Yesterday we went negative to close out 2016, but today we go positive. Here are the best things we saw in Alaska politics this year.
Best Campaign Video… It probably didn’t win him the election, but I think this get-out-the-vote ad by Sen. John Coghill was the best campaign ad I saw this year. It’s cute and funny, it humanizes a staunch conservative (not always an easy thing to do, just ask Sen. Cathy Giessel), it reminds people to vote and teaches them how to find out where to do it — a home run on all fronts. I’m told Coghill staffer Jordan Schilling wrote, produced, and filmed the ad, so kudos to him.
Best Campaign Radio Ad… Delena Johnson (produced by Art Hackney). This ad is fantastic. The music subliminally conveys “I’m pro-labor” while the script screams “I’m uber-Republican.” It’s an impressive example of a candidate speaking to two sometimes conflicting constituencies without upsetting either of them.
Best Legislative Advocacy Ad… In the middle of the legislative session, a war broke out between optometrists and ophthalmologists over who is allowed to do what to your eyes. To stop an optometrist-backed bill from moving in the legislature, ophthalmologists ran this terrifying radio ad that will make you not want anyone anywhere near your eyes ever again. The ad worked and the bill died a grim death.
Sign of Things to Come… This spring when Anchorage Assembly candidate Forrest Dunbar debuted this drone-filmed ad, many — mostly Dunbar himself — saw it as groundbreaking. I think it was a good ad, but see it less as a marvel of modern ad-making and more as a sign of things to come. I fully expect by the 2018 election cycle drone ads will replace the intolerable radio jingle as the thing every candidate feels they must have.
Most Painful Ad…Rep. Lynn Gattis for this Facebook ad. Ouch. Just remember this ladies, if you giggle at this it makes you a horrible person.
Awesomest Odd Couple… The push for criminal justice reform in 2016 made for some strange bedfellows. None were more strange than when Alaska Republican Party Chairman Peter Goldberg and NAACP Anchorage President Wanda Green signing a joint resolution to support the effort. It was refreshing to see the two traditionally adversaries find an issue on which they could agree.
Smartphone Autocorrect Nemesis: Tie between Jason Green, errr, I mean Grenn, and Rep. German Tart, umm, make that Rep. Geran Tarr.
PS — Doesn’t Geran Tarr sound like it sound be the name of an imperial officer in Star Wars: Rogue One?
Best Political Consultant… John Henry Heckendorn. The Lefty campaign manager/consultant is the best day-to-day guy you could have at the helm of your campaign. When no one is listening, Republicans readily admit it.
Best Political Vendetta Explanation… For over a year lots of people were wondering why former comms staffer to Gov. Sean Panell and Alaska GOP Communication Director Suzanne Downing expressed such driven and oddly lurid vitriol for Gov. Bill Walker. Then it became much clearer when we uncovered an email Downing sent the Governor’s staff looking for a job in his new administration, only to be ignored. You know what they say, hell hath no fury…
Best Freshman Legislator… Rep. Ivy Spohnholz. Ok, this is cheating a bit as there was only one legislator serving for the first time during the 2016 legislative session. Spohnholz was appointed after the unfortunate passing of Rep. Max Gruenberg in February.
Even if there had been 50 freshmen last year, it likely wouldn’t have changed my pick. Spohnholz came in and quickly impressed Democrats and Republicans alike with her professionalism, energy, and intelligence. Keep your eye on Spohnholz, she’s a legislator on the rise.
Nicest Politician… Next year Jason Grenn will be hard to beat for this award. He’s a walking ball of sunshine. Seriously, it can be a bit obnoxious for those of us who don’t really like people.
But this year, Sen. Peter Micciche edges out other super-likeables Grenn, Sen. Kevin Meyer, Rep. Ben Nageak, and Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. Micciche just has an easygoing, comfortable-in-his-own-skin demeanor that sets anyone around him at ease and makes him a joy to be around. He is still harboring grudges against bloggers for simply doing their job, but we don’t let such trifles sway these awards — they are just too important.
Alaskan Versus Goliath… John Sturgeon. This year no one exemplified the classic Alaskan ethos of the individual fighting an unwinnable battle against the overreach of far away bureaucrats than John Sturgeon. He fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to check the power of the federal government in Alaska. And shockingly won. Sturgeon is a true Alaskan hero whose fight will protect the rights of all Alaskans for decades to come.
Best Political Maneuver… Sen. Bill Wielechowski. When Wielechowski filed a lawsuit against Governor Bill Walker to stop his veto of half the amount of our PFD checks, he almost singlehandedly (but not really, there were plenty of others helping with the suit) cornered the market on the tried and true Alaska campaign mantra, “I’ll fight to protect the PFD.”
Not only did he carve that political space out for himself, he completely blocked the entire Republican Party’s ability to make the same claim. With this one move, Wielechowski guaranteed himself re-election, inoculated every other Democrat on the ballot from “raid the PFD” attacks, and left Republicans shellshocked and scrambling for what to do. Genius.
Best Night Of Politics… Some among us with might think election night is the year’s best night of politics, and it usually is, but this year pure politics got no better than the legislature’s 90th day.
