In the lead-up to Anchorage’s April 4 election, Assembly candidates across the political spectrum say voters in their districts are hungry for leaders who will move the city beyond the political toxicity of recent years.
Newly elected members will enter an arena that’s been fraught with distrust and hostility between the Assembly and mayor’s office, and volatile instability within Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration.
“I’m hearing over and over, people just want to see the city moving forward, that the conflict between the Assembly and the mayor — whoever they put fault on — everybody just wants it stopped,” said Karen Bronga, a candidate in East Anchorage.
In response, several more conservative candidates are attempting to distance their campaigns from the mayor. They’re saying they won’t be a “rubber stamp” for Bronson and will work with everyone on the Assembly.
That’s different from last year’s Assembly races, which saw a bloc of candidates voicing support for the mayor in a bid to break up the Assembly majority. In the end, only one of the four candidates who coordinated their campaigns, Randy Sulte, won.
Those running more aligned with the Assembly majority are also trying to strike a careful balance. Many are telling voters that they will focus on solutions and will work to leave the bitterness of the past behind, while continuing to hold Bronson accountable.
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City elections are nonpartisan, so candidates don’t run with an official political party affiliation.
Still, a group of candidates this year have strong conservative ties, and ties to the Bronson administration. They’ve coordinated some campaign and fundraising efforts, and six are using Axiom Strategies, a national firm specializing in Republican political campaigns.
West Anchorage candidate Brian Flynn, for example, has been appointed by Bronson to two city commissions and his wife, Rachelle Alger, is Bronson’s Purchasing Department director. Spencer Moore in East Anchorage has roots in Anchorage Baptist Temple, now called Mountain City Church, which has long held a prominent role in Alaska politics, supporting conservative candidates including Bronson. Moore is the church’s director of outreach and son-in-law to its head pastor. In South Anchorage, Rachel Ries has been endorsed by Bronson and was also appointed to a city commission by the mayor.
Opposing them are candidates campaigning to keep a majority on the Assembly similar to what’s in place now. They’re largely supported by outgoing Assembly members, Democratic politicians and union groups.
Running to the left of Flynn in one of the most competitive races, Anna Brawley has a host of endorsements and financial support from progressive political players, including unions, Anchorage Democrats and The Alaska Center. George Martinez, who is running against Moore in East Anchorage, has similar endorsements and financial support.
Zac Johnson in South Anchorage, locked in a competitive race with Ries, has endorsements and financial support from union groups, as well as backing from Republican state Sen. Cathy Giessel and independent Rep. Calvin Schrage.
No matter which candidates win, the Assembly’s membership after the election will be markedly different. With seven of 12 seats up for grabs and only two incumbents in this year’s race, the city will see at least five new members elected, and membership could change by more than half.
“The practical reality is that we’re going to have a new Assembly,” said Christopher Constant, Assembly vice chair and incumbent in the North Anchorage race. “And that’s good. That’s the promise of our civil democracy — that we have a built-in revolution every few years.”
‘People want the conflict to stop’
Political tensions in Anchorage have shot up under Bronson, escalating further as a series of controversies enveloped City Hall. Most notably, fired municipal manager Amy Demboski in a scathing letter accused Bronson and some of his officials of unethical behavior and illegal contracting, among other allegations.
The current Assembly has pushed forward with inquiries into the accusations and numerous complaints of a hostile work environment. The mayor has largely remained silent, and the Assembly has called on Bronson to publicly address the accusations, the high vacancy rates in city departments and a string of resignations and firings of his top executives.
The new members will shape how the Assembly moves forward.
“People want the conflict to stop. But then, how much do you sacrifice the real role of public oversight and public accountability that the Assembly is supposed to bring?” said Brawley.
First-time candidates Brawley and Flynn are competing for a West Anchorage seat that will be vacated by member Austin Quinn-Davidson, who opted not to seek a third term. Brawley, whose policies are loosely aligned with Quinn-Davidson’s, is an urban planner, project management consultant and a former secretary and president of the Turnagain Community Council. Flynn is a small-business owner with a background in real estate and treasurer of the Bayshore-Klatt Community Council.
