In his first extended interview with the Daily News since taking office, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson expressed confidence that he has a path to winning reelection. He also acknowledged some missteps during his two years in office, such as directing vitriol toward the Assembly early in his term.
Bronson’s campaign for mayor capitalized on criticisms of city officials at the time and controversy over various crises facing Anchorage, including the pandemic. In 2021, he inherited leadership of a city that was economically battered and facing mounting issues with homelessness.
The mayor’s office had previously turned down multiple interview requests from the Daily News on a variety of topics. But during the wide-ranging July 24 interview, which lasted a little over half an hour, Bronson reflected on his time in office, speaking about the city’s homelessness and housing challenges — including suggesting buying one-way plane tickets for unhoused people as a partial solution to the looming need for winter shelter.
He also discussed the results of the last two Assembly elections, his reelection campaign, Anchorage’s vote-by-mail election system and the city’s recent troubles with snow plowing.
In Bronson’s first several months as mayor, the conservative mayor and the Assembly’s moderate-to-progressive majority fought bitterly.
“We were new to politics,” Bronson said. “So I think in the beginning, I wouldn’t have been as contentious with the Assembly. That doesn’t mean I should have done anything differently. But the hyperbole ramped up on both sides coming out of COVID. It just kind of carried on.”
They clashed over homelessness policy and his proposal for a 1,000-bed shelter in East Anchorage, and also over numerous Bronson appointees — several of whom Assembly members refused to confirm, voting them down and citing concerns over appointees’ experience and qualifications.
When the Assembly proposed an ordinance to require masking after Alaska’s largest hospital implemented crisis standards of care amid surging COVID-19 hospitalizations, Bronson and many of his supporters vehemently opposed it. There was a series of chaotic and crowded meetings stretching over two weeks, filled with angry outbursts and arrests, as opposition rallied in attempt to filibuster the proposal.
The meetings were “very contentious,” Bronson said. “And that seemed to have a gravity and it just continued on. I should have done more to tamp that down.”
Now, Bronson said, he is encouraged by a much-improved working relationship with the Anchorage Assembly and its leadership. Most disagreements arise over homelessness policy, he said. “And, because it is contentious, we have maybe a different ethos on how we should be dealing with that,” he said. “But on the other things, we agree on a lot. Because, you watch, the work just gets done. I veto very little anymore. In fact, I can’t remember my last veto. We started off doing a lot of them, because we were fighting so much.”
(Bronson issued around 30 vetoes in his first six months in office, including about two dozen line-item and amendment vetoes to the city budget, most of which the Assembly voted to override.)
‘I think I have a lot to offer’
Of his campaign for reelection, Bronson said, “I think I have a lot to offer the city. We’ve kind of got a lot of the kinks worked out. And, you know, that’s normal with a new administration, and a lot of us were new to politics and government itself. And so I think we’re getting on step.”
He’ll face some recognizable opposition during the April 2024 city election. Former Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance, who presided over those contentious meetings, announced she is running against Bronson. Former state legislator Chris Tuck has also announced a run for mayor.
“We, quite frankly, are a countervailing force against, I think, what I would consider a fairly ‘woke,’ left Assembly, by and large. And I think it’s important that you have balance in government. I think we provide that balance,” Bronson said.
During the two city elections held since Bronson took office, most conservative and Bronson-backed candidates for Assembly lost their races to more moderate or progressive opponents, including all but one incumbent. This April, six of seven conservative contenders lost. For that, the mayor blamed voter turnout among conservatives.
“If you look at the voter turnout on the right, I just think people just failed to show up. I mean, if you’re going to play the game, you’ve got to show up. And this is the most important game there is, I think,” Bronson said.
He criticized the city’s election system, which includes vote-by-mail, and said that distrust in it may be discouraging conservatives from voting.
“What motivates them to not show up when they traditionally did? I don’t know. It might be a lack of trust in the system itself. I don’t know. One may feed the other. But you don’t have a chance of making things better or advancing your cause if you don’t participate,” the mayor said. “I’m a super voter. I always vote.”
After the 2022 city election, which saw several Assembly incumbents reelected, Bronson launched an inquiry. He cited complaints from election observers — including a former chief of staff to Bronson, Sami Graham — and called for a third-party, out-of-state audit of the city’s election technology.
