How will a conservative mayor and progressive Assembly work in Anchorage?

Dave Bronson speaks to supporters on election night May 11, 2021. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

Dave Bronson remains on track to become Anchorage’s next mayor.

Results aren’t scheduled to be certified until Tuesday, but Bronson, the conservative candidate, has grown his lead over opponent Forrest Dunbar as more votes were tallied this week.

So, what might Anchorage look like with a conservative mayor and majority-progressive Assembly governing it?

Bronson’s campaign declined to comment for this story, but some Anchorage Assembly members say they remain optimistic they’ll find common ground between their largely divergent views.

“I’m going to be hopeful,” said Assembly chair Felix Rivera. “And I’m going to give this administration the benefit of the doubt that they are going to come willing to work with us and find middle ground, so that we can really do some important work on the issues that our city is facing.” 

RELATED: Anchorage is trending blue. Here’s why it’s on track to elect a conservative mayor.

The Assembly has focused on addressing homelessness, allocating pandemic relief money and rebuilding the economy, Rivera said, a progressive-leaning Assembly member who defeated a recall effort in the April 6 election.

He described Bronson’s campaign as being started in anger over the city’s COVID-19 response mandates last summer, for which Bronson held the progressive Assembly and mayor accountable. And the bulk of Bronson’s campaign has focused on undoing the effects of the Assembly’s efforts over the last year. One of his campaign ads referred to them as a “bunch of idiots.”

On runoff election day May 11, Dunbar said if he lost, he’d use his position on the Assembly to try to “prevent and undo the damage” Bronson might do. 

“I think we’ll probably see a catastrophe when it comes to things like homelessness,” Dunbar said. “And probably with our economic growth this summer, too.”

Some of Bronson’s plans to undo Assembly actions may prove difficult. For example, during the campaign, he said that “on day one” he intended to sell the Golden Lion. The city purchased the property with proceeds from the sale of Municipal Light & Power and intended to turn it into a residential treatment facility for substance misuse. To overturn that purchase, the mayor would need a majority of the Assembly on board.

Rivera said he hoped a Bronson administration would open a conversation with the Assembly first.

“The assembly has been moving forward with a few different items like the purchase of the buildings, and with how we address homelessness and substance misuse issues,” he said. “I would be surprised if we all of a sudden stopped moving on those issues because of a new administration.”

John Weddleton, one of the moderate members of the Assembly, said with issues like homelessness, he thinks Bronson just needs to get up to speed on what realistically can be done.

“I think the thing on homelessness, part of it is lack of experience — I mean, he has not been involved,” Weddleton said. “And I think once he becomes involved, he’ll understand that there are some very significant legal constraints to what we can do.”

So, what does a mayor have the power to do? 

Essentially, the Assembly’s role is to approve funding for specific projects, and the mayor’s job is to make sure those projects get done, municipal attorney Kate Vogel said.

“Some of that is just happening every year on a continual basis. Our streets are getting plowed and fixed … our water needs to be clean, our landfill needs to be functional,” Vogel said.

The city is required by law to provide some of those essential services.

However, the mayor does have veto power over Assembly decisions.

“With any veto, whether it’s a veto to totally strike the item entirely, or to reduce an amount of an appropriation, the assembly has the ability to override that veto,” Vogel said.

The Assembly needs a two-thirds majority to override a veto: For an 11-person body, means eight votes.

The mayor is also in charge of appointing leadership positions within municipal government, such as department heads. Those positions are political appointments, typically filled by people whose values align with the mayor.

Vogel said she did not expect to keep her job as municipal attorney come July. 

But most municipal employees do not have politically appointed roles. Many are protected by law from being let go with a change in administration. Union-represented employees are protected by collective bargaining agreements, and non-represented employees typically have provisions in their contracts saying they can’t be fired without cause, Vogel said.

Vogel also noted much of Bronson’s campaign focused on criticism of pandemic restrictions, but it was hard to tell how much controversy there would be going forward now those restrictions have lifted.

“We understand that Bronson would not have had a mask mandate. Well, there isn’t the mask mandate anymore,” she said. “So, I don’t think it tells us ‘Is there going to be a divide on X vote or Y vote?’ because I don’t think we’ve heard what that plan is.”

In the last six years, the Assembly has only used their veto override power twice, Rivera said. In general, the Assembly and administration under Ethan Berkowitz and now, Austin Quinn-Davidson, have worked together to pass policy. 

Weddleton said a Bronson administration and majority-progressive Assembly certainly could start a cycle of vetoes and overrides, but he’s hoping that won’t be the case.

“We set policy, we set the budget, but then we tell the administration, ‘Go make it so.’ If they’re reluctant to do so, then you’re not really going to end up where you want to be, everybody’s in a bad spot,” he said. “It may be more challenging if we have very different viewpoints, but it’s not impossible to find cooperation.”

Weddleton said he’s hopeful with Anchorage likely through the worst of COVID-19, the heated rhetoric and division of campaign season will begin to cool down and government affairs will be a little less controversial.

Previous articleAlaska sees sharp spike in coronavirus cases stemming from B.1.1.7 variant
Next articleSteep job losses in Alaska plus historic federal aid led to a ‘very different recession’ in 2020
Kavitha George is the host of Alaska Morning News at Alaska Public Media. She also reports on business, labor and the economy. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org.