Both said they’ve heard a clear message from residents while door-knocking: People are tired and frustrated with the current political dynamics.
Over the last few months, “neither side seems to be willing to kind of bridge the gap and actually have conversations to stop it. And you don’t really feel as though things are getting done,” Flynn said.
Brawley said, “even if, for example, they are frustrated with the mayor, want to see him held accountable and support what the Assembly’s doing so far — even those folks I think are frustrated, just feeling like things aren’t moving forward.”
Flynn is a more conservative candidate who has a relationship with the mayor. Since taking office, Bronson has appointed Flynn to the Heritage Land Bank Advisory Commission and the Budget Advisory Commission. In addition to his wife’s role as Bronson’s Purchasing Department director, Bronson has supported Flynn’s campaign. Flynn has held fundraising events with the mayor listed as a co-host.
[2 incumbent school board members face challengers in upcoming Anchorage election]
However, Flynn said he hasn’t sought Bronson’s formal endorsement.
“There’s been events that he has attended of mine,” Flynn said. “We have people in common, I guess you could say, but no, he has not endorsed me.”
Many outgoing and incumbent Assembly members said they think alignment with the mayor is likely to harm candidates in the race.
“The public is not, as a whole, a big fan of Dave Bronson right now. And I think that those candidates who are aligned with him, either explicitly or through their policy priorities, will probably not fare well in this election,” said Quinn-Davidson. “We saw a real repudiation of his style and priorities in our last election, and I think we’ll see that again.”
Quinn-Davidson, who served as acting mayor after former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s resignation, said she’s supporting Brawley in the race. Similar to Flynn, Brawley was appointed to the Budget Advisory Commission in 2020 by Quinn-Davidson as the city’s then-acting mayor.
Distancing from Bronson
Both of the more conservative candidates in East Anchorage, Moore and Leigh Sloan, haven’t sought Bronson’s endorsement. Two seats are up for election in the district.
“There’s just a lot of people in my district that don’t like what the mayor has done,” said Moore. “And so for me, I didn’t want to seek the endorsement. I just said, ‘You know what, I don’t think it’s going to be valuable to my voters.’ ”
Moore said many people still have questions about the accusations made against the administration.
“I don’t want to be tied to that. I want to be independent. I want to run my own race,” he said.
Sloan is running to the right of opponent Bronga for the other East Anchorage seat. For Sloan’s campaign, the mayor’s endorsement wasn’t relevant, she said. “We need to just remain as objective as we can about what’s happening right now,” she said.
Sloan, who has been a school choice and parents rights advocate, said she may agree with some of Bronson’s choices and the philosophy behind his policies.
“But yet I also want to see him be more transparent,” she said. “I feel like there are some issues that we’re going to have to address with him. I mean, it’s pretty obvious. And so I don’t want to be a rubber stamp.”
During last year’s Assembly race, Sloan managed the campaign of East Anchorage candidate Stephanie Taylor, who was closely aligned with Bronson and lost to former Assembly member Forrest Dunbar.
Dunbar, now a Democratic state senator, has endorsed Bronga, a longtime educator in the Anchorage School District and officer of the Scenic Foothills Community Council, in this year’s race.
[Anchorage’s municipal clerk, who manages city elections, is set to retire this summer]
South Anchorage Assembly candidate Ries is one of few candidates who has Bronson’s endorsement this election. Ries served in the National Guard and as a commissioned officer in the Army, serving in Afghanistan in 2012 as a medevac pilot. She unsuccessfully ran for school board last year, also with Bronson’s support, and the mayor appointed her to the city’s Budget Advisory Commission.
“I’ve been lambasted, continuously, for people thinking I’m 100% aligned with Mayor Bronson, and I’m not,” Ries said.
Bronson’s wife, Debra Bronson, has donated $500 each to Ries and Travis Szanto, who is running against incumbent Felix Rivera to represent Midtown.
