Mayor-elect Dave Bronson is coming into office following a close election and a contentious campaign, and he must now work with the people he spent months criticizing: the Anchorage Assembly.
He takes the office from Acting Mayor Austin-Quinn Davidson on July 1. But even before he officially steps into his new role, the conservative mayor-elect is contending with an Assembly that holds a progressive-leaning supermajority.
Bronson faces a fast-approaching deadline to dismantle the mass emergency homeless shelter at Sullivan Arena that the city stood up during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Larry Baker, a key member of Bronson’s transition team, called it a “highly unusual situation.”
“In my 50-plus years here, I’ve never seen a political environment where anything like this had ever occurred,” said Baker, a former state legislator and city official who first served on the Assembly in 1983.
“There’s never been something of that magnitude that impacted such a large portion (of the) community that needed an answer and needed it immediately,” he said.
Bronson is relatively new to Anchorage politics, and his candidacy gained traction last summer as he voiced sharp criticism of the city’s COVID-19 restrictions and its handling of homelessness.
He has not held public office before. Bronson’s transition team, which includes veteran conservative political players and some new faces, is currently focused primarily on erecting a large homeless shelter in East Anchorage by the end of September and on revitalizing Anchorage’s economy.
Political observers say that Bronson faces serious obstacles to implementing his agenda, including a steep learning curve and the Assembly’s progressive-leaning supermajority. They say that to make progress, he will have to compromise.
That means building good working relationships with Assembly members he positioned as adversaries during the campaign, including Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who lost the mayoral runoff election to Bronson.
Still, so far, observers and some Assembly members say that Bronson is setting aside the more divisive campaign rhetoric in favor of making progress on the city’s pressing issues.
“He doesn’t look like a guy who’s just going to war. So, if he can kind of keep that approach, I think he can be successful,” said Jim Lottsfeldt, a left-leaning Anchorage political consultant.
“If I’m reading the tea leaves right, the most liberal members of the Assembly are signaling to him that they will work with him on most issues. I haven’t seen a single line in the sand drawn,” Lottsfeldt said.
‘Art of compromise’
Dick Traini, a former Assembly chair elected seven times to the Assembly between 1991 and 2016, said voters over the years have ping-ponged from electing more conservative to more liberal mayors. The majority on the Assembly also shifts, from more conservative Assemblies to more liberal Assemblies. Still, he said he has not seen one with a progressive majority “to the degree this one is.”
“The mayor may want to do something, to bring this proposal forward, but if he doesn’t have the six votes to get it passed, that’s not going to happen,” Traini said.
The Assembly, the city’s voting legislative body, comprises 11 seats. It operates as separate but equal to the mayor’s executive office, and votes to approve the city budget, appropriations and policy.
“This Assembly is really very, very liberal by a large majority, with only two members that are reliably conservative,” said former Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom, a conservative who endorsed Bronson and two other candidates in the mayor’s race. “That means that anything Dave does — it means the Assembly has a lot of power.”
As mayor, Bronson has the power to veto a piece of legislation passed by the Assembly. But the Assembly can override that veto with eight votes, according the city’s charter.
The Assembly has nine members who tend to vote together who could override a veto, Mystrom said.
“I think it’s going to be a very challenging and pretty unpredictable year or two,” Mystrom said.
Still, others say they’ve already seen signs that Bronson is reaching out to the Assembly and that he may be willing to build on work that has already been done.
“Politics is the art of compromise,” Baker, one of Bronson’s transition team leaders, said. “Always has been, always will be.”
Baker said that historically, opposite sides usually come together to find common ground for the good of the community.
“I don’t see any member of the Assembly that’s currently seated that the mayor won’t be able to work with,” he said.
One televised ad launched by Bronson’s campaign in March attacked the Assembly directly: “Here in Anchorage, a bunch of idiots are tearing up our city,” it said, while showing a photograph of the Assembly.
Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance said Bronson apologized to her for the ad.
“And that’s important,” LaFrance said. “But it’s difficult when there’s such intense political rhetoric, then when words are used that are damaging — you have to move on, you have to build a relationship and coming off of those kinds of campaigns, luckily, we really are focused on solving problems.”
Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said so far, he’s seen a good-faith effort from Bronson and his transition team to work with the Assembly.
Tony Knowles, the former mayor of Anchorage and governor of Alaska, said that the relationships forged during a mayoral transition between the mayor’s staff, the mayor and the Assembly will signal the success of the city going forward.
Assembly seats and the mayor’s office are technically nonpartisan, he said, and so is most of what goes on in city government — services such as public safety, fire, wastewater, garbage, transportation and the education budget.
“It’s really those vital services in the community that don’t lend themselves to Democrat or Republican or some of the labels like conservative or progressive,” Knowles said.
Openness to some previous ideas
On Wednesday, members of Bronson’s transition team met with the Assembly’s Committee on Housing and Homelessness to discuss plans to find shelter or housing for the about 400 people in Sullivan Arena and more once cold weather arrives.
Bronson and his team say that it is the city’s most pressing issue. Bronson and homeless service providers say that people’s lives are at stake.
“The economic and social consequences are far too great if we don’t take back control of our city. This is why it is incumbent upon all of us to come together to work hand-in-hand and find solutions to some of the greatest issues impacting our community,” Bronson told the Assembly during an earlier committee meeting on homelessness this month.
Quinn-Davidson proposed a plan last month to stand down the Sullivan that includes the city purchasing the old Alaska Club property on Tudor Road to become a small congregate shelter.
It is not yet clear whether Bronson will follow through with that purchase.
“The Alaska Club facility is being considered as part of the solution. But I’m making no commitment today that we are going to continue with that,” Craig Campbell, one of Bronson’s transition team leaders and a former lieutenant governor, told Assembly members Wednesday.
A heap of questions remains about Bronson’s ambitious plan to erect a large-scale homeless shelter and “navigation center” in East Anchorage by the end of September, including how it would be funded.
“What is the role of the Assembly in the Tudor and Elmore plan?” Assembly member Meg Zaletel, head of the committee, said Wednesday. “What is envisioned for the Assembly? When do you plan to bring items to us for approval? And what do you plan to bring to us for approval? I think that’s kind of the burning question.”
Campbell said that the transition team and the administration are working through those questions, and once Bronson is sworn into office next week, the team will be able to “look into the budget into greater detail.”
“We do not expect to spring a surprise on the Assembly,” he said.
‘No magic potion’
Constant said he has seen signs that the Bronson administration will compromise. For instance, their initial proposal for the homeless shelter has downsized from 1,000 people to about 400, he said.
Bronson also chose to keep Anchorage Acting Police Chief Ken McCoy, who is the first Black chief of police in Anchorage, in that role permanently.
“In making that decision, he clearly upset some of the people in his base, but it was the right decision. Kudos for making the right call,” Constant said. “He picked the most qualified person. If that’s what we’re going to do in the next three years, then I think we’re going to be fine.”
LaFrance said that even between the Assembly and former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s more progressive administration, as well as Quinn-Davidson’s, there were disagreements.
“I think sometimes too the public doesn’t see the creative tensions between the administration — even the prior administration — and the Assembly,” LaFrance said. “People don’t always agree, which is good, right? I mean, there’s a lot of pushing and pulling.”
LaFrance said she’s looking forward to finding common ground.
“There’s no magic potion to solve these problems. I mean, it’s going to take continued digging in and working together.”
But Anchorage’s political dynamics could again shift. Assembly seats are up for election or re-election next year, and an independent expenditure group supporting Bronson, called Open for Business with Bronson, is already fundraising for those races. The group is hosting a fundraiser and celebration of Bronson’s inauguration on July 1.