Anchorage voters elected Ethan Berkowitz by a wide margin Tuesday to be the city’s next mayor, after runoff race consisting of two candidates from opposite sides of the political spectrum.
Inside city hall, deputy clerk Amanda Moser oversaw a buzzing hive of activity once polls closed, as volunteers brought in boxes full of ballots to be tallied.
“How’d it go?” Moser asked a passing election worker.
“Good, we had over a hundred people more than we did in April,” the volunteer replied.
That was true across the municipality. At just below 30 percent, voter turnout was slightly higher than the regular election in April, rare for a runoff.
Results came in fast. About an hour and a half after polls closed more than 80 percent of Anchorage’s precincts had been counted. They spelled out a decisive win for Berkowitz, who mounted a table inside a popular pizza and pool parlor to give a victory speech.
Then a parade of supporters marched a block into election central at the Dena’ina center.
Once there, Berkowitz said he will immediately begin assembling a team to handle the administrative transition.
“We’re going to lay out a plan for that in the next couple days,” Berkowitz said, surrounded by supporters. “When I get into office we’re going to have a punch-list of items that we want to take care of.”
Berkowitz has been in Alaska politics for a while, starting with a decade in the Legislature and three unsuccessful bids for state offices. But his biography is a bit of an outlier compared to recent mayors. Originally from San Francisco, Berkowitz went to college at Harvard and came to Alaska to work as a state prosecutor. More recently he worked for a consulting firm, but largely stayed out of city politics.
Berkowitz beat Chugiak/Eagle-River Assembly Member Amy Demboski by about 18 percentage points. He thinks one reason for that large margin was the fact that he kept a restrained tone as the race got increasingly hostile.
“We had a message that was very positive,” Berkowitz added. “When you appeal to people’s better angels you’re going to get a better response.”
Neither Demboski or her campaign returned calls and messages for comment on the election’s outcome.
Many who watch city politics believe the race lost its focus on policy and became enmeshed in bizarre personal attacks. Assembly Member Paul Honeman–himself a former mayoral candidate–said even by Anchorage standards this race was particularly messy.
“I think we’ve reached a low,” Honeman said Tuesday night. “It’s not been a real good week.”
Before the souring, much of the focus in media and campaign messaging framed the candidates as having different solutions to the same set of problems. In many ways, the issues at the heart of the race–public safety, city budgets, equal rights, education–were fixtures in the current administration of Mayor Dan Sullivan, who endorsed Demboski for her conservative policy plans.
Many critics of the current administration supported Berkowitz because they saw his approach to governance as a reversal in leadership style.
“After six years (of a) kind of depression,” said Assembly Member Elvi Gray-Jackson, “we’re gonna have a mayor who cares about our community, who cares about our employees, and really wants to make a difference.”
Mayor Sullivan was on hand at Election Central to congratulate Berkowitz and express his support for helping with a smooth transition.
“He’ll be well-briefed coming into office,” Sullivan said. He explained department heads will prepare reports for the new administration highlighting their focus and challenges.
“I’ve known Ethan a long time and we’ll have a very nice transition,” Sullivan added. “The good thing is in the mayor’s race there’s about a two month period before the new mayor takes over, so it’s pretty orderly and generally pretty civil.”
Berkowitz takes office on July 1st.