Fourth in a series of stories on the candidates for Anchorage mayor
Nine months into his tenure as president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, Andrew Halcro was hearing about problems in Town Square Park downtown.
Concerns about crime and drug activity had chamber members avoiding the park, Halcro said. Downtown merchants with storefronts near the park were worrying about business impacts. In speeches and posts online, Halcro began lambasting city leadership on public safety and police staffing.
It was one of several occasions in the last two years when Halcro, one of the front-runners in the Anchorage mayor's race, butted heads with Mayor Dan Sullivan and his administration.
Halcro's predecessors at the chamber did not have adversarial relationships with the mayor. But Halcro's tenure was not business as usual; he was an outspoken personality tasked with making the chamber more relevant to the Anchorage community.
Halcro's hiring, current and former members of the chamber's board of directors say, was part of a concerted effort to invest the chamber president with more authority. A former state representative, Halcro was familiar with state issues and had some prominence himself.
In effectively becoming the face of the chamber, Halcro took steps to tie issues like education, diversity and housing to the health of the local economy. In the aftermath of Anchorage's rejected gay rights measure, Halcro adopted an initiative encouraging businesses to embrace the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. He sought to link workforce development to the health of the education system and the local housing stock, forming partnerships and building on existing ones.
Current and former members of the chamber's board of directors say he was successful in raising the organization's profile.
"He's elevated our presence in the community," said Sandra Heffern, who was chair of the chamber's board of directors when Halcro was hired. "Now ... his opinion and the chamber's opinion is really sought after. And that's what we were looking for."
As it turned out, Halcro wasn't afraid to voice his opinion whether it was sought or not, which led to internal frictions with the chamber's board. But Halcro said he felt he eventually found a balance between his personal views and his public role.
An outspoken leader
Between 1998 and 2002, Halcro served in the state House of Representatives, then declined to seek re-election after two terms. When he decided to run as an independent candidate for governor in 2006, he stepped down as president and CEO of the Avis car rental franchise in Alaska, his family's business.
But he lost to Republican Sarah Palin, getting less than 10 percent of the vote in a three-way contest. Halcro returned to Avis, working on business development. He also started a political blog and became a prominent critic of Palin.
His wife, Vicki, saw the job posting for the chamber position online. Halcro was familiar with the chamber; his family's business had been members "forever."
When the chamber's search committee saw his application, the reaction was surprise, said Heffern, the former chair.
"What's he want, what's he doing this for?" Heffren recalled. "And then we were all really excited." In the interview, Halcro talked about his passion for policy and politics, Heffern said.
His hiring brought an end to his edgy political blog, andrewhalcro.com. (Though the website is no longer online, it's available on the Wayback Machine, web.archive.org.) In the blogosphere, Halcro published revelations that broke the "Troopergate" scandal, in which Palin tried to fire a state trooper who was involved in a custody battle with her sister. He also called Joe Miller an "admitted liar, cheat and fraud," criticized Palin's ACES oil tax structure, predicted the closure of the troubled Valley Dairy in the Mat-Su and railed against government waste.
Even without the blog, Halcro, as chamber president, didn't stop volunteering his opinions. On his Facebook page, Halcro repeatedly bashed a proposal from the Sullivan administration to use $10.5 million in state funds to build an indoor tennis facility in Anchorage.
Those stances caused "a lot of heartburn among some of my board members," Halcro said, especially in his first six months on the job.
In an interview, Sullivan said Halcro had also written opinion pieces and Facebook posts critical of the way his administration had dealt with Town Square Park and with Uber, the ride-sharing car service. Sullivan said Halcro never called him to talk about the city's involvement with the issues.
"I found that really disrespectful," said Sullivan, adding that he had had positive relationships with prior chamber presidents.
Focus on workforce development, diversity
Aside from taking critical stances on city issues, Halcro sought as chamber president to talk about the local economy in big-picture terms, with ties to education, diversity and housing affordability.
He chaired the "90 Percent by 2020" leadership group, which focuses on boosting graduation rates. He formed what some saw as a surprising partnership between the chamber and the local affiliate of a national teachers union, NEA-Alaska, to conduct a statewide student learning survey.
He also began to talk more about housing affordability and inventory, which were popping up for the first time as the top concerns of the members of the chamber. He sees housing and education as interrelated and points out that one in four students in the the Anchorage School District change schools every year.
As part of a focus on diversity, Halcro reached out to leaders from Anchorage minority groups and held a series of meetings with them. He said he found agreement on three main issues: housing affordability, education and economic opportunities.
As mayor, Halcro said, he would more strongly back existing efforts in education and housing, rather than creating his own initiatives.
"You don't need to recreate the wheel," Halcro said recently, sitting on his couch in his Sand Lake home. "You just need to give your full force behind initiatives that are already underway."
Halcro played a key role in promoting an initiative encouraging local businesses to embrace Anchorage's LGBT community. The effort, called One Anchorage, One Economy, came a year and a half after the city rejected a divisive gay rights ballot measure, and is aimed at emphasizing the importance of inclusiveness and nondiscrimination in the local economy.
In building momentum for the initiative, Halcro was "instrumental," said Drew Phoenix, executive director of Identity, a nonprofit supporting the LGBT community. Two years later, Identity and a state group, the Pride Foundation, have launched a survey tool for local businesses on LGBT-inclusive policies and practices in the workplace.
"Look, the world is changing. The city is changing," Halcro said. "I was hired to make the (chamber) relevant. You stay relevant by changing."