Last week three different candidates: Joe Riggs, John Weddleton, and David Jensen, announced they were officially throwing their hats in the ring for the open South Anchorage District 6 seat on the Anchorage Assembly being vacated by term-limited Assemblymember Jennifer Johnston.
I sat down with all three South Anchorage candidates for off-the-record conversations to get a sense of who each candidate is, why they’re is running, and what their campaign might look like. While I can’t publish the specific content of any of those discussions, here are some early thoughts on each candidate and the race going forward:
Joe Riggs refers to himself as a former financial planner, firefighter and entrepreneur. He has a degree from UAA in Economics and professes a love of the outdoors, he’s often found kite surfing along Turnagain Arm and he’s climbed Denali three times.
Riggs is a fairly known quantity in GOP circles. He’s worked on a number of Republican campaigns, most notably Ralph Samuels’ gubernatorial run and Sarah Palin’s, Vice-Presidential… stagger. He has also sat on the Alaska Republican Party Central Committee and Mayor Dan Sullivan appointed him to the Muni’s Budget Advisory Committee. His campaign donation history shows contributions solely to Republicans, including Mayor Dan Sullivan, Amy Demboski, Andy Clary, and Dan Saddler. In short ,he is the guy Republican insiders comfortably see as the legitimate Republican in the officially nonpartisan race.
In talking to Riggs you get the sense he understands that South Anchorage is inherently a conservative area, which gives him the advantage. His campaign website is littered with the word “conservative” and he is positioning himself as a candidate who would be a check on the progressive agenda of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.
As much as Riggs is running to the right, he also seems to have taken heed of the lessons learned from current Assemblymember Amy Demboski’s landslide defeat in the mayoral race just six months ago. He seems to be staying in a narrow fiscal conservative channel. His website is devoid of the big “G”s of conservatism Guns, God, and Gays, but rather focuses on fiscal, economic, and public safety issues.
With strong institutional Republican support Riggs should be able to raise the money and get the grassroots support necessary to win. Now lets see if he can.
Weddleton is the longtime proprietor of many Anchorage boys’ childhood treasure, Bosco’s. I have to admit than while attending Central Junior High it seemed like every guy I knew had some dream of starting a sports ca
rds and comic book store. None of us ever did it, but Weddleton did, and successfully.
Unlike Riggs, Weddleton is eschewing partisan or ideological labels. That makes sense. If you are running in a conservative area and you can’t lay claim to being the conservative candidate, labels are not your friend.
If Weddleton isn’t “the conservative” what is he? He was Mark Begich’s appointee to Anchorage’s Planning and Zoning Commission and a long-time fixture in a number of South Anchorage planning issues, from drainage to land use. While he talks as a small business owner who understands the fiscal realities of being in a down economy, he really enjoys getting into the weeds of policy and I mean deep into the weeds. He seems to truly enjoy bringing people with different views together and working through planning and public process issues. That appears to be what his campaign will be about.
Weddleton’s donation history is a mixed bag. He donated significant amounts to Republicans Andrew Halcro, Kevin Meyer, and Natasha Von Imhoff, but also to Democrats Berta Gardner and Harriet Drummond. He also has a $100 donation to the environmental group Alaska Conservation Voters.
While Weddleton is clearly to the left of Riggs, he isn’t running as “the Mayor’s guy.” Throughout his campaign kickoff speech he didn’t mention the Mayor or any of the Mayor’s policy priorities of diversity, LGBT rights, or homelessness and drug use. Much like Riggs, Weddleton appears to genuinely want this election to be about non-social issues. Both candidates would be happy if candidate debates centered entirely around the nuts and bolts of what Assemblymembers spend most of their time on: fiscal, economic, public process, and public safety issues.
From an institutional perspective, it’s unclear how much support Weddleton may have from either the Alaska Democratic Party or the Mayor’s office. Neither was present at his campaign kickoff, but he does have well regarded left-leaning campaign manager John Henry Heckendorn running his campaign which signals his campaign is for real. Another interesting way of telling Weddleton is in it to win it, he has an exact number of votes he says he knows he needs to get in order to win. I won’t say what the number is, but that he is shooting for a specific target is another sign his campaign is well thought out.
Jensen is a long-time, well-known photographer in town with a history of working to help animals find homes.
He is viewed by many as the wildcard in the race and both the Riggs and Weddleton campaigns were surprised by his announcement.
Jensen is a registered Republican, but hasn’t been involved in Republican politics. As one could easily predict, anytime a non party-sanctioned Republican gets into a three-way race, there are fears he is a “RINO” or “Democrat plant” to draw votes away from the “true” Republican in the race. After sitting down with Jensen I have to say, if he is a plant, he is a darn good one. He talks the talk of a typical Alaska Republican who doesn’t like taxes, thinks government wastes too much money, and is unsure what value many government staffers provide to citizens. Interestingly, like Riggs and Weddleton, he too seems to have little interest in talking about hot-button social issues.
Jensen’s donation history sheds little more light on his political leanings. He only has one substantial donation and that was $100 to the Bill Walker for Governor campaign last year. That could be taken a lot of different ways.
There is no indication Jensen has yet hired a campaign manager, begun knocking on doors, or started raising money. He also doesn’t have a campaign website. This all raises questions about how active a campaign he will wage. It’s still early in the race, so he could easily still build a winning campaign, but Riggs and Weddleton clearly have a head start.
Look for the Anchorage Assembly race in South Anchorage to shape up with Riggs receiving conservative support, Weddleton eventually receiving support from progressives and the Mayor, and Jensen trying to carve out a winning space for himself.
If it were up to the candidates hot-button social issues like LGBT rights and abortion wouldn’t even surface in the race, but it is yet to be seen if political activists on both sides of the political spectrum will allow that to happen. If social conservatives follow through on promises to offer a referendum or ballot initiative on the recently passed LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance, that likely will end up being what the race is about. How each campaign responds could decide their fate.
Another dynamic to watch is how the echos of this year’s divisive mayoral race plays out in this Assembly district. South Anchorage has traditionally been an area of conservative strength. No area of the district currently has a Democrat representing them in either the state house or state senate. Interestingly, Ethan Berkowitz won every precinct here except one, and that one he only lost by 19 votes.
You can see a precinct by precinct election results map here:
Riggs is openly running as the candidate to check the progressive agenda of Mayor Berkowitz which makes Weddleton, either by direct accusation or logical inference, the candidate of the Mayor. The Mayor won this area pretty handily, but that was before residents saw a year’s worth of his policies in action, so it will be interesting to see who that dynamic benefits. It will be equally interesting to see if a counter argument is made that Riggs is the candidate of the clearly unpopular in this district Amy Demboski.
The election isn’t until April 5th, and a lot is bound to happen between now and election day.