Personal attacks muddy mayoral runoff race

  • Charlie Pierce speaks during a forum for borough mayoral candidates Wednesday at a joint meeting of the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce at the Kenai Visitors Center. (Photo by Will Morrow/Peninsula Clarion)
  • Linda Hutchings and Charlie Pierce speak during a forum for borough mayoral candidates in September. (Photo by Will Morrow/Peninsula Clarion)

A candidate for borough mayor has threatened legal action over comments regarding a 2000 court case, while his opponent says the comments did not come from her or her campaign.

On Wednesday, Oct. 11, a lawyer representing Charlie Pierce served Linda Hutchings with a cease and desist letter, asking that she and her representatives stop talking about claims of domestic violence. The letter, a copy of which was provided to the Clarion, was sent by Anchorage attorney Robert J. Sato and says one of Hutching’s representatives called Pierce a “wife beater.”

Calling the accusation false, the letter threatens potential defamation litigation over future similar comments.

“Mr. Pierce sincerely hopes it does not come to that,” Sato wrote. “The people of the Kenai Peninsula Borough deserve to have the candidates focused on the important issues facing the Borough.”

Court records from the case show that Pierce was charged with domestic violence-related assault in the fourth degree in December 2000, related to a verbal argument with his ex-wife. The charge was reduced to harassment, to which Pierce pleaded no contest. According to the judgment, Pierce was fined $300, allowed to perform 40 hours of community service in lieu of five days of jail time, and ordered to complete a batterer’s intervention program.

The details presented in the complaint were contested, but Pierce said he pleaded no contest to the harassment charge to avoid putting his family through the court process. He addressed the story in a Facebook post, saying he never physically assaulted his ex-wife and that the evidence collected by police supported that. He said it was offensive that people would be going back into court records from 17 years ago and bringing it forward.

“I think this is a case of defamation of character,” he said. “I think we need to be very, very careful and my opponent needs to be very, very careful.”

Hutchings said no one on her campaign spread the accusations of domestic violence, but that people who support her may have independently posted about it on social media or talked about it. People have come to her throughout her campaign with concerns about Pierce, she said.

“I would say more than 100 people have come to see me,” she said. “I didn’t say a word. I couldn’t say anything because it would look nasty.”

Similarly, suggestions that Hutchings mismanaged her family’s GMC car dealership in the late 2000s emerged in candidate forums and on social media. A set of candidate questions published by the Seward City News, which has since been removed but was widely shared on social media, specifically targeted Hutchings with accusations that her business had gone into bankruptcy due to mismanagement.

A post on Hutchings’ Facebook page from just before the Oct. 3 election states that Pierce implied similar accusations, calling the implication “crass and mean-spirited.” General Motors was forced to close thousands of dealerships around the country in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, and two of those were the Hutchings’ businesses, she said.

As a business decision, they closed two of their dealerships, but it had nothing to do with internal mismanagement, she said.

“It was tough laying off 62 people in one day,” she said. “We sold a building, we leased a building, and we operated out of the other building. We didn’t go bankrupt, we didn’t not pay our employees and we didn’t not pay our vendors. … We are still active in the community and we still have 18 employees and you know, I love living here. I can’t imagine that I would jeopardize that in any way.”

Pierce said he has not personally attacked Hutchings and would not, though supporters may have independently posted or said things.

“We need to be responsible and be respectful of one another,” he said. “There have been others independent of me (who made comments) — I’ve never sought out and asked them for their opinions. … You haven’t heard me or my campaign disparage anybody. I’ve focused on the issues.”

An endorsement controversy has also rattled around social media. A political club called the Republican Women of the Kenai Peninsula, a formal affiliate of the Alaska Republican Party, endorsed Pierce this week, according to a post on his Facebook page. The endorsement has caused uproar within a longtime political club, the Kenai Peninsula Republican Women, which is a separate group.

Hutchings was a longtime member of that group and said she addressed concerns about endorsement early in the race, not wanting to divide the club. Though the Kenai Peninsula Republican Women club donated $500 to Hutchings’ campaign, it was not a formal endorsement and the club does not plan to endorse anyone, though the similarity of the two clubs’ names has caused confusion, said Kenai Peninsula Republican Women club president Jill Schaefer.

“We got a lot of calls from our members saying, ‘You guys weren’t going to endorse anyone,’” she said. “We haven’t endorsed anyone, like we said. Which I stand by. It’s a nonpartisan race — I didn’t want to divide our club.”

The Republican Women of the Kenai Peninsula, as an affiliate of the Alaska Republican Party, is organized independently from the existing club and is allowed to endorse whomever the members choose. The District 29 Alaska Republican Party chose not to endorse a candidate, according to a Sept. 22 Facebook post.

Both candidates said the accusations levied against them were distractions from the issues at the borough level and said the personal attacks reflected poorly on the other candidate’s ethics. Hutchings said she hoped the race could have stayed civil.

“I was hoping to keep it in the high road,” she said. “It’s about budget, it’s about education, it’s about health care. For (Pierce) to imply that I can’t be a manager because I can’t do the job because I went bankrupt when in fact, I never did, I let that pass — I didn’t send a cease and desist letter to him.”

Pierce said the personal attacks reflect much of the tone of political races around the country, where candidates try to discredit one another as people.

Voters will determine the next mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough in a runoff election on Oct. 24. Early voting opens on Monday, and applications for absentee ballots by mail are due Tuesday, or by fax by Oct. 23.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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