Possible Assembly ‘sea change’
Though some are distancing themselves from the mayor, more conservative candidates have also been more openly critical of the current Assembly than their counterparts running to the left — who, in turn, are more critical of Bronson.
The Assembly has held a voting bloc supermajority that’s allowed it to act as a strong check on the mayor, overriding numerous vetoes from Bronson and, recently, enacting emergency measures to rein in the mayor’s spending power.
Whether that left-of-center majority will persist is an open question.
“There’s a potential for a sea change here,” Ries said.
Ries’ opponent, Zac Johnson, who is more aligned with the current Assembly, said that with so many new faces, the status quo won’t continue, nor does he think the Assembly will take a 180-degree shift in direction.
“It’s going to be a new Assembly this spring, one way or another,” said Johnson, a former officer and pilot with the Alaska State Troopers. He’s volunteered as a firefighter/EMT with Girdwood Volunteer Fire and Rescue and he served in the Marine Corps, including two deployments to Iraq.
Rivera, who is running for reelection in Midtown, said he hopes the Assembly is able to keep a majority “that can keep the city functioning, that can hold this mayor accountable and that can really dive into the policy details, really sort things out, and come to some type of alignment.”
Szanto, his opponent running to the right, said people in Midtown are upset with the divisiveness in Anchorage’s government. Szanto is a carpenter and local subcontractor who’s been featured on reality TV shows.
“It’s very hard to actually figure out what the truth is. And I’m interested in the facts and the truth. And if there has been any actual wrongdoing with the administration, then I think they should be held accountable, but it needs to be based on facts,” he said.
But the Assembly, as well, should be held responsible for its actions, he said.
One of Constant’s opponents, John Trueblood, an electrician and project administrator with the state, said he sees Constant and other current or recently departed Assembly members as largely responsible for problems the city is facing, such as stalling on homelessness solutions.
“I’m hoping we can get a little bit more balance to the Assembly. I hate to say ‘balance’ because it seems like every candidate says it,” Trueblood said. “... I’m new to it all. But I’m learning that it’s very one-sided.”
Trueblood doesn’t have endorsements, he said.
“But I would be the opposite of my candidate that I’m running against. Whatever (Constant) is, I would be opposite,” Trueblood said.
In East Anchorage, George Martinez is running against Moore for member Pete Petersen’s seat, who’s reached his three-term limit.
Martinez, a mayoral candidate in the 2021 race, worked as a special assistant to former Mayor Berkowitz. That’s given him some insight into the current power dynamics, he said.
“The Assembly has, in many ways, been forced to overextend the basic functionalities and lean heavily on the checks and balances functionality of government, because of some of the lack of experience and overt, kind of just bad-faith policy from the administration,” Martinez said.
“That is the stewardship and responsibility of the legislative branch in the face of what we’re seeing from a dysfunctional executive, by all accounts,” Martinez said.
Martinez, former president of the Northeast Community Council, said he’s taking a “bringing people together” approach to his campaign, and hopes to improve communication and collaboration with the administration with an “open-door policy.”
‘Trying to move forward’
The approaches that candidates will actually take on issues once elected remain to be seen, Constant said.
“You can’t assume where their votes are going to fall,” Constant said. “It’s going to take a measure of time for us to understand each other’s processes, how we make decisions, and where our values really lie. Campaigns are just job interviews.”
Most Assembly candidates are running for public office for the first time.
“We’re going to be all having to learn this together,” said Bronga.
Those elected will face a big learning curve for the first few months in office, Rivera said.
“I think there is a lot of misconception about the current majority of the Assembly, in that we are in lockstep with each other. It may appear that way. The fact is, that lockstep is hard-fought in every decision that we make on this body,” Rivera said.
The new faces might help ease tensions, candidates say.
“People say, ‘Well, we won’t have as much experience,’ but I think the tradeoff of not having all the bad blood between us might help,” Sloan said.
“There’s an opportunity to — not to have a complete reset — but to at least say we’re not bringing in some of the baggage from the last few years,” Brawley said. “We are learning what’s happening right now, trying to start from where we are, and trying to move forward.”