In 2012 Anchorage voters came out in large numbers and defeated a ballot initiative that would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes under Anchorage’s non-discrimination law. That initiative was known as Proposition 5, or more often referred to as Prop 5, and the advocates of that ballot proposition, were shocked by the results. That group, named One Anchorage went into the day expecting if not a crushing victory, certainly a comfortable one. That didn’t happen. Voters rejected the initiative by a 43%-57% margin.
Four years later the issue may once again face voters. This past September the Anchorage Assembly passed an ordinance substantially similar to the 2012 initiative. In response a group led by several prominent conservative women have filed a referendum application with the Muni to repeal it.
If that application is approved by the Municipal Attorney, the group will have to gather 5,754 registered voter signatures before January 11th. That is no easy task, so it’s far from certain this referendum will actually go to the voters in April.
If the referendum does make it to the April ballot, don’t expect a repeat of four years ago.
Here is what will be different this time:
Turnout, Turnout, Turnout
2012 was a Mayoral election year, 2016 is not. That may not seem like a big deal but it dramatically changes the election equation. In the last six years the average mayoral election turnout has had 66,428 votes cast as opposed to 43,382 for the average non-mayoral municipal election. That means 53% more people go to the polls in a mayoral election year than a non-mayoral year.
In 2012 specifically, the mix of the mayoral election and the high profile Prop 5 initiative drove the turnout to an all-time high of 71,099 ballots cast. That simply can’t happen this time.
As impassioned as public testimony was during Assembly deliberations over passing this year’s version of the LGBT ordinance were, they were far less than the energy generated by the Assembly’s last attempt to pass such an ordinance in 2009. That year included two months of acrimony and packed Assembly chambers. That didn’t happen this year. Both sides of the fight are still energized, to be sure, but their movements lack the mass and power of previous efforts.
The mix of a non-mayoral year election and decreased energy on the issue will mean a far lower turnout this time around. It is too early to tell which side that will help or how, but make no mistake, it will greatly change the dynamic from 2012’s election.
Business Behind LGBT
In 2012 the business community largely stayed out of the fight. As a result those on both sides argued their positions were best for the business community. Those supporting Prop 5 said studies showed diversity is good for the economy. Those opposed argued new civil rights regulations on business could lead to the government shutting down those that didn’t agree with the law.
Since then both the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce and Anchorage Economic Development Corporation have become more proactive in not just supporting, but actively advocating for the LGBT community with a campaign called One Anchorage, One Economy. As a result LGBT advocates will own the “good for business” argument this time around.
Mayoral Office Support
Today the Anchorage Mayor’s office looks about as different as it possibly could from four years ago. Mayor Dan Sullivan, a staunchly and unabashedly conservative mayor made no secret of his opposition to Prop 5. This time around the Muni’s executive seat is occupied by One Anchorage’s spokesman Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.
Who controls the Mayor’s office matters when it comes to a local election. The smaller the election the scarcer dollars, staff, advertising, and campaign infrastructure are to move an issue. The Mayor can be an effective fundraiser and advocate. They can also supplement a campaign by such things as calling a press conference, dispatching staff, or just making a call anyone in the state will have to take.
Four years ago the combination of Mayor Dan Sullivan’s office and re-election campaign provided a critical skeleton and focal point around which Prop 5 opposition could be both formally and informally organized. That proved a potent ingredient in the conservative victory.
This time around Mayor Berkowitz is the one who will be able to use his staff, institutional support, and bully pulpit. This time it will be the LGBT community who benefits from all the Mayor’s office can offer.
A significant factor to all of this will be is which side makes the average voter feel like a good person for voting with them. As MSNBC’s Chris Matthews puts it, “which side has the sun on their face?”
Then mayoral candidate Paul Honeman pretty much detonated any chance of Prop 5 advocates claiming that ground in 2012. In the waning days of his mayoral campaign Honeman lashed out at Mayor Dan Sullivan, calling him “bigoted” in one radio ad for his stance in opposition to Prop 5. With that name calling the failing mayoral candidate effectively put on cement shoes, wrapped a rope around his waist, tied the other end to the Prop 5 campaign, and then jumped overboard.
One Anchorage was now the nasty vitriolic crowd and Mayor Sullivan and Prop 5 opponents were the reasonable people being distastefully attacked.
That dynamic, at least as of today, is completely flipped. Less than a year ago conservatives associated with the failed mayoral campaign of Assemblywoman Amy Demboski, including Anchorage Baptist temple Pastor Dr. Jerry Prevo attacked Ethan Berkowitz for supporting LGBT rights and alleging he supported incestous relationships. The allegation was offensive on its face. The result was Berkowitz winning the Mayoral race by the largest margin in Anchorage’s history.
Election returns show the progressive Berkowitz won many deeply conservative districts in Anchorage. Ask anyone involved in politics in Anchorage and you will be regaled with anecdotal evidence of Republicans either voting for Berkowitz or not voting at all because they were so off put by Demboski, Prevo, and those associated with her campaign they just couldn’t vote to support her.
Anything can happen as the coming referendum moves towards election day, but if dynamics hold as they are today, it will be LGBT advocates who can claim the “good person” high ground.
Maybe the most interesting single factor affecting the spring referendum, if it happens, will be just how much rank-and-file Republicans choose to care.
KFQD radio host Dave Stieren made this the point of his commentary this morning:
audio courtesy of KFQD
Over the last two months I have sat down with all six of the candidates for the West Anchorage and South Anchorage Assembly seats. None of them, including the three Republicans, wanted the races to be about social issues. All wanted to talk economics, budget policy, and infrastructure. All appeared to deflate when asked about the prospect of their races being about this issue.
There is clearly a fatigue among many voters and candidates who just simply don’t want to talk about gay marriage or LGBT discrimination any more. Polls show Republicans largely and increasingly supporting gay rights. The fact is there are a lot of Republicans that are just over this fight. They are Really, really, for the love of God change the station, over this fight.
Four years ago a lot of Republican who came out to the polls to vote for Mayor Dan Sullivan also went down the ballot and voted against Prop 5. Will many of those same pro-business, pro-development, small government conservatives choose to care enough about a LGBT fight to get up and go vote this time when there is no other marquee name on the ballot to draw them there? The answer to that question could decide the vote.