The night of April 17, 2016 will long be remembered for two things: 1. It was the night legislators succumbed to stress and late night fatigue and devolved into acting like a bunch of college kids on whippets (watch it for yourself here), and 2. Sen. Johnny Ellis’ maneuver to attach a smoke-free workplace amendment to Rep. Gabby LeDoux’s barbers and hairdressers bill. One thing had absolutely nothing to do with the other, except that LeDoux had single-handedly blocked the anti-smoking bill in the House. Ellis attaching the amendment to her bill meant she had to decide to either let the anti-smoking language become law or scuttle her own legislation. She did the latter.
The move was so awesome it caused Sen. Pete Kelly to devolve into a puddle of giggling goo on camera. Overall, it was a great night of political theater and gamesmanship.
Best Run Legislative Campaign… Sen. Natasha Von Imhof, Jason Grenn, and Rep. Dan Ortiz all get recognition.
Unlike her opponents Rep. Craig Johnson and Jeff Landfield, Von Imhof stayed out of the public eye while working the doors and stacking campaign cash. That was a lot of discipline for a first-time legislative candidate.
Grenn ran as the moderate against incumbent conservative Rep. Liz Vazquez in a conservative district and won. We are becoming increasingly convinced Vazquez’s campaign crew did as much to lose her the race as Grenn’s did to win it, but nonetheless, he ran a great campaign.
Incumbent Rep. Dan Ortiz ran as an Independent against a Republican challenger in a heavily Republican Southeast district and won. We’ve heard nothing but good things about how he did it.
Most Surprising Win… David Wilson over Rep. Lynn Gattis. To this day no one seems to know exactly how the legislative newcomer beat the popular Gattis for a Wasilla area Senate seat. Neither do we, but he did.
Best Big Campaign Operative… Steve Wackowski. Wackowski ran Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s re-election bid and did it well. Murkowski clearly wanted a wartime consigliere in case she got a real challenge from either the hard right, which she ultimately did, or Sen. Mark Begich on the left, which she didn’t.
In Wackowski, she got that and more. He showed he’s a talented political mind with the ability to simultaneously convey an in-charge persona and a let’s-all-do-this-together-and-have-some-fun attitude that kept the troops motivated throughout the campaign. He was easily the best out of the statewide campaign crop this year.
Best In and Out Move… Former Mayor Dan Sullivan. First, he was running for U.S. Senate against Lisa Murkowski, then he wasn’t. We don’t know what the hell he was thinking, but it was entertaining.
Best Out and In Move… Joe Miller. He wasn’t running for U.S. Senate, then he wasn’t running for U.S. Senate, then he wasn’t running for U.S. Senate, then BANG, he was running for U.S. Senate against his archnemesis Sen. Lisa Murkowski. He didn’t come close to winning, but he didn’t embarrass himself either, garnering over 29% of the vote.
Best Staff Change of the Year… Scott Kendall for Jim Whitaker as Governor Bill Walker’s Chief-of-Staff. Whitaker really, really needed to go. It seemed like everyone in Alaska politics, including The Midnight Sun, was calling for it.
Most Surprising Policy Position… Rep. Chris Tuck. He is anti-fluoride. Who knew?
Best at Saying Goodbye... Sen. Bill Stoltze. The man has had like 100 going away parties since announcing his retirement from the legislature, mostly thrown by conservative constituents who for some reason see the guy, who as Co-Chair of House Finance constructed the biggest and most bloated budgets in the state’s history, as a small government crusader. He’s also celebrating going away when he hasn’t gone anywhere, and from what we hear has locked down a new government gig here in Alaska.
I don’t get any of it, but if people want to celebrate his departure, let them celebrate.
Ballsiest Campaign Decision… Jennifer Johnston. Facing an onslaught of mudslinging and rumor-mongering from her well-financed (mostly self-financed) primary opponent Ross Bieling, Johnston had to decide whether to use most of her campaign cash to shoot back and bury Bieling or to trust her polling from Dittman Research showing her comfortably beating him and thus hold her money for the general election campaign. It isn’t easy to hold your fire in the face of harsh attacks, but Johnston did and ended up winning both races.
Ballsiest Policy Decision… Gov. Bill Walker for vetoing the PFD. Love it or hate it, that was easily the gutsiest policy decision made this year, and maybe ever in Alaska politics.
Most Reassuring Decision… Donald Trump for deciding not to appoint Sarah Palin to any position of responsibility in government.
Best Leader… Tuckerman Babcock. Elected in April as Chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, Babcock has already transformed the internal party culture from one of forced alliances to an inclusive team-oriented atmosphere. Party activists are actually happy be involved in party activities again, YAY!
Most Battle Tested Candidate… Sen. Cathy Giessel. Bless her heart, as a Senator, Giessel is only supposed to run every four years, but the redistricting gods keep making her run to keep her seat every two years. This year she had a tough fight against the well-known and well-funded labor boss Vince Beltrami and came out ahead ( but just barely). Now she finally gets that long awaited four-year campaign hiatus. Enjoy the break, Cathy, you’ve earned it.
Best Podcast Partner… Forrest Dunbar. Let’s be honest, he only wins because it would be unseemly for me to list myself as the winner ;)
What were the best things you saw in Alaska politics this year? Let us know in the comment section, on our Facebook page, tweet to us @midnight_sun_ak.