In mayoral debate, candidates clash over Bronson’s record and Assembly’s role in it

The four main candidates for Anchorage mayor sparred over the Bronson administration’s record during a forum Tuesday, clashing repeatedly over who bears responsibility for worsening problems like homelessness, housing and snowplowing.

The midday debate, sponsored by the Anchorage Board of Realtors and Alaska Mortgage Bankers Association at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub, included incumbent Mayor Dave Bronson, former Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance, former Anchorage Economic Development Corp. president Bill Popp and former Alaska House Majority Leader Chris Tuck.

Though remarks remained civil and never spilled into outright insults, subtle digs and innuendo gave way at times to overt attacks on Bronson’s tenure. The mayor in turn defended his record and deflected blame for municipal problems toward the Assembly and political opponents.

Toward the end of the event, candidates got the chance to each pose a question to another. It began with LaFrance asking Bronson whether he felt coverage of his administration’s high rate of turnover was fair.

“It takes a while to build a team,” Bronson said, adding that over the last year, fewer high-level staffers have departed and that he now feels enormous confidence in the abilities of top deputies.

“It shouldn’t take three years to build a team,” LaFrance responded.

Bronson’s rebuttal included a perspective he raised multiple times during the 90-minute event: that he’s had to contend with a supermajority on the 12-member Assembly that was intent on sabotaging him and obstructing his administration’s agenda, at one point referring to them as “nine radical leftists” united in their goal “to make us fail” for the sake of political opportunism.


“The collaborative process has to go both ways,” Bronson said at one point during the debate.

Popp also posed his question to Bronson, asking the mayor how his “partisan approach” to politics had benefited the city.

Bronson rejected the premise, saying that all sitting members of the Assembly have visited his City Hall office at least once, and that while disagreements with the legislative branch tend to get most of the attention, he aligns with even his ideological opposites on plenty of city business, from routine contracts to laudatory resolutions.

“This notion I’m always fighting with the Assembly, I disagree,” Bronson said.

He said he believes the Assembly is often wrong on issues and that some spirited dispute is healthy.

“Complete collaboration with the Assembly is single-party government. That’s what you’re going to get, to varying degrees, to my right,” Bronson said, referring to the three candidates seated to the right of him onstage.

In his response and subsequent remarks, Popp tried to position himself as above administrative skirmishes with the Assembly, saying the “mayor’s office should be apolitical.”

“What we’re seeing is an administration that doesn’t have trust with the Assembly,” Popp said.

During his closing remarks, Popp chastised Bronson for “labeling nine Assembly members liberal radicals,” saying it demeaned the residents of the districts that voted them into office.

Homelessness was another point of contention. Bronson defended his record in several ways. He pointed out that much of the public’s conversation around homelessness centers on highly visible people living rough in camps or panhandling at intersections. The much larger portion of people struggling with shelter and long-term housing are engaged with a system that is, he said, working well at keeping them off the streets, even if those results are not readily apparent to the public.

Bronson pivoted to relitigate one of his signature efforts to address the problem, a proposed shelter at Tudor and Elmore roads that he initially promised would house some 1,000 people and give the city legal cover to clear homeless camps without violating federal court rulings. The Assembly advanced that plan for over a year, but in a significantly scaled-down version that would have accommodated 150 to 200 people. That ground to a halt when it came to light that the administration had violated contracting rules and green-lit millions of dollars in construction that the Assembly had never approved.

Bronson underplayed the significance of the saga, characterizing the procurement problems as minor clerical errors.

“We did our mea culpa, we said we made a mistake. ... They killed the project,” he said.

Bronson’s own question was posed to LaFrance, asking her if, after initially casting votes in support of the Tudor-Elmore project, she regretted ultimately voting to end it.

LaFrance said the original concept of a “mega-shelter” was a bad idea, and that even if the Sprung tent structure had come online it would not have comprehensively solved the city’s homelessness problems. On top of that, she added, the administration failed to come up with clear plans for running it or paying operating costs, and the price estimates for the project kept ballooning.

“I regret that my optimism let it move forward at all,” she said.

LaFrance also criticized the administration’s handling of homelessness more broadly.


“The approach of the last few years has cost us time, and money, and lives. We need to get out of crisis mode,” LaFrance said.

Bronson colored LaFrance and the Assembly’s votes to shelve the shelter as a disingenuous bait-and-switch.

“They weren’t going to approve it no matter what,” he said.

This is the third forum in which the four candidates have appeared together. All have, to varying degrees, repeated talking points and campaign rhetoric. LaFrance’s opening remarks include a line that the city needs a mayor focused on “competence and good governance.” The Bronson administration has been more than once accused of unethical and illegal behavior and self-dealing.

The language echoes a slogan deployed by the 907 Initiative, an independent expenditure group that describes itself as a government watchdog and has put up billboards in the city reading “Incompetence has a price tag” beside a photo of Bronson. The group has used the same messaging in digital ads and direct mail sent to Anchorage residents as part of what it calls “an extended accountability campaign educating Anchorage residents on the cost of incompetence from Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson.”

Bronson said “the notion of incompetence” was nothing but politics by a political outfit, and that in spite of attacks and sustained opposition he had managed to assemble an administration capable of getting important work done for the city.

“It was difficult, almost impossible, in this political environment,” he said.

The one candidate who did not wander into the fray was Tuck, who tended to stress themes of unity and collaboration as a solution to policy disputes and major social problems.


“We want to make sure we have more involvement in our government, not less involvement,” Tuck said in his opening remarks to the crowd of some 150 people.

Tuck used his opportunity for a question to pose what he called “a softball” to LaFrance, asking if she could identify positive steps Bronson had taken while in office. LaFrance responded the mayor had done a good job keeping the modernization project at the Port of Alaska on track, taking the opportunity to note that many of the major initiatives dated back to the last mayoral administration.

“For the most part Mr. Bronson has continued to carry that forward for the port,” LaFrance said.

Six other people have filed with the city to appear on the ballot: Darin Colbry, Breck Craig, Dustin Darden, Nick Danger, Jenny Di Grappa and Phil Isley.

Ballots will be mailed to voters on March 12. The last day to vote is April 2.

Zachariah Hughes

Zachariah Hughes covers Anchorage government, the military, dog mushing, subsistence issues and general assignments for the Anchorage Daily News. He also helps produce the ADN's weekly politics podcast. Prior to joining the ADN, he worked in Alaska’s public radio network, and got his start in journalism at KNOM in Nome.