Weddleton’s loss breaks South’s moderate streak

South Anchorage isn’t as conservative as we think. Can Save Anchorage crowd out moderate voters and lock in two allies on the Assembly?

Going into the 2022 Anchorage municipal election, everybody knew John Weddleton’s race against Republican Randy Sulte would be tough for Weddleton. South is home to some of the reddest pockets of the state, particularly Huffman and Rabbit Creek. The district usually joins Eagle River-Chugiak in voting against any candidate that is left-of-center, including voting for Trump +3.7% and Bronson +9.5%.

And yet, on the municipal and state level, South tends to elect relatively moderate, reasonable candidates to represent them. Most recently, South elected two moderates that often joined the liberal wing of the Assembly, particularly in checking Mayor Bronson’s controversial executive appointments and projects. John Weddleton (elected 2016) and current Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance (elected 2017) have been targeted by Save Anchorage, a right-wing organization that helped fuel Bronson’s victory. Bronson endorsed Sulte, a powerful nod in a district where a significant number of Save Anchorage’s members are engaged.

Prior to John and Suzanne, South elected many other moderate conservatives. Bill Evans (2014), who ran for mayor in 2021 on being the moderate in the middle of the field, was a strong and steady voice on the Assembly for one term. Jennifer Johnston (2007, 2010, 2013), who joined the Democratic-led House Majority Coalition while in the Alaska Legislature, took moderate positions while on the Assembly. Before his passing in 2019, Chris Birch (2005, 2008, 2011) was well known for prioritizing stability and reasonable governance both as an assemblyperson and state senator in the Legislature.

Recently, Southside moderates have won their elections over party-aligned Republicans by increasingly close margins. Political polarization is a large contributing factor: voters are less likely to cross party lines or opt for non-partisan candidates over more ideological campaigns. Additionally, more partisan conservatives have moved to the Huffman area over the past 10 years. The most conservative Huffman precinct grew 43% between 2010-2020, some of the largest population growth in the municipality.

As a consequence, moderates are fighting close battles with more partisan voters in the district. LaFrance won re-election in 2020 by just 2%; more votes were cast for Weddleton’s two challengers in 2016; and had Bill Evans had just one challenger instead of two, he likely would have lost to a far-right conservative.

Why is the Southside conservative tent so divided? On one hand, you have more traditional conservatives in Huffman and Rabbit Creek who are the bedrock of support for far-right candidates and give by far the biggest electoral margins to Republicans. On the other, you have richer and more educated Republicans in the Hillside and Oceanview who tend to value balanced leadership and are less militant about social issues. The only truly liberal strongholds in the district are the communities of Turnagain Arm and Girdwood; without their votes, the district would have voted for Trump +9.5% (a shift to the right of nearly 6 points) and Bronson +11.7% (a shift of over 2 points).

Weddleton vs Sulte

In a large contrast to his 2016 election (he ran unopposed in 2019), Weddleton only won 4 precincts against Sulte. Those won were the areas most likely to support Weddleton, and all precincts Suzanne LaFrance won in 2020: Southport, East Hillside, Indian, and Girdwood.

Southport, in the Bayshore-Klatt area south of West Dimond, is home to a lot of young business professionals from college-educated backgrounds. Consistent priorities often include strong public schools and quality municipal services. Weddleton campaigned hard on “doing the work”-type messaging, which prioritizes incremental approaches to governance. Weddleton set himself apart from his more liberal colleagues, which may have worked better here than more partisan voters in the heart of Southside.

O’Malley No. 4, or rather East Hillside, is a common defector in the Hillside and broader South area. For instance, East Hillside was the only precinct off of O’Malley that voted for Dunbar in 2021. The East Hillside appears whiter and richer than broader Hillside and many parts of South, and is more rural with greater access to skiing and outdoor recreation. I’m not certain what makes this part of the community more relatively moderate.

Weddleton underperforms LaFrance

Finally, Sulte broke the coalition that has given moderates close political victories for over a decade now. What collapsed in Weddleton’s coalition that lost him re-election? Let’s look at Weddleton’s performance compared to Suzanne LaFrance’s 2020 re-election, a close victory over the far more conservative candidate Rick Castillo. Full disclosure: I worked as Field Director on LaFrance’s campaign.

Weddleton only improved on LaFrance’s performance in Indian off of Turnagain Arm as well as a slice of lower Huffman. Weddleton’s marginal underperformance all across the district added up to a solid win for Sulte.

Turnout

What happened to Weddleton’s support? Did certain voters show up and give Randy a boost in any particular part of the district? A look at turnout gives us a clue:

The Hillside area disproportionately increased their turnout. Collectively, Hillside voted for LaFrance by 191 votes while Sulte flipped it and won by 20 votes. This tells us that either turnout was up overall but Weddleton still lost a lot of moderate voters (less likely) or more partisan Republicans and conservatives turned out for Sulte (more likely).

Implications for the Anchorage Assembly

Save Anchorage’s strongest base of support is in Eagle River-Chugiak and deeply conservative parts of South. These areas turned out to elect Bronson, largely thanks to Save Anchorage for animating the conservative base. They appear to have turned out the Bronson coalition and unseated someone who they saw as not providing enough of a check on the mayor.

But can Save Anchorage continue to turn out partisan conservatives and flip both seats, making the entirety of Eagle River and South’s delegation Bronson-endorsed? Is Sulte’s win the beginning of a 8-4 Assembly (remember, we’ll have a 12th member by then)? It’s possible, but they have a tough battle ahead of them.

For starters, when Sulte runs for re-election in 2025, he will be running under the new districts adopted by the Anchorage Assembly this year. The new districts, which had to be redrawn to accomodate the new 12th downtown seat approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2020, place Sulte into West’s district. He would lose a majority of his constituents and have to run in a far more liberal district than the one he defeated Weddleton in. Save Anchorage would be starting fresh in an open seat.

Save Anchorage’s next shot at electing an ally to Bronson would be flipping LaFrances seat when she runs for re-election. LaFrance has performed better in both elections compared to John and has a strong base of support, and would be tougher to unseat if she runs for re-election. If she steps aside and leaves the seat open, Save Anchorage could be well-placed to elect a fresh-faced and staunch conservative without having to take down a competent and well-funded moderate incumbent.

The case for pairing Eagle River and Hillside

Anchorage’s reapportionment is more than a nerdy task for map enthusiasts and policy makers. At the heart of how to draw our new Assembly districts is one question: what *is* Anchorage?

Do Spenard and Turnagain belong in Westside? Does JBER claim Eagle River more than other areas in the Anchorage “Bowl”? Is Dimond a part of Southside or Midtown?

And yet, at the same time, Anchorage reapportionment is a numbers game. In 2020, voters passed Prop 12, which adds a 12th Assembly member to the body. Right now, Downtown’s district is half the size and has one representative. Now, all 6 districts will have two members each.

With a full 12-member body, districts must now be adjusted to equal as close to 48,541 people as possible. As a consequence, Downtown’s tiny district must now double in size, which will dramatically affect how other districts take in their population.

A few maps being offered have sparked interesting discussions, but the most contentious decision at play is the debate about what to do with Eagle River’s district.

The Eagle River problem

Right now, Eagle River is paired with Chugiak, all of JBER, Peter’s Creek, and the North Muldoon voting precinct containing the Tikahtnu Mall and roughly 3,000 residents south of the Glenn Highway. These communities make up the current District 2.

Current District 2
North Muldoon precinct included in current District 2 (population: 3,207)

Now, thanks to the new population targets, Eagle River’s district is overpopulated by 1,735 people — a deviation of 3.57% from the new target population. Thus, the district must now shrink in size or change shape in order to meet a more acceptable deviation.

Without including a portion of the Anchorage Bowl, Eagle River and its surrounding communities are not large enough to create their own district. Every reapportionment cycle for the past three decades has solved this problem by pairing District 2 with an area of Muldoon.

Time and time again, Eagle River — 77% white, median income of $112,912 per year — gets paired with one of the most diverse and economically disenfranchised communities in the country. The two aren’t socio-economically integrated as the Municipal Charter requires, and they don’t use or share similar services provided by the city (much of District 2 is located in a Limited Road Service Area). Only some communities located on JBER share schools with North Muldoon, but not Eagle River or Chugiak.

More importantly, the current area of North Muldoon paired with Eagle River only represents 6.7% of voting age persons in the district. Their voice is suffocated by the weight of Eagle River, which could explain why the precinct’s turnout for the last Assembly election in 2020 was just 11%. Every other community in District 2 turned out over 30% of its voters in the same election. In an Assembly race the same year, the average precinct in East’s district, where North Muldoon should be located, had an average turnout of 25%.

The current Assembly map disenfranchises the voters of Muldoon, and we ought not accept that simply because it’s easy to do. So, what do we do?

The reality of reapportionment

To achieve a fair deviation, Eagle River must get its population from somewhere. Eagle River Assemblywoman Jamie Allard’s preferred solution is to just leave North Muldoon or any other Anchorage areas out of the district and call it a day. That would leave District 2 underpopulated by 1,472 people, a deviation of -3%.

As easy as that would be, it violates the principle of one person, one vote. Equally populated districts make sure all districts have the same voting power, whereas a severely underpopulated district gives Eagle River more voting power over other districts in the Anchorage municipality. That may be easy, but it is by no means fair.

Since Eagle River’s surrounding communities are too small for a district, the current District 2 needs Anchorage population. Given the demands deviation places on the map drawing process, we must make a difficult choice: what community is most fair to pair Eagle River with? It is not, as it has been for years, communities in Muldoon who have been disenfranchised by their lopsided Assembly district. There is no good reason Muldoon should suffer the consequences each and every time at the expense of their democratic representation.

Rather, the only other contiguous options are Downtown south of the Government Hill access gate — an option that is off the table for the same reasons as Muldoon — or part of the Hillside located in South Anchorage. Hillside is far and away the superior candidate for pairing with Eagle River.

You must be thinking: what does Hillside have to do with Eagle River? Quite frankly, it has a lot more to do with them than Muldoon does. Like Eagle River, Hillside is quite rural with large lots. Hillside contains mostly Limited Road Service Areas that use well and septic. Both communities are predominantly white and wealthy, with social subcultures that distinguish themselves from the Anchorage Bowl.

Don’t take it from me — take it from Eagle River Assemblywoman Jamie Allard and South Assemblyman John Weddleton. During an Assembly meeting on August 24th, the two discussed just how similar and connected the two communities are:

The Anchorage Municipal Charter § 4.01 states : “Election districts, if established, shall be formed of compact and contiguous territory
containing as nearly as practicable a relatively integrated socioeconomic area.”

Relative is the operative word in the Charter. Obviously, Hillside is more integrated to other areas in South Anchorage than Eagle River. Understandably, people from Hillside want to be paired with them instead.

But the reality of reapportionment and the problem with the makeup and geography of Eagle River’s district forces a portion of the Anchorage Bowl to be grouped with them. That means we must choose a comparatively similar community to pair them with. To support this, I refer you to Assembly Counsel Dean Gates, who drafted a memo on the legal criteria for reapportionment of election district boundaries. His memo draws upon decades of state and municipal court precedence on the legal standards for reapportionment.

The Charter language is “relatively integrated” areas. This is not to compare all proposed districts with a hypothetical completely unintegrated area, as if a district including both Quinhagak and Los Angeles had been proposed. “Relatively” means that proposed districts are compared to other previously existing and proposed districts as well as principal alternative districts to determine if socio-economic links are sufficient.

Page 5 of Dean Gate’s memo on reapportionment criteria

This is incredibly important, because it reinforces the impossibility of drawing districts that satisfy each and every community group in Anchorage. We are making decisions based on what possibilities are available to us. Those possibilities are limited by the math of reapportionment. In other words, when communities of interest are in conflict over reapportionment, we must default to the lesser of the evils present. In this case, that lesser evil is pairing Eagle River with a community that is more like Hillside than Muldoon.

As of right now, there are four remaining maps being considered to forward to the Assembly for consideration. Only one of the four — which happens to have been drawn by me — adds a portion of Anchorage to Eagle River’s district to ensure one person, one vote. The accusations of gerrymandering Hillside out of South Anchorage are not taken lightly, but it must pointed out that nobody seems to care that the current districts have done to Muldoon what I am proposing we do to Hillside.

Put simply: it is somebody’s turn to be paired with Eagle River. Will we wash out the voices of Muldoon just like we have time and time again? Or, will do what is right and bring some semblance of parity to our Assembly districts? I implore the Anchorage Assembly to choose fairness over convenience.

Anchorage Reapportionment welcomes 6 public map submissions

The Anchorage Reapportionment Committee has published 6 maps drawn by members of the community for a total of 10 maps under consideration. These maps were provided to the Committee on January 20th, and have been presented by their drafters at two town halls hosted by the Assembly.

As a reminder, reapportionment is the process of redrawing Anchorage’s six Assembly districts. The addition of a 12th Assembly seat passed by voters has triggered the city’s charter, mandating all districts be reapportioned.

Like the State Constitution, Anchorage’s municipal charter requires that districts be drawn with consideration to compactness, contiguousness, relative socioeconomic integration, and districts of equal population (Anchorage Charter 4.01). Anchorage’s Assembly districts must also abide by the Voting Rights Act, which protects from racial gerrymandering. For more info about the process, read my writeup here.

New districts must be as close to 48,541 people as possible. The addition of a 12th assembly member will cause Downtown, the single-member district that is half the size of neighboring districts, to expand significantly.

This post will 1) go over the maps proposed by the public and compare them to the ones drawn by Resource Data, the muni contractor hired by the Assembly to guide the reapportionment process, and 2) analyze the discussions that have taken place at town halls, which offer important insight as to what priorities the Assembly is keeping in mind for adopting a final map.

An overview of the muni-made maps

Originally, Resource Data drafted 5 maps that I wrote about when they were published. The consensus among everyone I know who has seen them, including multiple assembly members, is that they are not very good. Many of them make strange decisions about what communities to link together, and some are straight up never going to get passed by the Assembly. Now, Resource Data is only offering 4 of them up for consideration.

Note: the partisan data used in the breakdown columns are the estimated results of the 2020 presidential election. These results are calculated by taking the Harvard VEST calculations of Alaska’s election results and assigning absentees in proportion to the precinct or census block’s population.

Map 1
  • District 1 (Downtown) expands south to Tudor Road into current District 4, and east to Pine Street in current District 5
  • District 2 (Eagle River-Chugiak) loses the North Muldoon finger containing the Tikahtnu Mall
  • District 3 (West) loses Campbell Lake
  • District 4 (Midtown) pushes south into Independence Park and a bit of Hillside
  • District 5 (East) loses South Mountain View
West, East, and South get 3-4% bumps for Biden while Midtown gets a 2% bump for Trump

Pairs ConstantDunbar, and Zaletel in the same Downtown district; Rivera and Weddleton are in Midtown together

Map 2
  • District 1 expands south to the northern boundary of Northern Lights; pushes east into South Mountain View and Russian Jack
  • District 3 loses. Campbell Lake
  • District 4 pushes south into Independence Park
  • District 5 expands south into Abbot Loop and parts of Hillside
  • District 6 gains Stuckagain Heights
West and South get a 4 and 6 point bump for Biden, while Midtown gets slightly more conservative

Pairs ConstantDunbar, and Zaletel in DowntownRivera and Weddleton are in Midtown together

Map 3
  • District 1 expands northwest to encompass roughly a third of JBER previously in current District 2; moves east to Boniface Parkway and south to Northern Lights
  • District 2 absorbs Northeast Muldoon
  • District 3 loses Campbell Lake
  • District 4 takes in Independence Park
  • District 5 takes the North Muldoon finger previously belonging to District 2; pushes east into U-Med and south into Abbot Loop and parts of Hillside
  • District 6 takes in Stuckagain Heights
West, East, and South gets a 4-6% bump for Biden while Trump gains 3% in Midtown

Pairs ConstantDunbar, and Zaletel in DowntownRivera and Weddleton in Midtown

Map 4
  • District 1 pushes east to South Mountain View and Russian Jack, while pushing south to the boundary of Northern Lights
  • District 2 takes in Muldoon
  • District 3 loses Campbell Lake and a handful of residents from Kincaid
  • District 4 pushes south into Independence Park and parts of Hillside
  • District 5 expands into Elmendorf and Fort Richardson on JBER; expands east into U-Med and Far North Bicentennial
  • District 6 takes in Stuckagain Heights
Eagle River-Chugiak goes to Trump by 10 fewer percentage points while West and South get a 4-5% bump for Biden. Midtown goes to Biden by 4 fewer points.

Pairs ConstantDunbar, & Zaletel in DowntownRivera and Weddleton in MidtownPetersen with both Eagle River-Chugiak representatives (Allard & Kennedy)

The 6 public maps submitted to the Committee

These maps were submitted to the Committee by members of the public including Matt Greene, former Data Director for the AK Democratic Party; Danny Wells, an Anchorage photographer, Alaskans for Fair Redistricting, an organization led by AFL-CIO President Joelle Hall, Anchorage Action, a non-partisan group that organizes involvement in local government, and me (Robert Hockema), who both helped Anchorage Action submit their map as well as submitted a map under my own name.

Important to note: some of these maps will change now that the Committee has allowed us to modify our maps by February 4th.

Matt Greene
  • District 1 gains JBER to the north and South Mountain View to the east
  • District 2 gains Girdwood, Indian, and areas of South
  • District 3 loses Campbell Lake
  • District 4 gains more of the U-Med area
  • District 5 gains the North Muldoon finger encompassing the Tikahtnu Mall
  • The new District 6 includes Dimond Estates, Campbell Lake, Bayshore/Klatt, Rabbit Creek, and most of Hillside

Pairs Forrest Dunbar and Christopher Constant in Downtown

Anchorage Action
  • District 1 (Downtown) gains central Midtown
  • District 3 (West) gains Dimond Estates and West Dimond
  • District 4 gains Arctic and Independence Park
  • District 6 (South) gains Campbell Lake

Pairs ConstantDunbar, and Zaletel in DowntownRivera and Weddleton in Midtown

Robert Hockema
  • District 1 (Downtown) gains JBER and upper Midtown
  • District 2 (ER-Chugiak) gains East Hillside
  • District 4 (Midtown) gains Independence Park
  • District 6 (South-Turnagain Arm-Girdwood) gains Dimond Estates and Campbell Lake

Pairs Forrest Dunbar and Christopher Constant in Downtown

Alaskans for Fair Redistricting
  • District 1: Downtown, Mountain View, Fairview, and JBER including areas around its gates
  • District 2: Socio-economically integrated neighborhoods along the Chugach Mountains including Chugiak/Eagle River, Stuckagain Heights, and Hillside
  • District 3: West Anchorage west of Minnesota Drive
  • District 4: Midtown neighborhoods
  • District 5: East Anchorage east of Elmore/ Bragaw
  • District 6: Rabbit Creek area, Turnagain Arm, and the non-Hillside portions of South Anchorage

This is the only map offered by either RDI or the public that doesn’t pair any incumbent Assembly members together.

Denny Wells Map A
  • District 1 expands to Northern Lights Boulevard to the Alaska Railroad tracks, and east to Boniface and north of Northern Lights
  • District 2 loses the North Muldoon finger but gains Stuckagain Heights
  • District 3 moves west to Arctic, bordered by Tudor the north.
  • District 4 moves south to O’Malley and expands west into south of Tudor and north of the railroad tracks.
  • District 5 expands west to Lake Otis
  • District 6 expands north to cover all Bicentennial Park.

Pairs ConstantDunbar, and Zaletel in DowntownRivera and Weddleton in Midtown

Danny Wells Map B (coming soon)

What’s next?

With town halls and multiple work sessions underway, the Assembly will now consider community feedback on all maps as well as the recommendations of public submissions to propose a final map. This might be a map the Committee and Assembly really like, or it could be a new map that represents the wishes of all the current maps and feedback.

February 15thAssembly meeting: introduce proposed plan
February 24thPublic hearing
February 25thAssembly work session
March 1stPublic hearing; Assembly consideration and adoption of plan
May 2022Approved map will take place for elections after April 2022
Timeline for the remainder of the reapportionment process

Stay tuned for more updated on the process. Map updates will come as public submissions are revised, and as the Assembly considers the final map to put in front of the public for consideration.