Anchorage keeps liberal-leaning Assembly, says no to alcohol tax in initial municipal results

Spectators wait for results on election night at the municipality’s Election Central (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media, Anchorage)

Even as ballots continue trickling in, most results in Anchorage’s municipal elections appear decisive. The Assembly will retain a liberal-leaning composition. But residents appear to have rejected a potential new tax on alcohol backed by elected officials.

Candidates and municipal staff were on hand Tuesday evening at Election Central, held this year in the city’s voting center, a giant warehouse space in the industrial stretch next to Ship Creek. Blue and yellow balloons floated beside a projector screen scrolling through the night’s results.

Five of the 11 seats on the Assembly were up for vote. Meg Zalatel is a lawyer and a first-time political candidate who won a seat representing Midtown.

“We knocked over 4,000 doors, countless phone-calls, texts, emails, I think that’s what really is important,” Zalatel said of her victory.

The Assembly is technically non-partisan, but Tuesday’s results leave the body solidly aligned with the liberal-leaning Berkowitz administration.

“If the results hold, then it’s one more signal from the voters of Anchorage that this Assembly is on track,” said current Assembly memeber Christopher Constant. “They’ve supported people who have more progressive views of the future of Anchorage.”

Two incumbents ran unopposed, Forrest Dunbar in East Anchorage and John Weddleton in South Anchorage.

A well-known conservative candidate in the Eagle River race, Crystal Kennedy, beat a challenge from her left by former state Senate candidate Oliver Schiess by a comfortable margin. It’s the seat that was vacated by Amy Demboski when she left the body to serve in the Dunleavy Administration.

In the race to represent West Anchorage, former Anchorage School Board president Kameron Perez-Verdia beat out for state representative Liz Vazquez and Dustin Darden.

Perez-Verdia expects the Assembly’s new members to continue pursuing a similar agenda focused on “trying to address the issue of public safety both in the short term and in the long term.”

Two school board candidates backed by an independent political group funded by an out-of-state Republican organization both lost.

Margo Bellamy faced off against Kai Binkley-Sims and emerged victorious in the race for board seat A. Bellamy won the seat that had been held by former board member and longtime legislator Bettye Davis, who resigned in September 2018, citing health issues. Davis passed away in December at the age of 80. Mark Foster had been appointed to serve in Davis’s seat in the interim.

In the other school board race, incumbent board president Starr Marsett held onto her seat against challengers David Nees and Ronald Stafford.

Further down ballot, a $59 million bond for capital improvements to schools passed. But a more modest proposal related to upgrading cemetery facilities failed. Voters also decided against a five percent tax on alcohol. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s Administration wanted the new revenues to pay for services related to homelessness, substance abuse, and public safety. He blames aggressive spending by outside interest groups with playing a decisive role.

“The fact that there’s hundreds of thousands of dollars of liquor industry money that went in to distort the truth and tell lies to the public, that had a big impact on how people voted,” Berkowitz said Tuesday night.

Industry advocates say it was important to get their message out to voters. Sarah Oates is president of Alaska CHARR, which represents Cabarets, Hotels, Restaurants and Retailers, a group that vigorously opposes new taxes on alcohol, including this latest one.

“We weren’t spending to pump fear into the voters,” Oates explained. “We were spending in order to inform the voters of all of the real life implications to this proposal.”

At around 19 percent, turnout this year is low, even by the standards of non-mayoral local elections in Anchorage. However, thousands of ballots are still being processed, and results will not be official until April 16th. Still, none of the major races have particularly tight margins, and it is unlikely Tuesday’s outcomes will be overturned.