With ‘moral authority’ compromised in a pandemic, Anchorage mayor steps away

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz at a COVID-19 press conference in Anchorage in March.
Mayor Ethan Berkowitz at a COVID-19 press conference in Anchorage in March. (Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz resigned Tuesday, a day after acknowledging what he described as a consensual, inappropriate messaging relationship with a television anchor.

Berkowitz’s chief of staff, Jason Bockenstedt, made the announcement at Tuesday evening’s Assembly meeting, where members were set to consider a request to extend the mayor’s emergency powers to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It is with profound sadness and humility that I resign as the mayor of the municipality of Anchorage,” Bockenstedt read from the statement. 

“My resignation results from unacceptable personal conduct that has compromised my ability to perform my duties with the focus and trust that is required. I know my conduct has done great injury to my family, my staff, to municipal employees and to the people of our community, and for that I am deeply sorry.”

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz's chief of staff, Jason Bockenstedt, at the Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020.
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s chief of staff, Jason Bockenstedt, at the Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. Bockenstedt announced Berkowitz’s resignation at the meeting. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Berkowitz’s resignation is effective Oct. 23 at 6 p.m., Bockenstedt said. 

The mayor’s decision leaves a leadership void in Alaska’s largest city as daily COVID-19 cases climb to record highs — and as Anchorage remains deeply divided over the measures Berkowitz’s administration has taken to fight the pandemic.

In a vivid illustration of just how deep those divisions run, the audience at Tuesday’s meeting burst into boisterous cheers as Bockenstedt announced Berkowitz’s resignation. Many of those in attendance had gathered to oppose the extension of the mayor’s emergency powers, and their celebration interrupted Bockenstedt and prompted a rebuke from Assembly Chair Felix Rivera. 

“This needs to end,” Rivera said.

People clap at the Anchorage Assembly meeting.
People in the audience at the Anchorage Assembly meeting erupted into applause and cheers after Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz’s resignation was announced. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The mayor’s resignation is the latest chapter in a scandal that unfolded over the last several days. It began Friday when Maria Athens, an anchor for a small Anchorage television station, posted allegations on her Facebook page that Berkowitz had shared inappropriate photos on an “underage girl’s website.” 

Athens, 41, then published a photo of a nude man, taken from behind, who she claimed was the mayor. After initially denying Athens’ allegations Friday, Berkowitz acknowledged in a statement late Monday that the two had carried on the messaging relationship. 

A few hours after that, a political blog, the Alaska Landmine, published a recording of a profanity-laced voicemail that Athens left Berkowitz Friday morning. In the voicemail, Athens threatened to kill Berkowitz and his wife and used anti-Semitic slurs.

After learning of the allegations against the mayor, his executive team decided to create a “firewall” between Berkowitz and the rest of city government, Municipal Manager Bill Falsey said at Tuesday’s meeting.

RELATED: Anchorage mayor apologizes for years-old “inappropriate messaging relationship”

Falsey, who is a candidate in next year’s mayoral election, said he told the city police chief to proceed “by the book,” adding that a subsequent investigation by Anchorage police and the FBI found “no evidence of criminal conduct on the part of the mayor.” 

In its own statement Tuesday, the FBI said it found “no immediate evidence to support a violation of federal law; however, the FBI Anchorage Field Office continues to monitor the situation.”

Anchorage city manager Bill Falsey at the Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. 
Anchorage city manager Bill Falsey at the Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Falsey said top city officials discussed the situation and came to the conclusion that “it would be untenable for the mayor to continue in his role.”

“The mayor independently arrived at the same conclusion,” Falsey said.

Berkowitz, 58, was not in the Assembly meeting room Tuesday evening. He was first elected in 2015, re-elected in 2018 and barred by term limits from running for a third term next year.

Under Anchorage city code, the chair of the Assembly serves as acting mayor in the event of a vacancy. 

While Rivera currently holds that position, Assembly members said in interviews Tuesday that it’s likely the Assembly would reorganize if Berkowitz resigned, and the body could choose a different chair to serve as acting mayor.

If the vacancy occurs more than 90 days before a regularly-scheduled election, a special election would need to be held. Since the regular election isn’t until April, that’s likely the case with Berkowitz’s resignation. But Rivera said he’s still waiting for a legal analysis to determine whether the Assembly must hold a special election.

While some of Berkowitz’s critics called for his resignation earlier in the day, Assembly members had said they were more focused on Tuesday’s meeting and the question of the extension of the mayor’s emergency powers. But even in that context, it was clear that Berkowitz’s admission had complicated his ability to lead the city through the pandemic.

Protesters gather outside of Anchorage Assembly Chambers on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, holding flags and signs.
Protesters gather outside of Anchorage Assembly Chambers on Tuesday. Some called for an end to the mayor’s emergency powers, some for his resignation and others for an end to coronavirus-related restrictions. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media) 

The revelation of the mayor’s affair came at a delicate moment for Anchorage, with scores of stressed businesses, high unemployment and COVID-19 case counts at record highs heading into the winter season. 

Elected officials and political observers described the news as a painful distraction that would undercut the mayor’s leadership as he attempted to guide the city through the polarized politics of the pandemic.

“It’s disappointing. I think it’ll hurt,” John Weddleton, one of the two Assembly members representing South Anchorage, said in an interview before Tuesday’s meeting. “You need a lot of moral authority to make decisions that are as hard as the closures and various mandates have been. This happened years ago, but still, it’s today’s news. And I think it weakens that authority a bit, when it was already a challenge.”

In the lead-up to Tuesday’s meeting, Assembly members were fielding angry emails from constituents opposed to the extension of the mayor’s authority, many of which referenced his admission of the affair. One cited the fact that Berkowitz vehemently denied Athens’ allegations about the underage website on Friday only to admit to their messaging relationship three days later. 

“A man that would deny any portion of what was revealed by Maria Athens and then three days later reverse his statement, acknowledging his moral transgressions, cannot be trusted to solely govern our city. His judgment is poor,” wrote Kristen Bush. “He has zero plausible deniability and the public doesn’t trust him. It’s now obvious that he has weak character, questionable personal decisions and likely that inability to discern right from wrong seeps into his decisions as mayor.”

People line up to provide public testimony at the Anchorage Assembly meeting.
People line up to provide public testimony at the Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Bernadette Wilson, a prominent conservative critic of the mayor who once hosted a radio show with him, told the Assembly Tuesday: “I would like to commend the mayor for stepping down; it was definitely a little awkward to be told to wear a mask by a guy who didn’t even wear pants.”

In an interview, Wilson said she would continue to attend Assembly meetings to put pressure on the members to rescind coronavirus-related restrictions. Protesters gathered outside of Assembly chambers Tuesday also called for an end to the mayor’s emergency powers, for the reopening of schools and for Berkowitz’s resignation. 

“The mayoral election will definitely be a huge pivotal point in this, but until then we’ll have to keep fighting one Assembly meeting at a time,” Wilson said.

In an interview the day before Berkowitz agreed to step down, left-leaning political consultant Jim Lottsfeldt said he thought the mayor’s resignation was inevitable. The public focus on Berkowitz’s conduct, Lottsfeldt said, would be too much to escape.

“It will just grind the city to a halt. He’ll have to get out of the way,” Lottsfeldt said. “We have a full-time mayor. And I don’t think he can execute the job while juggling a chainsaw with his other hand — which is what this is going to be.”

Alaska Public Media reporters Tegan Hanlon and Lex Treinen contributed to this report. 

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist. He's been a reporter in Alaska for a decade, and is currently reporting for Alaska Public Media. Find more of his work by subscribing to his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com. Reach him at natherz@gmail.com.

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