Anchorage

In nearly five decades there’s never been an Anchorage Assembly fight this nasty, say former members

Many of the men and women who served on the Anchorage Assembly keep a close eye on what’s happening in city politics. And they do not mince words about the current state of affairs.

“It is the most acrimonious that I’ve ever seen,” said Rick Mystrom.

“There was nothing this nasty,” said Bill Faulkner.

“It is totally out of control,” said Heather Flynn. “I’m just appalled by the behavior.”

“The anger and hatred level is kind of over the top,” said Bill Evans.

In interviews with nine past Assembly members, whose time on the body spans from the late 1970s through 2020, there were myriad causes offered for why public meetings have descended into unruly affairs full of insults, interruptions and threats of violence. But everyone agreed it represents a low in the city’s political and civic history.

“It’s downright dangerous”

An ardent conservative on most issues, Fred Dyson represented Eagle River on the Assembly from 1985 to 1991, stepped away to serve in the state Legislature, then did another three-year hitch on the body that wrapped up in 2020.

“There was a congeniality that was not there now,” Dyson said of his earlier terms.

“We could fight like dogs and cats and go out and have a beer or coffee afterwards,” he added.

Dyson said he got along well with his recent colleagues in this latest term and grew to be friends with plenty who had drastically different views from his own. But it wasn’t quite as friendly as the old days, he said.

He recalled bonding with Heather Flynn, who represented downtown Anchorage and was on the opposite side of the political spectrum, when the two took on unscrupulous city bars in the 1980s.

“We became great teammates. Had some very fun and fuzzy visits making field trips,” Dyson recalled.

It was a prickly issue, Dyson said, and as it was playing out he was physically confronted and threatened by some bar owners during a public event. Aside from that, though, it was rare for Assembly business to generate outright hostility and vitriol.

For her part, Flynn characterizes the era in similar terms.

“It was never as bad as it is now,” Flynn said.

In an interview last week, Flynn was jet-lagged after being out of state for more than two weeks but had closely followed news of the raucous Assembly meetings marked by yellow Stars of David donned by mask opponents, and what she characterized as confrontational, enabling behavior by the Bronson administration.

“Frankly, it embarrasses me,” Flynn said. “I don’t want to be from Alaska anymore. It’s just uncivil, and it’s disrespectful, and it’s downright dangerous.”

It wasn’t that the Assembly didn’t see arguments, debate and disagreement in the past. She ticked off a number of issues that brought about vigorous, passionate public testimony: fluoridating the city’s water, an early attempt at an equal rights ordinances to protect gay city employees, a municipal ban on pit bulls.

“That was a hot subject,” Flynn said.

But even on measures similar to ones being debated today, disagreement rarely led to divisiveness between members or between neighbors around town. A polio survivor and former middle school teacher, Flynn was instrumental in a push with the schools and health department to require Anchorage students to be immunized after outbreaks of easily preventable illnesses like rubella and measles.

“We reduced communicable disease in this community in a huge part,“ Flynn said. “We brought it to just about zero in the late-70s.”

She said those who might have disagreed grumbled over the mandate but complied. That’s partly what makes her so shocked that a relatively innocuous health measure over wearing a mask in public settings has become such a lightning rod. She blames a lot of the behavior on the national political style ushered in by former President Donald Trump.

“He encourages name-calling and shouting and sign-waving,” Flynn said. “I think that encourages the same kind of behavior right at our Assembly meetings.”

“I guess Bronson is one of his acolytes,” she added.

“There’s a loss of decorum,” said Bill Faulkner, who represented West Anchorage on the Assembly from 1985 to 1995, and was a relative moderate. He pointed to Trump for what he described as the normalization of “childish behavior” in local political matters.

“This was beyond anything we dealt with,” Faulkner said. “To do this you have to have enablers.”

“There was decorum”

Another unprecedented factor that several past members cited is the body’s current make-up: it is more solidly liberal than anyone can recall since the city and borough were unified into the Municipality of Anchorage in 1975.

Though technically non-partisan, the Assembly tends to cleave into conservative and liberal blocks, particularly when controversial topics crop up. In early Assemblies, majorities consisted of just one or two extra members over the opposing camp, which forced compromise and cooperation in order for measures to pass.

For the last several years, though, moderate-liberal and progressive candidates have been more successful in Assembly elections than their conservative challengers. That has translated into an effective block of seven to nine aligned votes on the 11-person body, with only the two conservative members from Eagle River consistently opposing their colleagues.

“When I was on the Assembly, there was a pretty even split between liberals and conservatives,” said Rick Mystrom. “I was the moderate.”

Mystrom represented West Anchorage from 1979 to 1985, then served two terms as mayor from 1994 to 2000.

“I don’t think I’ve seen one this liberal,” he said of the current Assembly make-up. Nor, he said, has he ever seen one conservative enough that it could consistently count on wrangling eight or nine votes.

That large majority contributed to a relatively frictionless relationship with the previous administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, with whom many members shared similar political priorities.

That is not the case with Mayor Dave Bronson, who campaigned in opposition to Assembly policies on the pandemic and homelessness, and won by a razor-thin margin in the runoff election against current East Anchorage Assembly member Forrest Dunbar. What was, up until recently, consistent alignment between the city’s legislative and executive branches has come to resemble a hammer clanging against an anvil.

