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Anchorage Politicians Warily Embrace Social Media and Technology

There's almost no Assembly presence on Twitter, and it's rare to see members post online comments on newspaper or television websites.

Early Friday morning, Chris Birch, an assemblyman from South Anchorage, woke up and read a news story about a new idea he had for legislation to change the date of city elections. At the bottom were several comments from readers -- some praising him, some critical, and some of it personal. One person even made fun of Birch's complexion.

"I was like, 'Geez -- I think we need to focus this discussion on the topic at hand,' " Birch said.

So he did what has become almost reflexive for many Anchorage citizens, though perhaps not quite yet for their elected representatives: He typed out a comment from his Facebook account, and posted it at the bottom of the story.

It was the first time Birch had ever weighed in on a news article -- one illustration of how the city's political class is embracing, haltingly, the use of social media and technology.

Mayor Dan Sullivan has his own social media accounts, and occasionally posts his own online comments on news articles and blogs, where union operatives can be found teeing off on his latest speeches and proposals. And a candidate to replace Sullivan, former assemblyman Dan Coffey, has been getting lessons on how to make his own Facebook posts.

As for Twitter? Don't push it.

"Isn't Twitter where you tweet? Do you have it?" Coffey, asked a reporter recently. "Let me ask you for your advice there, young man: Should I?"

The online presence of Anchorage's politicians is nothing new. Mark Begich, the U.S. senator who was mayor from 2003 to 2008, was at times a prolific poster on a local politics blog, making occasionally typo-riddled comments at early hours of the morning or late at night. He would hit back at critics, tick off accomplishments, and sometimes directly address other users by their account names.

"I have no issue with you, TheSdog," read one comment under Begich's name. Ten of Anchorage's 11 Assembly members use Facebook, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Amy Demboski, who represents Chugiak and Eagle River, has a personal page and an Assembly page, where she posts photos and flyers to her 220 followers, and sometimes asks them for feedback.

Downtown assemblyman Patrick Flynn has his own blog, at, where he publishes sporadic updates with pithy descriptions of his positions on pending Assembly action. (His last two posts, addressing the dispute over the construction of indoor tennis courts in Turnagain, were titled "Match Point" and "Double Fault.")

But there's almost no Assembly presence on Twitter, and it's rare to see members enter the fray of online comments on newspaper or television websites.

Then, there's Bill Starr, who along with Demboski represents Chugiak and Eagle River on the Assembly.

Starr doesn't have a Facebook account at all. In an interview, he said he found the "social" aspect of social media to be "perplexing."

"Am I a dinosaur? I don't know," he said in an interview. "I don't want to have an electronic relationship -- I want to have a personal one."

Starr said he wasn't sure boosting his social media use would help him in his district, which contains roughly 50,000 people. "I'm open to it, but I don't find that I need it immediately to do a better job," he said.

Coffey, the former Midtown assemblyman and current mayoral candidate, echoes that view, maintaining Assembly districts are small enough that much of the work can be done face to face.

That's in contrast to his current campaign, in which he's seeking to represent some 300,000 people.

"With the Assembly, you're dealing with a far smaller group of your constituents," he said in an interview. "You can meet with your neighbor. If you're mayor, sure, you can meet with your neighbor. But if you're meeting with all your neighbors, you're not doing anything else."

As he gears up for the mayoral race, the 67-year-old Coffey realized he'd need help, given that, as he put it, he "missed the genetic shift" that would have allowed him to navigate social media and high-tech devices on his own.

"I don't have opposable thumbs. I can't text," he said.

So he hired a social media-savvy friend, Tracy Roesch Williams, to give him Facebook lessons, and "some tutoring on LinkedIn."

"She showed me stuff," Coffey said. "I've learned how to post."

As for the current mayor, Sullivan said he primarily uses his feeds proactively, pushing out news and information he wants to highlight that may not make it into the newspaper or onto television stations.

Occasionally, though, he'll chime in directly with a comment on a website like Alaska Dispatch, or respond to others' posts on, if there's something he thinks needs to be corrected.

Last month, he personally composed a 475-word rebuttal to an item on reporter Amanda Coyne's political blog, in which he countered an attack from a state lawmaker as "casting unfounded aspersions on my character."

"Call me if you have any questions," Sullivan wrote, signing his post: "Mayor Dan."

Coyne said she would take Sullivan's perspective into account if she addressed the subject again, adding she admired the mayor for responding directly in a forum many other local and state politicians seem to dismiss.

"Sending an occasional letter to a constituent, or writing a column, or sending out a press release that people can't engage with really doesn't seem to cut it any more. People expect more than that," she said in a phone interview. "I think it serves the public to let your views be expressed in the venue in which people are expressing views."

Sullivan is also a frequent online target for attacks from the leaders of the city's municipal unions, whose relationship with the mayor has been, to put it mildly, acrimonious.

However, Sullivan's web presence is one thing Gerard Asselin, the city police union's treasurer, can appreciate.

Asselin recalled a Facebook post where he'd raised a question that Sullivan, surprisingly, had answered.

The response struck Asselin as a contrast to the more structured way he says the mayor typically rolls out his positions and initiatives.

"It says to me that he's actually willing to have a dialogue," Asselin said. "And I feel like that could be productive."

(c) 2013 Anchorage Daily News (Anchorage, Alaska)

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