The muddled Fairbanks North Star Borough mayor’s race could be decided by a fraction of previous race spending

Fairbanks North Star Borough administrative center (By RadioKAOS (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The four candidates running for the mayor of the Fairbanks North Star Borough combined have raised less than the current mayor’s 2015 campaign–or for that matter any winner’s campaign in the last decade–had raised at this point in the election.

The four-way race pits North Pole Mayor Bryce Ward, former FNSB Assemblywoman and consultant Nadine Winters, FNSB Assemblyman Christopher Quist and renewable energy advocate Robert Shields against each other in a race without crystal clear battle lines.

Cumulatively, the four candidates have raised $27,807.60, according to campaign disclosure reports filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission. By comparison, Mayor Karl Kassel had raised $47,899.21 by the same point in the race (Kassel was eligible to run for reelection this year, but announced earlier this year that he would be stepping aside after a single term). Previous mayor Luke Hopkins had raised $43,566.98 by this point in 2012.

Here’s each candidate’s financial breakdown:

Candidate Income Expenses Cash on-hand
Bryce Ward $10,808.60 $3,571.68 $7,236.92
Nadine Winters $9,530.00 $2,761.11 $6,768.89
Christopher Quist $6,154.00 $1,143.24 $5,010.76
Robert Shields $1,315.00 $1,315.00 $0.00

Those are seriously lackluster numbers for the borough’s mayoral race. The only serious mayoral candidate to have even come close to these numbers was North Pole Rep. Tammie Wilson in her 2015 bid for the seat, when she had just $13,000 raised by this point (she went on to lose the race by nearly 20 points).

It’s likely that some of this is due to the political contributions being focused elsewhere. The FNSB mayor’s term is three years so it’s not always competing with legislative races and a governor’s race. However, the last even year race was in 2012 and attracted some of the highest total contributions, nearly breaking $100,000 by this point in the race.

What’s more likely at play is the fact the race doesn’t present as clear of distinctions between candidates as have previous years. Both Quist and Winters are on the moderate to progressive end of the spectrum, while Ward is largely viewed as a moderate conservative. Shields, whose main platform is focused around green energy like solar panels, garbage-to-fuel projects and geothermal energy, has been an also-ran in recent years, but has been somewhat aligned with off-the-grid conservatives.

The candidate who’s been longest on the radar is Ward, who’s quietly earned a lot of respect from all sides of the political spectrum for a tidy job as the mayor of the 2,200-person city of North Pole. With no other competition for most of the year, Ward was seen by many as an acceptable shoo-in for the position and he can count current mayor Karl Kassel among his campaign contributors.

However, Ward has largely focused on fundraising and campaigning with Republicans, a move that’s given moderates who would’ve been inclined to back him some pause.

Quist also has quite a bit of built-in support. His re-election to the borough assembly in 2017 netted him 10,816 votes, the highest of any contested race on the ballot and about a thousand more than Kassel received in his 2015 landslide victory. That result was likely buoyed by voters’ strong rebuke of a voter proposition to outlaw marijuana businesses (which failed 71 percent to 29 percent). If Quist can turnout those pro-pot voters to the same degree as last year, he should be in a strong position.

Still, in many eyes Quist is politically similar to Winters, who entered the race on the final day of candidate filings. Winters worked closely with well-liked borough Mayor Luke Hopkins during his term and was instrumental in the formation of the Interior Gas Utility. She’s got a lot of respect from older voters, but there are questions about her broader appeal.

One insider suggested that a lot of potential contributions are sitting on the sideline waiting for a front-runner to appear or a clearer narrative surrounding the race to appear, but just like with the governor’s race, that hasn’t really come to pass in Fairbanks. And unlike Republican candidate Mike Dunleavy, Ward is still generally seen as an acceptable choice for mayor across the political spectrum.

The election for borough mayor comes at a time when the local government is facing a lot of tough financial decisions pushed on it by the state’s own financial woes and pullback of local revenue sharing. Kassel has spent much of his term working with the community to determine the direction of the government–whether it be a significant scaling back of services or increased revenues-making it a position that another former elected official once told us is “the worst job out there.”

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