While many Alaska voters are thinking about the crowded special election to fill the U.S. House seat of the late Congressman Don Young, voters in North Anchorage have another special election to weigh in on.
Ballots went out this week for an election to fill a new 12th seat on the Anchorage Assembly, which would represent Anchorage’s District 1, now called “North Anchorage.” The district got a lot bigger after the city redrew boundary lines, and expanded beyond its initial downtown area to encompass parts of East, West and Midtown Anchorage.
Assembly member Chris Constant currently represents the district. And now there will be a second Assembly seat for the area.
The six candidates vying for the seat in the vote-by-mail election including both political newcomers and others who have launched campaigns for local office in the past. Many agree that homelessness is the biggest issue facing the city. Some/most are concerned about the schism between the mostly progressive Assembly and conservative mayor, but disagree on who’s to blame.
Meet the North Anchorage Assembly candidates:
Robin Phillips is one of the candidates running for the seat. Phillips was rezoned into the district, though she says she was born within the original District 1 boundaries. Phillips, the administrative director for the Ted Stevens Foundation, said one of her top priorities — if elected — would be reducing the city’s budget, and potentially making some hard cuts.
“If it was easy it’s been done,” Phillips said. “So now we’re at the point where we have to look at some of the harder options. Aside from budgeting, transportation and homelessness are a citywide issue. It’s not just a North Anchorage issue.”
As far as how she thinks the current Assembly has been operating, Phillips said the body is “not allowing for the balance of politics” and used the recent example of a proposed ordinance — brought forward by Assembly member Constant — that would codify a process for the Assembly to remove the mayor.
“I also saw that with the mask mandates and health mandates,” Phillips said. “There is a fine line, and I really believe that the Assembly has been crossing that line.”
Phillips said she doesn’t always agree with Mayor Dave Bronson, but she’s happy with some of the progress he’s made.
“I know he’s been tackling some budget issues and some citywide issues regarding more freedoms for businesses and more personal responsibility for individuals,” Phillips said.
Homelessness is the top issue for many of the other candidates in the race, including Tasha Hotch. She works with the community health aide program at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. She said the city isn’t taking every opportunity to work directly with the people affected by homelessness. She brought up an example of students reaching out to people who were loitering by a liquor store near Clark Middle School.
“Their response was amazing,” Hotch said. “It was like, ‘Oh yeah. Kids should get an education. We’ll go hang out somewhere else and come back later.’ And I really wish we could have better conversations like that to really meet the needs of the people, in terms of what they need — in terms of housing and support services — instead of guessing.”
Hotch is Tlingit and lives in Mountain View which is, by some census metrics, the most culturally diverse community in the country.
“The community should be represented by folks that look like the community, and I currently don’t see anyone representing me, as an Alaska Native or as someone who lives in the Mountain View district,” Hotch said.
Beyond representation, Hotch said she also feels like there’s a disconnect between members of the Assembly and working-class Anchorage residents like her. Hotch is a single parent and said she worked two jobs and lived in an efficiency apartment when she first moved to the city in the 90s.
“If you’ve never had to be on public assistance, if you’ve never had to deal with the lack of daycare in the community, if you’re not familiar with any of those challenges,” Hotch said, “it’s really hard to advocate for the services that working families need.”
Rob Forbes is a business consultant with Fat Tire Consulting. He said he’s been disgusted with the stark divide between the Assembly and Bronson, and thinks what he described as Assembly attacks on the mayor are eroding public trust in government. He said the city should work together more often like they’ve been doing with homelessness.
“I think that there’s a great strategy and plan that the mayor’s office and [Assembly member] Felix Rivera and some others have been collaborating on to cross some of those political gaps between the Assembly and the mayor’s administration with the transition center and some of the other housing options they’re working through,” he said.
Forbes said the Assembly and former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz were put in a tough position when the pandemic began and they enacted strict health mandates to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We had a mayor who, rightfully so, in the beginning instituted COVID controls that were very drastic for all of us,” Forbes said. “It was a big change in our lives, whether it was shutting down a business or the mask wearing for some people. Shutting down parks, playgrounds, hockey rinks.”
Forbes said those decisions divided the city and, “we haven’t been able to turn the corner to get back to a working amicable relationship.”
Like Forbes, other candidates also decried the testy relationship between the Assembly and the mayor.
Candidate Stephanie Taylor ran unsuccessfully to represent East Anchorage earlier this year, losing to incumbent Assembly member Forrest Dunbar. She was among several candidates who ran with support from Bronson. Like Phillips, her home was brought into District 1 after the boundary changes, and she said she sees it as another opportunity to curb what she describes as heavy changes to the city charter by progressive Assembly members.
“There are checks and balances that are built into the system,” Taylor said. “And that has worked for Anchorage for decades. And over the last year, a majority of our Assembly have worked at changing that, eroding that, taking powers that are enumerated to our mayor and taking them on to themselves and changing the charter overall.”
Taylor believes the Assembly has “broken trust” with the community due to the mandates put in place during the pandemic that she said hurt a lot of businesses.
“Our Assembly majority made the decision to lock down for an extended period of time and have a lot of mandates and restrictions on gatherings and all kinds of things,” Taylor said. “We did not see that in the Valley. We did not see that in the Kenai Peninsula. And those communities continue to thrive.”
Taylor said she feels that Bronson has faced a lot of opposition from the Assembly, and that has slowed the progress on things like homelessness.
“I think that he’s come in with some strong ideas that he campaigned on,” Taylor said. “People wanted to see the city move in a different direction, and I think he’s tried to do that as best as he can. And I just feel like we need to work together, because it could be a win-win for everybody.”
Not everyone running for District 1 thinks the issues with the city lie solely with the Assembly.
Optometrist and clinic owner Daniel Volland said he appreciates Bronson’s interest in fixing homelessness, as well as his efforts to revitalize the Port of Alaska — two of Volland’s top priorities. However, he said, Bronson’s administration hasn’t been transparent with the public.
“You know, when you have a city manager asking to cut the live video feed and sending security out of Assembly chambers,” Volland said, “when you have questionable things that are being done with our utilities, messing with our water source and the administration initially denying it and then backpedaling it. These are things that are being widely reported and that does not instill trust.”
On the Assembly side, Volland said, he thinks the body has done a very good job “steering a ship through very rocky waters.”
“As a small business owner, my business was impacted by closure,” Volland said. “We were mandated to emergency care only, so we really had to pull back our hours and luckily we were able to take advantage of some of the grants that were offered. But I think the Assembly has had a lot of challenges, and I think they’ve done the best they can do in light of those challenges.”
In addition to homelessness and the Port, Volland said a major focus of his if he’s elected would be to foster the development of more affordable housing for Anchorage’s young professionals.
Candidate Cliff Baker has other top issues. Baker is a retired Department of Natural Resources land surveyor. He said while homelessness is a problem, work is already being done to address it and he thinks it’s overshadowing other problems in Anchorage. Among his major concerns: general traffic and trail safety.
“We encourage people to walk, but we don’t take care of the sidewalks and stuff in the winter,” Baker said. “So safety is a big issue.”
Baker said he thinks the Assembly has done a fair job governing, but he’s concerned with a division between the body and Bronson.
“I think he’s coming in pretty new,” Baker said of the mayor. “He hasn’t had the experience in that sort of situation before, and I don’t see him taking a lot of guidance.”
Ballots for the mail-in special election to fill the North Anchorage Assembly seat have recently been sent out and are due Tuesday, June 21. Only Alaskans who live in the district vote in this election.