With at least 5 Anchorage Assembly seats up for election next year, Mayor Bronson and allies set sights on a shakeup

As Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson tries to make headway on his agenda during his first few months in office, he is clashing frequently with the city Assembly. The Assembly has so far turned down Bronson’s proposal for a mass homeless shelter, has refused to confirm one of his appointees and has overridden his first veto, among other actions.

Members of the Assembly majority have argued that several of Bronson’s appointees were unqualified, that his veto was unjustified, his homeless shelter plan too big and expensive, and that he is currently failing to act on the dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases. Bronson, a self-described conservative, disagrees on all points.

That dynamic could change in April, when at least five seats on the 11-member Assembly are up for election.

Assembly members Kameron Perez-Verdia of District 3 in West Anchorage, Meg Zaletel of District 4 in Midtown, Forrest Dunbar of District 5 in East Anchorage, John Weddleton of District 6 in South Anchorage and Crystal Kennedy of District 2 in Eagle River all face reelection.

So far, three have filed to run -— Perez-Verdia, Zaletel and Dunbar, who tend to vote together as part of a majority on the Assembly that has opposed Bronson on multiple issues. Weddleton, whose vote has occasionally swung against that majority, said he has not yet decided whether to run again. Kennedy, who is generally supportive of Bronson, also has not decided.

A few challengers to the incumbents have also announced their campaigns, and Bronson is making it a priority to unseat Assembly members such as Zaletel, who faces a recall vote next month, Dunbar, who was Bronson’s opponent in the runoff race for mayor, and Perez-Verdia.

Bronson introduced Midtown candidate Kathy Henslee last month as she launched her campaign during an event at the mayor’s previous transition headquarters.

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“Get us to six. That’s what we need. That’s the magic number — six on the Assembly that we can count on. We already have two that we can count on. We need some more,” Bronson said in a video of the event, posted to a local conservative website.

‘A pretty contentious election’

Tensions between Bronson and the Assembly have risen in recent weeks, especially surrounding his choice for the city’s librarian.

Last month, the Assembly refused to confirm Sami Graham for the position over her qualifications — she lacks a degree in library science. In a dramatic move, Bronson named Graham his chief of staff right after the Assembly failed to confirm her.

Then, Bronson named Judy Eledge, a local conservative stalwart and outspoken Assembly critic, as his replacement appointee for city librarian — a pick the Assembly vice chair immediately said would not be confirmed because Eledge also does not have a library science degree.

Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor union, said Bronson seems to see the Assembly majority as an obstacle. The Alaska AFL-CIO endorsed Zaletel, Perez-Verdia and Dunbar in previous elections, and is currently supporting Zaletel as she faces a recall effort.

Bronson “appears to be ready to not work with people, but to change the people,” Hall said.

Many of the challengers to the incumbents — candidates who are self-described conservatives — say they became motivated to run for office after seeing what they describe as partisanship and dysfunction among the sitting Assembly members.

Randy Sulte, chief operating officer at CCI Industrial Services and a first-time candidate for public office who helped with Bronson’s campaign for mayor, is running for a seat in South Anchorage.

“Dave is like-minded and wants to get things done, but he’ll never get things done with the current Assembly,” Sulte said. “They’re just too much at odds with each other.”

In South Anchorage, Rachel Ries also has filed to run. A former medevac pilot and platoon leader in the Army National Guard and first-time candidate for office, Ries said she is a fiscal conservative who wants to see more balance in perspectives on the Assembly.

Dunbar, who is in his second term in East Anchorage, faces a challenge from Stephanie Taylor, a longtime Anchorage resident who has volunteered for several campaigns, including Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s.

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Dunbar said he thinks Bronson and his supporters have “put forward a slate of candidates that are ideologically aligned and running on sort of a similar platform.”

Dunbar said “it’s certainly going to lead to, I think, a pretty contentious election.”

“But I’m focused on fighting for East Anchorage and continuing the work I’ve done for the district over the last five-and-a-half years,” Dunbar said.

Taylor, a self-described conservative, said she believes the current Assembly members are not listening to the public and often “seem to have their minds made up long before they hear public testimony.”

“As leaders, they need to be able to really hear what people’s complaints are, what people’s concerns are. They need to be able to step into their shoes and look at it from another perspective. And I don’t see that,” Taylor said

Zaletel, if she defeats a recall effort against her, will be running against Henslee.

Kennedy, if she chooses to run for a second term, will face Joe Wright and Roger Branson in Eagle River.

So far, no one in West Anchorage has filed to run against Perez-Verdia, who is seeking a second term. He said it’s healthy to have more than one candidate run for a seat.

“I would hope that people run for this office that I’m holding now and others,” he said. “I always think it’s good when we have people who are stepping up and running.”

More than five seats could be decided

The recall effort against Zaletel is just one of several complications that could change the course of the 2022 city election and impact how many Assembly seats are up in April.

The recall was organized by Russell Biggs, a local anesthesiologist who also organized the unsuccessful recall against Assembly member Felix Rivera this year. Biggs has cited multiple reasons for the recall petition, including Zaletel’s actions as part of the Assembly majority, of which he is generally critical.

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If the recall vote is successful, it could mean Zaletel’s seat would be open well before the April municipal election. A special election for the recall will be held on Oct. 26 for voters in District 4.

The city will also soon undergo redistricting, changing the boundaries of the Assembly’s districts.

The state is slated to finish its own redistricting process in November, which triggers an Assembly review of its districts, within two months, according to city charter. If the Assembly decides districts need to be adjusted, it has six months to complete redistricting.

The Assembly is also adding another seat, a second representative for downtown, bringing its total to 12 members. Anchorage voters in 2020 passed a proposition adding the 12th seat. The state’s redistricting also triggers the addition of the 12th seat, and that seat’s district is to be set during the Assembly’s reapportionment process, according to the proposition.

That could cause a cascade of different election scenarios in April or in 2023 — which includes the slim possibility that all sitting Assembly members would have to re-run for their district.

It also includes the more likely scenario that a member living on the edge of their district could end up living in a different one when new boundaries are drawn, according to Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant, currently the singular downtown representative.

That redistricting process, and adding the 12th seat, might not be done in time for the April election, however.

“I’d say there’s less than a 50-50 chance that the boundaries are done and the new district is set up by 2022, but 100% certain that will be so by 2023,” Constant said.

Despite the uncertain landscape, fundraising is already underway for candidates and the independent expenditure groups supporting them in the 2022 election.

Independent expenditure group Open For Business Anchorage — previously named Open For Business with Bronson — is raising money to support candidates it sees as good for businesses and the economy, according to its chair, Paul Berger.

“With redistricting occurring and the potential to have anywhere from five to 12 Assembly races, the opportunity exists to elect a majority of Assembly members who are focused on providing a favorable business climate in Anchorage,” Berger said in an emailed statement.

The group held a fundraiser for its efforts in the Assembly races and celebration of Bronson’s inauguration on July 1.