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Alaska media gets duped by would-be state politicians

Amanda Coyne

On Friday, a “bipartisan” press conference was called to discuss “serious concerns” by those who are challenging incumbent Alaska state Rep. Mia Costello, a Republican living in Anchorage.

Their concern? That Costello doesn’t actually live in her district. The reality? She very much appears to be living there, and the opposition’s concern is no more than a big media stunt.

The drama began Thursday evening when Republican Tamara von Gemmingen and Democrat Michelle Scannell sent Alaska media an email announcing a press conference for the following morning. They claimed to have “serious concerns” about the upcoming election and would voice them at the news event.

Both Anchorage women are challenging Costello for the state House race in District 20. Von Gemmingen will be going head to head with Costello in the Aug. 28 primary election, and Scannell will face the winner in the November general election.

Rarely do two members of opposite political parties come together like this, but then again, Scannell is the wife of Bill Scannell. And Bill is a “media strategist” who has been known for pedaling some outrageous stories and pulling some outrageous stunts to get media attention. He may be the closest thing to the paparazzi in Alaska. Sometimes it’s kind of fun. Sometimes it’s kind of weird and disturbing.

But surely two aspiring state representatives weren’t going to waste the time of an already time-strapped media. Surely, there was some substance behind whatever they were going to say. Surely they understood that if this was just a Scannell-attention-getting stunt, they would lose any kind of credibility they had ginned up.

Well, surely I was wrong. We in the media were punked. Von Gemmingen and Michelle Scannell had nothing.

Some were punked more than others. Jeanne Devon, publisher of the popular Mudflats blog and whose husband Ron Devon is running for state Senate, was really punked. The Alaska Democratic Party, which re-tweeted Jeanne’s story and posted it on Facebook, was punked. You wouldn’t know from Rich Mauer’s Anchorage Daily News story that any punking was going on until readers got nearly half-way through his story. Then again, most readers probably didn’t know they’d been punked. KTVA reporter Bill McAllister seemed to distance himself. KTUU got punked, too, though not publicly. The largest TV station in Alaska wasted hours of its camera-crew’s time. As of Saturday, KTUU hadn't run the story.

My skepticism kept me away from the presser, but I put a few hours into the story, and then more time again writing this column Saturday. I guess I was punked too.

Back to the presser and the complaint: As television cameras dutifully whirled, Scannell and von Gemmingen stood in front of a map pointing at two houses owned by Costello and her husband, one of which is outside of the district she represents as state representative. That, her opponents declared, was her real home, the one that she actually lives in. The other home was some sort of ruse, as they outlined in a letter: “You do not live at 5512 Yukon Charlie Loop.  Of the two other properties you own, we believe you probably reside at 2100 Esquire Drive, which is in House District 19.”

State law requires that candidates live in the district they represent. Costello’s opponents said they plan to file a complaint with the Alaska Division of Elections on Monday.

The only evidence they had for their claim was that they never saw activity at Costello’s house, and a few neighbors didn’t know her.

Every bit of evidence -- including city tax records, Costello’s voting records, her hunting and fishing license, and her campaign disclosure forms -- tell the same story: Costello lives where she says she lives, while renting out her other house to Will Vandergriff, the state Republican House Majority spokesman. Vandergriff confirmed he’s been renting from Costello for nearly three years.

On Friday, Costello opened the doors to her real house, the one she claims to live in, for the media to inspect. Pictures of her two children, who were with her husband visiting out-of-town relatives, hang on the walls. Their art projects hang on their bedroom wall. A blown-out map of her district hangs on the wall in another bedroom, which Costello uses as an office. Her living room is lived in. Her kitchen is cooked in.

To have to inspect her house for signs of life felt weird, both for me and Costello. But she was gracious, and by Friday evening, when it was obvious that we'd all been had, she was still trying to put the best face on her opponents. 

“We’re a really busy family,” she said. “Maybe they really believed I didn’t live here?”

The one thing that did make her angry, however, was this line in the letter Scannell and von Gemmingen drafted questioning her residency: “If you are not willing to move into the home we understand your mother bought you on 5512 Yukon Charlie Loop, we must insist you withdraw your candidacy.”

The house that her mother apparently bought her was the house Costello was raised in. Her father died in 1997, and her mother died in that house in 2000, she said. Costello was holding her hand when her mother died, and she has not lived in it since. There’s emotion in her voice when she talks about it.

Costello, who was adopted, adored her parents. Neither of them were college educated, and both worked hard to ensure their daughter got higher education. In 1990, Costello graduated from Harvard. Seven years later, she received her master’s in teaching from the University of Alaska Southeast.

I learned this about Costello Friday evening while inspecting her home. I also learned that she was the first Alaskan to qualify to try out for Olympic swimming in 1988. I learned that her husband was the second Alaskan. I learned that she’s funny, that she’s not the best housekeeper, and that least in this instance, she wants to believe the best of people.

Bill Scannell once told me that if people aren’t talking about you, you don’t matter. On Friday, people were talking about his wife and von Gemmingen.

Then again, people were also talking about Jake Metcalfe in spring 2008 when he was challenging Ethan Berkowitz for U.S. Rep. Don Young’s seat. Alaskans were talking about weird websites appearing when you searched under Berkowitz’s name.

Some led to gay websites in California; another to a page selling “Trust fund baby” shirts.

Scannell, who worked for Metcalfe, was suspected of creating the websites, though he denied it at the time. He was fired from Metcalfe’s campaign, but the damage was already done. Shortly thereafter, Metcalfe dropped out of the race.

Correction: The original piece said that Ron Devon was running as a Democrat. He's running as an unaffiliated candidate. 

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda@alaskadispatch.com