Political observers say they are seeing a level of coordination and organization in the elections for Anchorage Assembly and school board that they haven’t seen before.
Between unprecedented amounts of money flowing into the city races and a group of candidates aiming to unseat incumbents in a semi-coordinated effort, observers say the heated municipal race shows high political stakes and an increasing public awareness of the impact of local elections.
“In my short, 40-year history of politics in Anchorage, I’ve not seen this much organization,” said Craig Campbell, vice chair of the Alaska Republican Party. “So the incumbents have been very organized and the challengers are very organized. I have not seen it like that — at this level — in my time.”
Assembly races in Anchorage are technically nonpartisan. But the current campaign cycle has pitted two groups against each other: four moderate-to-liberal-leaning incumbents and four conservatives largely aligned with Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration.
“I think both sides recognize that this is a pivotal point in Anchorage,” Campbell said.
The scale of money flowing in and out of the campaigns is making the local election more closely resemble state-level or federal races, observers said. That includes huge sums going to Republican strategy groups, as well as political action committees funded by unions and private companies spending to bolster their preferred candidate.
The coordination tactics being used by the challengers’ campaigns are also unusual in a nonpartisan municipal election, while they are relatively common practices in the political party-based state legislative races, said Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, which is supporting incumbents.
“I think what it’s showing is… people are starting to really understand how important these races are, how they impact people’s lives,” she said. “It’s a sign of the operations just getting more sophisticated, and people taking the proven tactics from other levels of work and bringing them to city government.”
An ‘extraordinary cycle’
The group of conservative candidates challenging the Assembly and school board incumbents have shared resources such as a joint campaign headquarters and crossover volunteers. They have also co-hosted fundraising events and employed a national political firm in their efforts, while conservative expenditure groups have dumped tens of thousands into radio ads.
Assembly and school board incumbents have also seen support of crossover campaign volunteers and several have employed the same local firm to manage their campaigns, though the incumbents have not actively shared resources like their challengers.
[2022 Anchorage municipal election guide: Q&As with candidates for Assembly and school board]
All have hefty financial backing and endorsements from the same progressive groups, with independent expenditure groups spending thousands on radio ads and phone banking. The incumbents have publicly shown support for their colleagues’ campaigns in several ways, including a joint volunteer rally, while school board incumbents held a joint fundraiser.
The charged municipal races are requiring more time and resources of campaigns than normal, such as TV ads in the highly competitive East and South Anchorage Assembly seat races, said Ira Slomski-Pritz, a partner at Ship Creek Group.
“It’s a pretty extraordinary cycle,” Slomski-Pritz said.
Ship Creek is managing the reelection campaigns of Assembly members Forrest Dunbar in East Anchorage, Kameron Perez-Verdia in West Anchorage and John Weddleton in South Anchorage, and school board member Kelly Lessens. The one incumbent working with a different campaign manager is Midtown’s Meg Zaletel.
There is a fifth Assembly race in the Eagle River district to replace outgoing member Crystal Kennedy, but the area votes overwhelmingly conservative, and the campaign is viewed as less competitive than those in the Midtown, West, East and South districts.
Joint fundraisers and ‘a mayor’s race amount of money’
The mayor and the allied conservative challengers have focused much of their messaging on what they say is dysfunction in city government caused by an oppositional stance toward Bronson from the Assembly majority.
Assembly incumbents, in their own campaign messages, have pointed to all of the regular city work that has happened without controversy and behind the scenes from acrimonious public meetings.
“We’re working with the mayor, whether it’s homelessness or on the port, or revising Title 21 and Title 23 recently,” said Zaletel. “We’re just not being believed, which is unfortunate.”
Despite the political messaging and campaign coordination among the conservative candidates, some of them pushed back at the description of the group as a “slate.”
“We have collaborated on several events but we are not a slate. Although we have some shared beliefs, we are all very different people. We support one another and many voters support all of us because we all desperately want to see change in this Assembly,” said Stephanie Taylor, who is running to unseat Dunbar in the East Anchorage district.
[Anchorage Assembly candidate Q&As: Rate Dave Bronson’s performance as mayor.]
[Anchorage Assembly candidate Q&As: Rate the performance of the current Assembly.]
Randy Sulte, who is running against Weddleton in South Anchorage, said he, Taylor and Midtown candidate Kathy Henslee, all first-time candidates for office, began sharing advice as they figured out how to run a campaign. Soon, Liz Vazquez, candidate for West Anchorage and former Republican state representative; Eagle River candidate Kevin Cross; and the two conservative school board candidates joined in.
On Friday, Sulte, Taylor, Henslee, Vazquez and some school board candidates held a joint fundraiser co-hosted by a group of conservative players in Anchorage politics, including the mayor.
The joint fundraisers help draw a bigger crowd, Sulte said.
And the dollars have been pouring in.
The state recently scrapped its previous limits on individual donations to campaigns, contributing to an influx of cash into the races.
