The last few years of local elections in the Fairbanks area haven’t been great for moderates and progressives, who’ve seen a streak of strong performances come to an abrupt end as conservatives stood up more organized campaigns and tapped into national outrage on a wide variety of issues.
That trend was put to a halt on Tuesday night, though, when voters rejected extreme-right candidates on every level from the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly to the school board, which had become its own proxy battle over masking in schools.
With most votes counted, voters elected to the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly Savannah Fletcher, Kristan Kelly and former Democratic state Rep. David Guttenberg. The trio held significant margins of victory over extreme-right QAnon backer Patricia Silva, long-time conservative Lance Roberts and Kevin McKinley, who has run two losing campaigns for state House as a Republican.
There were similar victories on the Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board, whose race had largely become a proxy fight over masks in schools. There, voters retained incumbent members Erin Morotti and Chrya Sanderson, who had long supported masking in schools by wide margins.
Folks familiar with the race chalked up the victories to a combination of more organized campaigning from the progressives and moderates as well as a conservative slate that has run to the extremes.
Intense scrutiny fell on Roberts and Silva, in particular, over their conspiratorial anti-science posting on social media. Silva, who has posted frequently about the fringe QAnon conspiracy theories, doubled under the pressure and continued to post covid disinformation, attack the media and attempt to draw in national politics by accusing her opponent, Fletcher, of supporting the Biden agenda.
Observers said the extreme-right politics were enough to sour moderates and even some conservatives, who would normally be dependable supporters and donors to conservative candidates. One observer also said that the images and reporting out of the Anchorage Assembly—where an extreme-right crowd has inundated the assembly with angry testimony with dashes of antisemitism and homophobia—likely had a galvanizing factor in the days running up to the election.
For their part, Fletcher and others refused to get bogged down in the partisan politics and focused in on specific policies like affordable housing, schools, trails, recycling and expanding internet access.
“The thing that makes this borough so great is really the people that live here, and we have such great organizers and people on both sides of issues,” Kelly said in an interview with KTVF running up to the election. “With the tenor of politics lately, I just think it’s time that we all come back, and come back to civility, and come back to reason, and sit at the table and not call each other names, and really work to make this community better.”
Why it matters
Speaking from personal experience covering Fairbanks for the better part of the last decade, Fairbanks has an interesting political atmosphere that seems to focus value on the community over partisan divides (strange, huh?). Fairbanks—from its local level to its state representation—has generally been able to work across partisan lines to pull together for the community; They truly live their own version of late Ted Stevens’ mantra of “To hell with politics, just do what’s right for Fairbanks.”
What Silva and Roberts represented—a deeply partisan and divisive approach to local politics—was, by most accounts, pretty repulsive to the centrists in the community. It translated to hefty campaign hauls, too, with Kelly reporting a whopping $41,000 in income a week out from the election day. That’s nearly double what a traditional highly competitive assembly race would bring in.
It’s also important to note that the only success we saw for conservative candidates on the night were the wins of Borough Mayor Bryce Ward (who faced no serious opposition) and Jerry Cleworth on the Fairbanks City Council. Both Ward and Cleworth have long been involved in local politics and are generally well-liked across the political divides.