The runoff election for Anchorage mayor is coming to a close, the end of a highly contentious race between two candidates with clashing visions for the city’s future. Tuesday is the last day to vote.
In the final days of a race that’s technically nonpartisan, candidates Dave Bronson, Forrest Dunbar and their supporters are making their final pitches to last-minute voters. Each say the other is a political extremist who would take the city down a radically wrong path.
Bronson, a retired military and commercial pilot who helped found the conservative Alaska Family Council, has called Dunbar a “radical leftist.” He has said Dunbar has an agenda that will drive people from the city and turn Anchorage into another Portland or San Francisco. Bronson is an adamant critic of the city’s COVID-19 pandemic policies and asserts that Dunbar, others on the Assembly and the former and acting mayor have “destroyed the city.”
Dunbar, a twice-elected Assembly member from East Anchorage and former Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress, in recent statements has said Bronson is connected to far-right “fringe elements” in politics. Dunbar has denounced Bronson’s downplaying of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has said his opponent has promoted “dangerous misinformation” about the coronavirus and the vaccine. He also has said Bronson is attempting to keep the city divided with rhetoric.
Simmering beneath the surface of the election is a community at odds over how the city should move forward through the challenges it faces. Whoever is elected will lead the city as it navigates the COVID-19 pandemic, its economic recovery and a homelessness crisis.
A fight for the last few votes
Voters had already returned more than 61,500 ballots by Friday in the city’s first-ever mail-in runoff race for mayor, marking a significant change in voting pattern from the April 6 regular election. It was nearly double the number of ballots that had been returned on the same day before the election in April, which saw a flurry of last-minute voting.
Voters are still sending ballots through the mail, leaving them in secure drop boxes and casting ballots at in-person vote centers.
That means that Bronson and Dunbar are now scrapping over a shrinking pool of voters.
In the April 6 regular election for mayor, Bronson came out on top among the 15 candidates, with 33% of the vote. Dunbar received 31%. To win outright and avoid a runoff, a candidate needed 45%.
On Thursday, Bronson held a “get out the vote” rally in Eagle River, and implored attendees to contact other residents in the conservative-leaning area who hadn’t not voted yet. His campaign is focusing on reaching voters who swing conservative and who have not yet cast a ballot.
“A conservative cannot get elected in this city unless you carry, he or she carries Eagle River,” Bronson told the crowd. “That’s just simple demographics and math. We have to do that.”
Dunbar on Saturday held a rally in Midtown, speaking to a throng of supporters who later left to canvass at the homes of residents who have not yet voted.
Dunbar said that the same voters in April are turning out again and tilting in his favor.
“It looks like we’re winning now,” he said. Still, another 8,000 votes — people who hadn’t voted in April — are now voting, and they are tilting toward Bronson, he said.
“The margins are slim enough that literally, if you can turn out three or four or five more voters today, we win this election. That’s how close it is. That’s how important that you are,” Dunbar told the crowd.
Contrasting political histories
Both candidates have roots in local politics, though only Dunbar has held elected office.
Dunbar is a captain in the Alaska Army National Guard, an attorney, and in 2014 ran as a Democrat for a seat in the U.S. House against Republican Rep. Don Young and lost. He grew up in Alaska, first in Eagle and later in Cordova.
Dunbar has been on the Assembly since 2016, and has cast votes on critical issues such as extending the city’s emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic, its approach to homelessness and allocating pandemic relief money. He also voted last summer to institute a ban on so-called “conversion therapy.”
Dunbar voted to keep mandates in place that shut down or restricted businesses and voted to allocate pandemic relief money to the purchase of buildings for homeless services. Dunbar has said he has made some “tough choices” but that he stands by those decisions, saying that he was following the advice of health experts and that many more people would have died had the city not implemented COVID-19 mandates.
Still, most recently Dunbar voted to remove most COVID-19 restrictions except the mask mandate.
Dunbar announced his candidacy long before the race picked up steam, in October of 2019. He has led the race in fundraising and has long been considered the “progressive” candidate to beat by Bronson and conservative-leaning former candidates.
Dunbar has the formal endorsements of multiple labor unions including the Alaska AFL-CIO, Anchorage Education Association and the Anchorage Firefighters Union, and is also supported by groups like Anchorage Democrats and The Alaska Center. He has been endorsed by former Democratic Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles and also by some conservatives, including the former chair of Dunleavy for Alaska, Terre Gales.
Dunbar has said he is building a “Coalition of the Reasonable” among “moderate Republicans, Independents, and Democrats.”
Bronson is a 30-year Anchorage resident who served in the Air Force, Air Force Reserves and Air National Guard, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
He has focused most of his campaign targeting the city over its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and homelessness.
In 2011 he ran for a Midtown Assembly seat and lost.