One precedent for this level of disharmony between the Assembly and mayor’s office is the tenure of Tom Fink, the staunch conservative who served two terms as mayor from 1987 to 1994.

“Mayor Fink was pretty strong in his opinions,” Mystrom said. “I think there were times, actually, he had more vetoes than any other mayor.”

Bill Faulkner was on the Assembly during the Fink administration, and said even amid vigorous disagreements on topics like naming the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts and extending employment protections to gay residents, the political climate never came close to what he’s observed in the recent mask debate.

“There was decorum,” Faulkner said.

Tension between the administration and Assembly, he said, was overblown in the press.

“It was hyped up because of the newspaper wars,” Faulkner said, referring to the battle for circulation supremacy between the Anchorage Daily News and Anchorage Times, whose editorial boards often represented opposing sides of the political spectrum.

But the work was pragmatic, and political theater from members was not tolerated. In Faulkner’s first term, with municipal revenues cratering from the collapse in oil prices, the body had to chop tens of millions out of the city’s operating budget.

“Everybody had to pony up,” Faulkner recalled. “There were no salvos being fired back and forth.”

“There’s just a divide”

Skirmishes in the Assembly were intensifying before the current spasm of discord and disobedience began last summer, when crowds started demanding city leaders abandon lock-down measures, then organizing on increasingly strident Facebook groups into what’s become a diffuse opposition movement rallying against masks and seeking to recall sitting members.

But the temperature’s been rising in local politics for more than a decade.

From 2008 to 2017, Patrick Flynn represented the same downtown seat once held by his mother, and early in his first term began getting visits from local Tea Party activists.

“They would show up at Assembly meetings, groups of them, and talk to us,” Flynn said. “They weren’t particularly obstreperous, but they would show up in their patriotic regalia and talk to us about the evil of government spending.”

The activists were not there about a particular piece of legislation, according to Flynn, but were politically engaging with the Assembly because that was the government entity that was locally available, even though the body’s main function is passing a budget for local services like policing, snow plowing and trail maintenance.

“There’s just a divide,” said Dick Traini, who maneuvered through term-limit loopholes to serve a cumulative 19 years on the body, and still watches every single meeting.

“My wife will tell you I’m addicted to it,” Traini said.

One of the reasons Traini believes the mask ordinance got so wild was that the Assembly members lost control of the meetings, a point echoed by several other prior members.

“I never would have let it get like this,” said Traini, who spent a total of 12 years as chair of the body. A maximalist when it comes to allowing public testimony, Traini disagreed with efforts to limit input from residents, but said he would have insisted on more decorum in the chamber from the outset. “It takes a long time to get control back.”

The major battles during his tenure include the 2009 vote over an equal rights ordinance that saw protracted public testimony from red shirt-wearing opponents, many of whom were bused into meetings from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Traini said, and blue shirt-wearing supporters. Some political veterans of the era refer to it as “the summer of hate” because of how vitriolic the testimony was. The Assembly passed the measure, but not with enough votes to override a veto issued by then-Mayor Dan Sullivan once he arrived in office.

Then came AO-37, an extended fight over labor contracts with public service employees that led to weeks of heated debate, and enough threats made against elected officials that there was a sizable contingent of police staged in the Loussac Library building when members voted on it.

“They did have a lot of officers there,” Traini said.

In 2015, an updated version of the equal rights ordinance was back in front of the Assembly, along with the red shirts on opponents. As in 2009, it passed the body, but this time with a veto-proof majority -- a moot point, since Berkowitz was by then in office and supported the extended protections.

The only members who voted against that ordinance were Eagle River’s Bill Starr and Amy Demboski, who now serves as municipal manager in the Bronson administration.

Addressing the crowd the night the measure passed, Demboski described it as “the tyranny of the Anchorage Assembly.”

That ordinance was introduced by Flynn and conservative South Anchorage Assembly member Bill Evans, who served a single term before opting not to run again in 2017, and unsuccessfully campaigning for mayor against Bronson and a field of other candidates in the last election.

“People just didn’t behave this way before,” Evans said of mask opponents during recent meetings. “You don’t have to allow abuse in order to confirm that it’s a valid government action.”

“There’s a certain level of civility and respect that has to take place in any sort of government process, any kind of public meeting like that,” Evans said.

He faulted Assembly leadership for losing control of the meetings but lays most of the blame at the conduct and tactics of the Bronson administration, particularly recent incidents like demanding a plastic COVID-19 barrier be carried off and dismissing security guards from the chamber.

“It seems to me the act of a petulant child just trying to make a point, like throwing a tantrum. It’s not designed to bring people together or reach resolution,” Evans said of gestures that he believes played more to the disruptive crowd than anything else. “It’s bad government and it’s appalling.”

His biggest source of disappointment with the recent turmoil is that it sucked up time and energy that could have been applied to the long list of challenges facing the municipality: homelessness, decreased investment, the fast-approaching process of proposing, amending and passing a balanced budget. Instead, Evans said, huge amounts of time and resources have been spent over a public health proposal that has spiraled into a political battle.

“It’s not a city that exhibits confidence,” he said. “We’re just harming the city by the way we’re behaving publicly.”

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