In late January, a state court ruled that the attempted recall of Anchorage Assembly Chair Felix Rivera can go forward. Using almost identical reasoning to the courts’ decisions in the lawsuit over the recall of Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Superior Court Judge Dani Crosby said that it’s up to Midtown Anchorage voters to decide whether the grounds stated by recall proponents are sufficient cause to remove Rivera from office. It’s not a coincidence that the decisions in the two cases were so similar — under Alaska law, although recalls must have cause, there is no minimum threshold for that cause. And although under the Alaska Constitution, voters are meant to decide the recall on the legal grounds stated, in practice, it’s a referendum on how voters feel about Rivera and Dunleavy.
Were voters to somehow put on blinders and judge whether to recall Rivera and Dunleavy based solely on the merits of the allegations against them, there can be little doubt that neither would succeed. In Dunleavy’s case, what’s at issue is the delayed appointment of a Palmer judge, a politically motivated veto — since restored — of $334,700 from the court system’s budget, some partisan mailers purchased with state funds, and a mistaken veto — since corrected — of $18 million from state Medicaid funds. The grounds for recalling Rivera are similarly narrow, although factually in dispute; recall proponents say he let an Assembly meeting continue for a few minutes with 17 people in the chambers, in violation of a municipal executive order capping the size of in-person gatherings at 15.
But here’s the truth: Regardless of the ostensible justification for the respective recalls, their true motivations are political. Put simply, those who organized the recalls, despite having opposite political preferences, share a desire to remove officials from office whose views and policy vision they don’t like. In both cases, it boils down to simply trying to take a mulligan on election results.
The reason why that’s unfortunate, in both cases, is that the most severe penalty possible for elected officials is being wielded exclusively as a political weapon by their opponents, rather than trying to work through the issues truly at play. In Rivera’s case, those supporting the recall care very little about the potential for there having been a couple extra people in the Assembly chambers. They’re upset about pandemic restrictions put in place by Anchorage’s municipal government, as well as a plan to address homelessness by adding shelter and treatment capacity in Midtown, close to some irate residents’ homes. As for Dunleavy, although recall proponents do take issue with the governor on the stated grounds, the heart of the motivation for the recall has always been the governor’s penchant for major cuts. That’s why the initial fervor for the recall lost much of its steam in early 2020: That year, unlike in 2019, the governor proposed a largely status-quo budget.
What’s being lost in the rush to remove elected officials from their positions is the willingness to engage on political matters with others who don’t share your views. It’s a distressingly common phenomenon on both sides of the political aisle. Rather than educating the public on the impact of Dunleavy’s cuts and urging neighbors to make their views known to legislators who control the state’s purse-strings, recall proponents would rather promote the chimeric fantasy that a Kevin Meyer administration would somehow be vastly preferable to the status quo. And similarly, Rivera’s detractors are all too happy to brand him a fascist and accost Assembly members at the top of their lungs, rather than offer the municipality a realistic alternative that accomplishes the shared goals of improvement on homelessness issues and a path to recovery from the pandemic. In both cases, this sledgehammer approach is unwarranted and comes at the expense of civility, and practical problem-solving.
We’ve receded into our respective “Recall Dunleavy” and “Save Anchorage” Facebook groups, and the result has been that we no longer talk to those on the other side of the political fence, except to declare them misguided, stupid or even evil. If we really want Alaska to do better than this, the answer isn’t ramming our agenda down the throats of those we disagree with. The answer isn’t brandishing political weapons of mass destruction as an overt show of force and an implicit threat. The answer is for each of us, individually, to step back from the brink, and demand that those who represent us do the same. Alaska and Anchorage are made up of many communities, but they’re also one community, and we all have to live here with one another.
It’s time we started acting like it.