Votes go to Williams

Former Kenai mayor defeats Torgerson for borough mayor

Posted: Wednesday, October 26, 2005

 

  Darwin Peterson and Renee Limoge campaign for John Torgerson at the corner of the Sterling Highway and the Kenai Spur Highway in front of a large sign for his opponent Tuesday evening in Soldotna. John Williams won the election and will be the next Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Darwin Peterson and Renee Limoge campaign for John Torgerson at the corner of the Sterling Highway and the Kenai Spur Highway in front of a large sign for his opponent Tuesday evening in Soldotna. John Williams won the election and will be the next Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

John Williams, touting his experience as the longtime mayor of the city of Kenai, pulled a stunning upset in Tuesday's runoff election for the Kenai Peninsula Borough's top post, defeating former state Sen. John Torgerson, the front-runner and odds-on favorite coming out of the six-candidate Oct. 4 regular election.

But Torgerson saw his the healthy 10-percentage-point lead of early October disappear as the election night results quickly made it clear he'd been overtaken by Williams.

With all votes counted except absentees, questioned and mail-in ballots from Tyonek, Hope and Moose Pass, Williams had an 18-point lead, 58.05 percent to 41.95 percent, and outpolled Torgerson 3,583 to 2,589. The votes from the three small communities won't be counted until later this week, but they are not expected to change the results.

Williams credited his message and his willingness to engage with the electorate with turning his initial popularity deficit into a victory surplus. Still, he expressed surprise at the size of the turnaround.

"Honestly, we didn't anticipate this big of a margin," Williams said from his election-night headquarters at Paradisos Restaurant in Kenai.

Cheering was clearly audible over the phone connection. The mayor-elect was surrounded, he said, by nearly 100 supporters, most of whom, he added, had a hand in his come-from-behind campaign and win.

"The team is just ecstatic," he said. "They put together a tremendous campaign plan and it worked."

Williams said it was partly his message — a promise to run a transparent borough government willing to listen and take ideas — and just being available to the public during the three-week run up to Tuesday's election that made the difference.

"People wanted to know what we were going to do and how we were going to do it," Williams said, adding he is committed to being "the candidate for the betterment of government."

Torgerson was matter-of-fact and resigned when contacted Tuesday night after the results were clear.

"It's pretty obvious what they meant," he said. "I lost."

Asked what his plans were, Torgerson joked that he would be "taking down his signs," which he said had been his plan for Wednesday win or lose.

"Really, I have no specific plans," he said.

Torgerson had run a campaign that focused attention on his connections at the state and federal level developed during his tenure in the Alaska Legislature (two terms in the Senate) and subsequent positions in Gov. Frank Murkowski's ad-ministration.

Williams had countered, saying Torgerson was out of touch with local government problems and that his own experience at the local level was what the borough needed as it faces rising costs and tighter budgets.

While not exactly old hat, winning elections is something with which Williams can claim some experience. He served as the city of Kenai's mayor for 18 years.

"I feel fine," he said. "This is my seventh victory out of nine campaigns (in his political career). I guess I've been there and back. But with the team we had — and I lay a tremendous amount of credit at the feet of my campaign manager, Tim Navarre — we had a strategy that couldn't be beat."

Navarre, a former member of the borough assembly and a campaign veteran in his own right, said he felt terrific as the results poured in and indicated his candidate's message apparently resonated with voters.

"We did good. We went out to the voters and communicated," he said. "I think people meeting him and talking to him was his strength. They saw that he talks from the heart, is sincere and tells the truth. And he knows the issues and how to solve the problems."

The turnout was small. Only 16.25 percent of eligible voters went to the polls to decide who would lead the borough for the next three years.

A bigger turnout wouldn't have changed the results, Williams said.

"It would have been parallel numbers," he said.

Williams now faces major challenges resulting, in part, from the decision by voters earlier this month to cap the borough sales tax and cut the ability of the borough government to spend money. Williams said he is ready for that challenge.



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