In a divided city, Anchorage’s new mayor will face a tough challenge immediately

The election has yet to be certified, but all indications are that Dave Bronson has prevailed in his campaign for Anchorage mayor — a fact that even his opponent Forrest Dunbar acknowledged late in the week. Assuming the result holds, it marks the end of a divisive, bruising mayoral fight that has left half of Anchorage’s residents on one side of a yawning partisan gulf, and the remainder on the other. Those divisions, which were instrumental in energizing Bronson’s voting base as a candidate, may be his biggest problem going forward as mayor-elect.

The pandemic — and the Anchorage municipal government’s response to it — has been polarizing for residents. The reaction to health mandates issued by former mayor Ethan Berkowitz and the Assembly was, according to Bronson himself, the reason he decided to seek office. And for the past year, it has been some of Bronson’s most ardent supporters who have showed up en masse to Assembly meetings, delivering invective testimony, protesting and even burning a mask during the proceedings. As mayor, Bronson will have to balance the wishes of those supporters with those of the rest of the municipality — including the nearly 50% who supported a candidate Bronson and his supporters vilified.

It is that responsibility — to govern for all of the city, not just one’s own supporters — that makes holding the office so much more difficult than running for it. It’s possible to act as though those supporters are the only constituents who matter, and some politicians do. But the sharp ones realize that to move a city forward, that’s the wrong tack. And not just because being responsive to all residents is the right thing to do: The political reality is that Bronson will accomplish little if he isn’t willing to work with the Assembly. And the Assembly much more closely resembles the half of the municipality that voted for his opponent.

Another reality that Bronson will need to contend with: The members of the Assembly have valuable experience that he would be wise to draw upon in setting out his agenda. Though the mayor-elect ran for an Assembly seat a decade ago, he has never held elected office, and in a city government as sprawling as ours, there’s a steep learning curve. Rather than settling scores with Assembly members who didn’t support his candidacy, Bronson would be wise to start by seeking common ground where he can, or he’ll have a tough time translating any of his plans from vision to reality.

Fortunately, there’s more common ground than the rhetoric of the campaign would lead you to believe, and Bronson knows it. In a meeting with the ADN editorial board, he estimated that he and Dunbar agreed on about 80% of municipal policy, but the focus during campaigns is almost always the smaller portion where political rivals differ. As he learns and grows into this role, he should focus on that 80% as a starting point for getting Anchorage’s civic discourse back on track.

One major positive going forward: Absent a serious reversal of fortune in the COVID-19 pandemic, Anchorage is tantalizingly close to normal, with few restrictions remaining on residents’ everyday behavior. That should cool political temperatures significantly — perhaps Assembly meetings will return to their former relative placidity. But there’s plenty of mop-up work to be done, from continued vaccination efforts to allocating relief funds and trying to get the municipality’s economic engine firing on all cylinders after the massive disruption of the pandemic. In order for Anchorage to move forward, we’ll need a mayor and Assembly who can work with one another, regardless of ideological differences. That work should start today, because there’s plenty of ground to cover.