Bronson was also a founding member of Alaska Family Council, a nonprofit organization focused on conservative Christian values, and its legislative action offshoot, Alaska Family Action. The council advocates for anti-abortion policies, religious liberties, parental rights and is against same-sex marriage.
Bronson opposed the city’s 2015 equal rights ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. He supported a 2018 ballot initiative that sought to require transgender individuals to use the restroom that aligns with their sex at birth rather than their gender identity.
“I don’t think men should be in women’s bathrooms,” Bronson said during a March interview with the Daily News, when asked about the ballot initiative. “To that degree, I think that that should be changed. It is very simple.”
Still, Bronson recently said he wouldn’t “burn any political capital on those issues” and describes himself as a “center-right” conservative.
His campaign launched with support from self-described conservative Assembly member Jamie Allard and the now-private “Save Anchorage” Facebook group, which coalesced last summer during a surge of criticism and protests over the city’s health mandates and business shutdowns, and its pursuit of using CARES Act funds for purchasing buildings for homeless and treatment services last summer.
While campaigning, Bronson has said he would revoke all of the city’s COVID-19 mandates, including the mask order that is still in effect, while other restrictions have already been lifted. He has said he believes the pandemic was “over last summer.”
Major conservative players have put their weight behind Bronson’s campaign, including Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan and Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy, both of whom spoke at Thursday’s rally.
Dunleavy called the Anchorage election a “watershed moment” in Alaska and later said he supports Bronson “1,000% — if that’s possible.”
“This is one of those moments, seriously, in history, where Anchorage either goes right or goes far left,” Dunleavy said.
It’s unusual to see a U.S. senator and the governor give formal endorsements in the Anchorage mayor’s race.
Rhetoric from both campaigns has ramped up over the last few months.
Dunbar last month, in a televised conversation hosted by Alaska’s News Source, asked Bronson to “please stop lying.”
“Constantly with these mistruths and misinformation about what I say, what the policy is, what the reality is, conspiracy theories ...,” Dunbar said.
During that same conversation Bronson later said to Dunbar “you don’t have the sense God gave an anvil sometimes.”
Dunbar has accused Bronson of avoiding public forums and debates.
Meanwhile, Bronson’s campaign has targeted Dunbar over his votes to extend the city’s emergency declaration, which keeps the mayor’s COVID-19 mandates in place. In a recent video and radio ad, Bronson’s former campaign manager and Republican Bernadette Wilson lambastes Dunbar:
“You shut down churches, sports, and small businesses,” Wilson says. “COVID didn’t kill this city, Dunbar — you did.”
Another Bronson video advertisement in March states that “a bunch of idiots are tearing up our city” while featuring a photograph of Assembly members — including Dunbar — in a meeting.
Both candidates have received a slew of endorsements. Republican Mike Robbins, who ran for mayor in the April 6 election, is supporting Bronson.
Former candidates for mayor George Martinez and Bill Falsey, who also is Anchorage’s former municipal manager, have endorsed Dunbar.
Speaking at Dunbar’s Saturday rally, Falsey said, “We are in a consequential moment. This is a real turning point. We can go into one of two ways — we can stagnate and go backwards, or we can really be positioned to thrive.”
Notably, Bill Evans, who also ran for mayor, has not endorsed either candidate. In a recent Facebook post he defended that choice, saying he feels “fidelity-bound” because the people who voted for him did not want Dunbar or Bronson to win. Still, he listed multiple qualities he endorses in a candidate for mayor.
“‘I endorse’ any candidate that is civil (even when faced with incivility), respectful (even when being disrespected) and who strives to bring people together and bring out the best in everyone,” Evans wrote.
An endorsement of Dunbar from the Alaska Young Democrats posted to Facebook reads “Anyone but Bronson” and says that “Dave Bronson is focused on pushing a radical political agenda and bringing more hatred and division into Anchorage.”
The Anchorage Police Department Employee’s Association, which usually endorses a candidate, chose not to this year, citing an “incredibly divisive” political atmosphere as the reason.
Dunbar’s campaign has also filed complaints with the state against Bronson, accusing the campaign of “bad faith dealings” and “multiple, blatant violations of campaign finance law.”
So far, Dunbar’s campaign has raised about $591,000 in total, outraising Bronson by about $32,000. But Bronson has outraised Dunbar during the runoff election by about $77,000, reports filed with the state show.
Thousands of dollars in independent expenditure group spending has flowed into the race from outside the state in support of both candidates.
Ballot packages must be postmarked by Tuesday, May 11, to be counted in the runoff election. Regular ballots have until May 21 to arrive at the elections center and overseas ballots have until May 25.
Unofficial results will be posted after 8 p.m. on Tuesday, but votes will continue to be tabulated in the following days.
In the April election, Dunbar was initially ahead, but as ballot counting continued each day, Bronson eventually took the lead.
The runoff election results are scheduled to be certified by the Anchorage Assembly on May 25.