessness and housing shortages. Ahmaogak, who beat his rivals in fundraising, said voters looked past the indictment.
"I took the high ground. I said, 'Hey, I'm the candidate, she's the victim.' But she's innocent until proven guilty and she's entitled to due process of law, and I think the people really saw that," Ahmaogak said. "And with the indictment so close to the election, people are really wondering, this is what (the late) Sen. Ted Stevens went through. What's the relationship? Are people pushing buttons in powerful places?"
With the North Slope Borough situated in America's Arctic oil province, the 89,000-square mile entity has benefitted handsomely from oil development, receiving billions of dollars in property taxes from industry that have helped bring the region's Inupiat villages into the 20th century. Unlike many Alaska villages that still lack running water to homes, the borough's wealth has helped provide modern services, energy subsidies and emergency response services that include aircraft.
Those oil-industry revenues could dwindle in the coming years. And the ways of the past remain strong, with many of the daily routines centered around traditional whale hunts and the celebrations that follow. Many borough residents fear an oil spill could devastate the bowhead whales that migrate through the area, leaving entire communities culturally adrift.
Ahmogak, a whaling captain, said he'll be burning midnight oil tonight to prepare for the fall whaling season that starts Saturday. His duties including stuffing whale bombs -- used to kill the whales as quickly as possible -- with black powder and fitting them with fuses.
"You have to protect subsistence while doing development," he said.
Elsewhere in Barrow, the leading candidate spent Wednesday keeping vigil on election results. "I'm feeling pretty good, considering the results so far," Charlotte Brower said by telephone.
Brower, 61, says she opposes offshore oil development, but also realizes that if the federal government lets Shell and other companies explore in the Arctic and Chukchi seas, then the borough must be involved.
Fenton Rexford, an assembly member and whaling captain, called the election results "awesome."
"We're quite impressed with the historical turnout in many villages," said Rexford, 60.
As for his position on oil, he said: "Our position at this time is the leases are let already, and even if we tried to stop it they're going to press forward. We have to work together and have meetings and see how we can make the best of it."
Rexford, whose website instructed voters how to fill his name on the write-in ballot, said he's going to continue talking to voters. "We've got the numbers, and we're not sitting still," he said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing