Ken Koelsch held a sizeable lead over opponent Karen Crane in Tuesday’s special mayoral election, a lead that will likely hold after absentee ballots are counted later this week.
Though Koelsch didn’t support the Assembly’s decision to hold a special election, his platform — focused on diversifying the city’s economy and unifying the Assembly — won him 58 percent of the vote and the election. Crane won 40 percent of the vote.
“This election shows that we’re ready for a little bit of change, and I hope I can bring that,” Koelsch told the Empire after delivering a victory speech to his supporters in Assembly Chambers Tuesday evening.
Only moments before, Koelsch and his friends were in a somber mood due to a reporting error made by KTOO. Before moving the party to the Assembly Chambers, the Koelsch campaign had been watching the results in the Senate Mall building. The radio station had Crane’s and Koelsch’s names transposed, so Koelsch and all of his supporters thought that Crane had won.
“We had 15 minutes of ‘Oh my god, we’ve lost by over 1,000 votes,’” said Murray Walsh, a Koelsch supporter who was watching election results come in live at the Senate Mall building. “When somebody finally told us they had the votes backwards, it was like watching your first baby be born.”
Koelsch, too, was surprised to learn that he had in fact won the race.
“We went from quite the loss to quite the victory,” he said, smiling proudly.
“But we broke out the champagne either way,” he added laughing as he hugged his wife.
All told, 5,971 ballots were cast Tuesday, 3,503 for Koelsch and 2,391 for Crane. There were also 38 write-ins.
Another 1,520 absentee ballots were cast leading up to Tuesday; they will likely be counted by Friday, according to Election Official Laurie Sica.
About 24 percent of Juneau’s registered voters participated in the election, and that turnout will go up to about 30 percent once all the absentee ballots have been counted. Even without the absentee ballots, the special election had a better turnout than last fall’s municipal election, during which only 23.5 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.
Crane told the Empire from Assembly Chambers that she wouldn’t concede until every vote had been counted, but she acknowledged her likely defeat.
“At this point, it appears like Mr. Koelsch has taken it,” she said, adding that she will not seek another position on the Assembly.
Koelsch, 71, has lived in Juneau for 47 years. He worked as a teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School for 28 years and then as a port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection from 1996 until he retired in 2014.
This will not be Koelsch’s first time on the Assembly. He served two terms on Juneau’s governing body from 1997 to 2003, including as deputy mayor from 2002 to 2003.
Since January, Koelsch raised more than $60,000 for his campaign, which many people believe to have set fundraising and spending records. As of March 8, he had spent more than $50,000, about $20,000 more than Crane.
Crane said that ultimately, money wasn’t the deciding factor in the election.
“In the end, there wasn’t that much difference,” she said, referring to the amount both she and Koelsch raised. “We raised what we thought we would.”
Like Koelsch, Crane, 68, served two terms on the Assembly, but she ended her second term a few months early in order to run in the mayoral race. She chaired the Assembly Finance Committee from 2012 until she left the Assembly in January.
Provided that the absentee ballots don’t upset the results, Koelsch will be sworn in on April 4, at which point Mayor Mary Becker will return to her regular Assembly seat.
“I was pleased when Ken put his name in the hat because I think he is going to be a great mayor,” Becker told the Empire Tuesday evening. “If I’m leaving this position, I’m glad to be leaving for Ken.”
Koelsch will serve as mayor for the remainder of former Mayor Greg Fisk’s term, which was set to end October 2018. Fisk passed away in November, a little more than a month after taking office.
As Koelsch concluded his victory speech in front of a full crowd in Assembly Chambers, he quoted Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep,” he said.