However, during the interview, Bronson said he has “no proof whatsoever” that the last few elections “haven’t been done freely and fairly.”
“... Do I think we should go back to day-of voting, the old way? Yeah, I do. Because it’s far less expensive. And it’s far quicker in getting the vote results out,” he said. “But as far as cheating, I don’t — I just don’t see it, I’ll be honest with you.”
The mayor’s office has largely stayed silent on an election matter under investigation by the city ombudsman: In April, Graham, who resigned as chief of staff in 2021, challenged the city election. She and two other observers quoted an improperly created internal policy, which Bronson’s director of information technology quietly added and emailed to Graham on the same day she filed the election appeal.
When Assembly leaders pressed for answers during a recent meeting, Bronson’s current chief of staff acknowledged the policy was improperly created and said the director is on administrative leave. Bronson wasn’t present.
Assembly leaders had sent Bronson a letter calling for answers and asking his officials to attend. Asked about the incident during the interview, Bronson did not give an opinion on the situation and said he didn’t know about the work session on the incident.
“I think I’ll let the process work its way through on that one. I wasn’t informed of what was going on,” Bronson said. “And I just didn’t know there was a work session on this on Friday, and that’s fine. I was gone. Again, that’s, I guess, an HR issue. I’ll let that play itself out one way or another, because I don’t have any information on it, so I’m not going to comment on it.”
‘A tough business to be in’
The mayor has also seen many of his top officials depart since taking office — including his high-profile firing of Municipal Manager Amy Demboski and the resignation of several of his chiefs of staff, human resources director Niki Tshibaka, multiple department heads and, soon, his two spokesmen. Asked about high turnover in his administration, Bronson said previous mayors also saw officials leaving and said it had been blown out of proportion by the news media.
“This is a tough business to be in,” he said, and added, “I’m actually very happy with who we have right now.”
At another point in the interview, Bronson acknowledged continuing disagreements with Assembly members over homelessness policy, expressing frustration over the city’s inability to clear encampments in parks and on public lands.
“Our citizens, our taxpaying citizens, are paying the price for not creating a large shelter. It’s a numbers game at the end of the day. If I get enough shelter, if I get 776 shelter beds, then I can enforce our vagrancy laws. And I can say, ‘You can’t be on public land anymore.’ And until we get to that threshold — it’s a magic point — I can’t do anything,” Bronson said.
A U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision largely prevents cities from dismantling homeless camps when no alternative indoor shelter is available.
The mayor has long pushed for the city to build a large homeless shelter and navigation facility in East Anchorage near Tudor and Elmore roads. The Assembly scaled down his initial proposal to 150 beds, but the project has sat dormant for months after Bronson officials bungled the contracting process. The Assembly is scheduled to vote in August on a proposal to revive it, but members say they harbor serious concerns over ballooning costs and little funding so far identified.
For now, the city is working to mitigate impacts to neighborhoods and businesses of widespread unsheltered homelessness, Bronson said.
“We’ve got a great team at Parks and Rec, that helps; great team at the Health Department, that helps,” Bronson said. “But at the end of the day, to get the taxpayers to where, to what we want to do — what’s best for the whole city, to include the unsheltered people — we’ve got to build a large shelter, because the law compels us to do that. And the Assembly has decided not to do that.”
Another area where the mayor drew significant criticism was the city’s struggle to keep up with snow plowing last winter. Bronson acknowledged that the city fell short, though he said back-to-back snowstorms caused severe difficulty, and said he has a new plan going forward.
“It was a historic snowfall. It was a 40- or 50- year snowfall,” he said. “And could we have done better? Certainly. It’s my responsibility to plow snow and fix potholes and things like that, ultimately. I budget for that, and we added about a million dollars to that budget for the next year.”
Bronson said that in January, he directed a roundtable meeting to discuss how to bolster the city’s snow plow plans, and a report is “due out in a few weeks.”
“This is going to be a pretty significant change. We want to get back to where we were in 2011. We had a very robust snow plowing plan. And we kind of evolved away from that in the mid-teens. We want to get back to that, which allowed flexibility.”
Daily News reporter Zachariah Hughes contributed.