Wehmhoff chosen to fill Demboski’s assembly seat
Gretchen Wehmhoff vowed Friday that her allegiance will be to the people of Chugiak-Eagle River and not partisan politics during her brief term on the Anchorage Assembly.
“There’s these concerns I have with this community that have nothing to do with politics but everything with being a part of the community,” said Wehmhoff, who was selected Thursday to fill the seat vacated last month when Amy Demboski resigned last month to become deputy chief of staff for Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
The assembly selected Wehmhoff by secret ballot from a list of a dozen applicants for the vacant seat at a special meeting held Thursday. On the first round of balloting, Wehmhoff received the six votes needed to secure the seat, while former assemblyman Bill Starr got two and Nick Miller and Will Earnhart received one each.
Wehmhoff said she was a bit surprised the voting went so quickly.
“That stunned me,” she said.
She said she was humbled to be picked from what she described as a highly qualified list of candidates that also included Oliver Schiess, Blake Merrifield, Matt Cruickshank, Elaine Hedden, R. Scott Williams , Eugene Harnett, Elisa Snelling and Sharon Gibbons.
“I was impressed because there were so many qualified people applying that I just felt very honored that I was selected out of that group,” she said.
Wehmhoff has run as a Democrat in past elections, where she’s been in the minority in reliably conservative Chugiak-Eagle River. And she’ll be replacing a staunch conservative who left office to join a Republican administration.
But she doesn’t believe she and her predecessor are as far apart on the issues as people might think.
“Many people would consider Amy and I to be very different. But we both care very much about our community,” said Wehmhoff, who praised Demboski’s preparedness and dedication to the job. “She was very good at the meetings of stopping and explaining things to the audience and I think she had a good sense of the charter and the policy and the process.”
Starr — who served nearly a decade on the assembly before being forced to step down in 2017 due to term limits — received support from Eagle River assemblyman Fred Dyson and midtown’s Dick Traini. In remarks before Thursday’s vote, Traini said Chugiak-Eagle River residents deserve someone who represents their political beliefs.
“It’s important that we pick somebody that represents the bulk of the people coming out of that area,” he said. “And I think Bill Starr’s got that ability and I intend to support him through every ballot we’ve got with his name on it.”
Dyson argued Starr would have the experience to hit the ground running due to his long history on the assembly.
“My first choice is going to be for us to take advantage of Bill’s 10 years of service and that historical knowledge that he brings and his proven capacity to represent our community and do a good job,” he said.
After the vote was cast, Dyson — who beat Wehmhoff for the assembly seat in 2017 — was the first to give her a hug. He said the two are friends and spoke highly of the former Chugiak High teacher and current adjunct professor at UAA.
“It’s always been my goal in political campaigns to always end up being better friends with my opponent, and that happened with my race with Gretchen,” he said.
Wehmhoff is a 1977 Dimond High graduate who has worked in Chugiak since 1988 and lived in the community since 1995. She’s got a Bachelor of Arts Degree in speech communication from the University of Denver and a Master of Science in negotiation and dispute resolution from Creighton University.
Wehmhoff is no stranger to politics, though she’s frequently been on the losing end of elections. Before her appointment, she served as vice chair of the Birchwood Community Council and chair of the Municipality’s Public Transit Advisory Board. She’s run several campaigns for office, including her loss to Dyson in 2017 by 17 percentage points and a pair of landslide losses to Cathy Tilton for Chugiak’s State House seat.
Though she’s failed in her previous attempts to gain elected office, Wehmhoff said she wouldn’t characterize her past campaigns as “unsuccessful.”
“They weren’t unsuccessful in any other way because of what I learned and the people I met,” she said.
The appointment is through the April election, when a new assemblyperson will be selected. Whemhoff — who has vowed not to seek reelection — said she thinks she can do a good job representing her neighbors’ beliefs, and doesn’t think Chugiak-Eagle River is as politically divided as people outside the community believe.
“It’s enough time to show that I can still represent the whole group, that I wasn’t just a vote from the ‘liberal’ assembly,” she said.
Wehmhoff has long been an advocate for public transportation and said the will still be among her top priorities. But she’ also thinks crime and homelessness need to be addressed and she wants to ensure earthquake relief efforts stay on track.
“I do want to make sure Eagle River doesn’t get forgotten in the earthquake wash,” she said.
And she reiterated that her primary duty will be to represent the people of her uniquely independent district north of Anchorage.
“I think eagle river in general is a place where people care about each other, they’re very proud of that community, they separate themselves from the Anchorage Bowl because they think they’re different,” she said. “I don’t see that as a negative thing.”
Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call 257-4274.