My Turn: Special election, indeed

  • By WIN GRUENING
  • Friday, March 18, 2016 1:03am
  • Opinion

For those of us accustomed to sleepy, lackluster municipal elections, the mayoral race between Karen Crane and Ken Koelsch was a startling change. The Koelsch campaign established its mantra as “Uniting Generations to Move Juneau Forward,” and the Crane campaign responded with “Karen Crane – A Listener, A Unifier, A Proven Leader.” Both used professionally produced ads, signs and campaign materials.

This election was not just about the candidates’ past experience or new ideas to address our shrinking budget, but also focused on two recent Assembly actions. The first was the repeal of the existing municipal senior sales tax exemption and the other, ironically, the special election itself.

The first shot in this contest was actually fired last July when the Assembly Finance Committee, chaired by Karen Crane, recommended the senior sales tax exemption should be front and center on the chopping block when balancing the budget, since it granted special benefits to some but not all residents. The proposed change allowed exemptions on some food and utilities and carve-outs for low-income seniors, but was approved without any transition to the new tax regime or “grandfathering” of existing seniors. As a result, on Jan. 1, 2016, senior tax exemption benefits were reduced for almost all recipients.

In an odd twist of timing connecting the two issues, several days before this Karen Crane began collecting campaign donations and filed her Letter of Intent to run for Mayor of Juneau. This in itself may not have caught anyone’s attention, except barely a week before she had joined forces with four other Assembly members in voting to hold and pay for the special election in which she intended to run. Public outcries of conflict of interest began surfacing. Many said it made more sense to wait until the regular October election to allow more people the opportunity to consider running and avoid spending $35,000 unnecessarily.

Both candidates deserve credit for their willingness to run for public office and for their past public service. But regardless of her intentions, Karen Crane’s action planted in many voters’ minds the perception she erred in judgement when voting for a special election that could benefit her.

Both of these issues, largely ignored by the press, festered throughout the campaign. Ken Koelsch had publically testified against the repeal of the senior sales tax exemption and the special election prior to entering the race. He argued wasting money on an unnecessary election while cutting seniors’ benefits was hypocritical. After bringing these issues to the forefront, Koelsch’s candidacy ignited a consequential conversation in this community that effectively placed the Crane campaign on the defensive from day one.

Claims that Koelsch’s campaign was “divisive” just don’t hold water. That is a favorite tactic of a partisan opponent that cannot defend issues legitimately. Koelsch was consistently positive in his message of unity and stuck to the issues. The diversity and number of his supporters was astonishing. They represented a wide variety of Juneauites of different political persuasions, ethnicities and ages. Koelsch’s 1,300 individual endorsements outnumbered the public endorsements of our previous mayor, Greg Fisk, by a factor of 6:1.

There were minor “dust-ups” to be sure. A dismissed APOC complaint, claims of false rumors being circulated, public suggestions that disgruntled seniors could leave town on an “ice floe,” and the usual sign violations and missing campaign “Paid for by” disclaimers were present throughout. But these perceived missteps by both campaigns occur in every election and did not influence the final outcome.

Adding to the general brouhaha around the election, as votes were tabulated Tuesday night, a bizarre thing occurred. Incorrect election results were reported to people listening to KTOO and watching online. With 12 of 13 precincts reporting, Crane was reported to be leading by over 1,100 votes. Eventually, KTOO reversed the numbers and later apologized for their error. Final corrected vote totals before absentees were counted left Koelsch with 3,503 votes and Crane with 2,391 votes.

Election reporting mishaps notwithstanding, Koelsch’s victory was remarkable. Without holding a single organized fundraiser, he far outpaced Crane on donations and number of individual donors. He swept 9 of 13 Juneau precincts. With a higher voter turnout in this election than the last 3 municipal elections, Koelsch’s vote total will eventually exceed the number of mayoral votes received by Greg Fisk in the regular municipal election just six months ago. Clearly, voters were engaged and Koelsch’s message resonated.

The real irony, however, is that Karen Crane would still be on the Assembly if the special election had never taken place. Ken Koelsch felt compelled to run for mayor because he believed more responsive and transparent leadership was needed. Perhaps this election teaches us that leaders don’t manufacture themselves. They step up in difficult times.

Juneau can be thankful for that.

• Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and is active in community and statewide organizations.

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