One in a series of articles about candidates in the April 6 Anchorage municipal election.
Anchorage mayoral candidate George Martinez says he wants to “reset the conversation” in local politics.
“Somebody asked me the other day — they said, ‘Oh George, everybody leans. Are you leaning left or are you leaning right?” Martinez said.
Martinez’s response? “Lean forward.”
“Can we lean forward? Can you bring what you got on the left, can you bring what you got on the right, and can we put all that together and find a way forward?” Martinez said.
Martinez, who worked as a special assistant to former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, is currently the director of leadership programs at the Alaska Humanities Forum, a nonprofit.
The registered nonpartisan, longtime community organizer, educator, rapper, former U.S. cultural envoy and prominent Occupy Wall Street activist who ran as its affiliated candidate for U.S. Congress in New York wants to go beyond his roots in progressive politics and become Anchorage’s next mayor.
In a nonpartisan mayoral race that is likely to culminate in a runoff, Martinez is trying to galvanize support for his campaign around inclusiveness and the “power of community,” he said.
“Bringing people together is the most important thing that the next mayor is going to have to do,” he said.
Still, with 15 candidates, Martinez must vie for voter support to make it through the April 6 election and into the likely runoff on May 11 between the top two candidates.
[Anchorage mayor candidate Q&A: George Martinez]
Self-described conservative candidates Mike Robbins, Dave Bronson and Bill Evans have all also outraised Martinez by tens of thousands of dollars, and each has said that they see Dunbar as the candidate they would most likely face in the runoff. Also in the mix is former city manager Bill Falsey, along with several other lesser-known candidates on the ballot.
‘Divisiveness has not produced effectiveness’
Martinez said he is aiming to build bipartisan support for his campaign, from many different backgrounds, political parties and cultural heritages.
Large portions of the city’s registered voters are nonpartisan or undeclared, according to state records, and Martinez sees this as encouraging for his campaign.
He pointed to endorsements from both the “left and right.” That includes former Anchorage mayor Rick Mystrom, a Republican who has also endorsed Robbins and Bronson. Martinez has also been endorsed by Planned Parenthood, First Alaskans Institute President and CEO Elizabeth Medicine Crow and school board member Margo Bellamy.
Since coming to Alaska, Martinez has purposefully distanced himself from partisan politics, registering as a nonpartisan voter in 2014, he said.
He said he sees Anchorage as a place where it’s possible to break away from what he sees as extreme partisanship in the Lower 48.
“One of the beautiful things about our city is that when a car goes off the road into a ditch and they need help to get out of that ditch, the people that pull over to help don’t ask what your political party is, what your orientation, is what your identity is,” Martinez said. “They just want to know who has the tow rope. That practical nature of what makes us strong is something that we have to remember.”
One of the most troubling issues facing Anchorage is a tenor of toxic partisanship and unraveling public trust in local government, Martinez said.
The role of the Anchorage mayor should be to help the city transcend divisiveness, Martinez said.
“People talk about, ‘Well, we need to restart the economy.’ Yes, certainly. Except, can you, without working together? Can we solve any of the major challenges of our city without working together?” Martinez said. “I would suggest that the proof is in the pudding. We can look out in the community and see that the divisiveness has not produced effectiveness.”
From Occupy Wall Street to Anchorage
Martinez came to Anchorage from New York City, where he grew up in an environment saturated in progressive politics, becoming deeply involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
In 2012 he ran as a Democrat for the U.S. House of Representatives for New York’s 7th Congressional District, attempting to ride the momentum of the Occupy movement as its first affiliated candidate but lost with just 2.7% of the vote.
“The singular call to say that our democracy should be in the hands of people and not Wall Street was a powerful call for me to recognize that there was something that I needed to be involved with,” Martinez said. “I believe that, and this was where I come back to all politics is local, and the power of community, and the nature of inclusiveness.”
Martinez, a rapper who went by names George Rithm Martinez and Hon. George Martinez, produced the song “Occupation Freedom” with a hip hop group he and his wife led called the Global Block Collective. The song became an unofficial anthem in the movement.
Martinez said that his experience with Occupy Wall Street and a steadfast belief in finding unity informs his campaign.
“It’s one of the reasons why I’m so optimistic about what we have the ability to do here in Anchorage, because I believe that there’s a common thread around, well, we don’t want Wall Street determining what we’re going to do with our city and with our state,” Martinez said. “And we have a disposition here to push against that kind of centralized control, and we want individual liberty and we want individual freedom.”
Martinez has spent much of his career drawing on activism, the arts, education and cultural diplomacy.
In 2007, Martinez was appointed as a cultural envoy for the U.S. Department of State during the Bush administration, and continued working in diplomacy during the Obama administration, he said.
Martinez founded in 2008 the Global Block Foundation, which he still heads and moved its headquarters to Anchorage in 2014. It is a nonprofit organization that focuses on working with youth through cultural diplomacy and community development, pairing activism with creativity and hip-hop.
He first came to Alaska in 2007, as a guest of the Anchorage Urban League and the University of Alaska Anchorage, to focus on political literacy, young professionals and youth development, he said.
He also worked as an adjunct professor of political science and public policy at universities including City University of New York and Pace University, he said.
He’s now lived in Anchorage for about seven years, he said.
A ‘front row seat’ in the Berkowitz administration
Martinez worked in the Berkowitz administration for four years as a special assistant to the mayor, focusing on education, youth development, diversity and economic development.
That experience gave him a “front row seat” to the realities of the mayor’s office, he said.
During that time, he said he revived Anchorage’s Youth Advisory Commission and helped to create a youth representative position with the Anchorage Assembly, although that role diminished during the pandemic, Martinez said.
Martinez also worked to improve the city’s education systems, he said, helping to establish a five-year memorandum of understanding between the municipality and UAA, which aimed to streamline and deepen collaboration.
“A city that’s investing in its young people is a city that’s saying it’s preparing for tomorrow,” Martinez said.
His work as a special assistant has also intertwined with arts programs in the city, and he is the founder of the Anchorage Artist Cooperative, a nonprofit that advocates for and supports local artists.
As mayor, Martinez said he would focus on reinvigorating the economy and the city’s education systems, including bolstering early childhood education to support working parents from all walks of life, he said. Better education systems will help drive new industries to the city, he said.
His ideas for the city include what he calls his “rapid impact plan” for addressing homelessness. The plan prioritizes using already-available community resources for creating small shelters scattered throughout the city, along with making wraparound services available to homeless individuals and a “daily dignity jobs program” to help them get back on their feet.
Martinez has been critical of some of the city’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, including its use of the Ben Boeke Ice Arena as an emergency shelter. He has said it unnecessarily set families who depended on the space for hockey recreation at odds with the vulnerable homeless population.
He said he would use some of the city’s federal relief money to eliminate municipal fees on community sports programs for youth and seniors. He also said he would provide technical assistance and support for small businesses, along with better addressing equity gaps in the city’s economic response.
“With respect to federal resources, my commitment is that every dollar will go to stabilizing individuals, families, working families and small businesses, first and foremost,” Martinez said. “The message needs to be clear as day — we will stabilize and not let the bottom continue to fall out.”