The contest between Taylor and Dunbar is the most pricey of the five races, with Dunbar and Taylor raising $264,323 and $197,913.68, respectively, according to their latest campaign disclosures to the Alaska Public Offices Committee.
“That’s a mayor’s race amount of money,” Hall said. It’s more than what’s often raised in state legislative races, she said.
Hall said that the amount shows that the biggest push to unseat an incumbent from Bronson and his allies is unfolding in East Anchorage.
It’s unusual for challengers such as Taylor, as first-time candidates with no campaign record or longstanding donor relations, to be raising such high sums.
There’s been a clear mobilization on behalf of the conservative candidates from the same political base that helped to elect Bronson, Slomski-Pritz said.
This cycle, both sides have homed in on a “strong strategy with lots of money to try to determine the direction of Anchorage,” Campbell said.
When Bronson won with a narrow majority in last year’s runoff over Dunbar, he ran on promises to dramatically change course on city policies. His administration has clashed with the Assembly majority on a number of high-profile issues.
“There’s been fireworks that have caught people’s attention. And I think that’s just giving a lot more attention to these races on both sides,” Slomski-Pritz said.
[As election day nears, Anchorage Assembly races see a continued deluge of cash and huge amounts of spending]
Much of the coalition that supported Bronson — Facebook groups, clusters of business owners angry at pandemic measures, private-citizens-turned-activists at public meetings — remains active in the current campaign cycle.
Bronson has actively aimed to flip Assembly seats since the day of his inauguration, when independent expenditure group Open For Business Anchorage — previously named Open For Business with Bronson — held a fundraiser for the Assembly races.
The mayor and his wife, Debra Bronson, have made at least $2,500 in personal campaign donations to some of the aligned candidates.
An independent expenditure group called Reclaim Anchorage with Bronson spent $50,000 on radio ads purchased through a Florida-based company in support of the four challengers. In messaging, the conservatives have tied themselves to Bronson and promised to work with him on a common agenda.
“She has Bronson and a number of people in his administration co-hosting fundraisers for her and they have raised a very large amount of money for her, clearly because they see her as a close ally of theirs,” Dunbar said of Taylor.
Hall said it’s traditional for Anchorage mayors to attend fundraisers for political allies and donate to campaigns. After all, the mayor benefits from an Assembly composed of members who will complement his or her agenda.
But it is rarer for a mayoral administration to play such a visible role in Assembly races. In one such instance, Bronson called in to a conservative radio talk show and challenged political messaging he had seen in campaign advertisements from incumbents.
National political firm in city campaigns
The four conservative challengers are following a nearly identical playbook in terms of spending their war chests.
All have paid large sums of money for services provided by subsidiaries of the same organization: Axiom Strategies, one of the biggest Republican consulting firms working in American politics.
Axiom, which describes itself as “the full-service, one-stop-shop for political campaigns,” has an Alaska connection through longtime political consultant Art Hackney, who joined the firm in 2021.
[Anchorage election officials think this year’s vote count will be faster and less fraught]
The company, and its subsidiaries, have provided the conservative Assembly candidates with polling, direct mail, logo design, media buying and opposition research.
One example of just how much of the money is flowing to Axiom from local small donors is in a recent disclosure form Henslee’s campaign filed with the state. Between March 5 and March 26, the candidate paid $34,834 to Axiom Strategies for direct mail to voters, and another $30,138 for media buys to AxMedia, an Axiom subsidiary handling ad placement.
Money coming into independent expenditure groups adds another layer. On March 29, Open For Business Anchorage paid $19,810 to the firm of Hackney and Hackney for radio ads supporting Henslee, Taylor and Vazquez. That money was donated by William J. Yung III, the president of Kentucky-based firm Columbia Sussex, which owns two major Anchorage hotels.
Among the Assembly incumbents, there is some similarity in campaign tactics, but a high degree of variability in how they are being deployed.
Ship Creek Group, which is managing three of the campaigns, has worked for a number of moderate and left-leaning candidates in Alaska politics recently.
Three incumbents are using the same local firm to handle their radio and TV ad placements.
But overall, there’s more variety in, for example, how much one candidate is spending on social media ads versus the others, or how many mailers they are sending to voters.
While a few political action committees connected to industry groups have gone to conservative candidates, union money has gone almost uniformly to the incumbent Assembly members.
That includes direct donations to the candidates from local union chapters like the National Education Association and Alaska State Employees Association, as well as independent expenditure groups financed by contributions from organized labor. The group Putting Alaskans First Committee, of which Hall is chair, has spent tens of thousands of dollars contributed by local unions on campaign materials in support of the incumbents.
That group’s biggest spending in the Assembly races was $12,000 funded by the local chapters of the IBEW and AFL-CIO unions on digital ads in support of Dunbar, handled by Blueprint Interactive, a Democratic and progressive political firm based in Washington, D.C.