Anchorage Assembly wrestles to impasse on renaming port after Don Young 

A boat docked in the port of Alaska
The cement terminal at the Port of Alaska. (Courtesy of Port of Alaska)

A proposal to rename the Port of Alaska the “Don Young Port of Anchorage” had seen little public controversy, until the Anchorage Assembly’s last meeting.

That’s when the Assembly found itself wrestling with a panel’s recommendation and a proposed compromise before deciding to postpone making a decision indefinitely. There was no consensus at the Dec. 19 Assembly meeting about what, if anything, to do next.

A previous Assembly had changed the name to “Port of Alaska” in 2017 as a symbolic move, in part to convey to legislators who fund infrastructure projects the port’s importance to the entire state. Most freight, fuel and consumer goods that come to Alaska flow through the port.

When Congressman Don Young died in March of 2022, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson proposed another renaming to honor Young.

The mayor and Assembly appointed a panel to look into it and make a recommendation. The panel unanimously recommended “The Don Young Port of Anchorage.”

Then, the night of Dec. 19, multiple issues kept the Assembly from voting.

First, some said, Don Young could behave like a jerk.

“Don Young had his day for Alaska, but he aged into someone who was insensitive, a bully and who disrespected women,” said Assembly member Karen Bronga. “Rewarding a public figure for this bad behavior because he brought the state money is not in the best interest of our city. The naming of a volcano after him is, in my opinion, way more fitting.”

The audience laughed.

Member George Martinez said he struggled with the proposal. He acknowledged that Young helped a lot of people. But Martinez, who is Afro-Latino, also said Young denigrated people who look like him and used a racial slur for Latinos in a 2013 interview.

Second, there was debate over changing “Port of Alaska” back to “Port of Anchorage.”

“Ports and airports are named after cities, not states,” said Jim Jansen, chairman of the Lynden transportation companies and a member of the port renaming panel. “Alaska has 17 active ports, with Anchorage being the largest, handling about 50% of all of Alaska’s maritime cargo. But it is not the port for all of Alaska. It is disingenuous to name the port after our state.”

City code also discourages renaming a public place within 20 years of the last renaming.

Several Assembly members were frustrated by how singularly focused the renaming panel had been. Assembly member Anna Brawley said the recommendation seemed like a foregone conclusion from the outset.

“Practically speaking, it is impossible to say no to the members of a grieving family once the name is out in public,” Brawley said. “That is the reality.” 

The process highlighted flaws of the city’s old ad-hoc renaming process, Brawley said.

The Assembly adopted a new process in September intended to create a more deliberate, fair, thoughtful and consistent process for naming requests like this one. Now, requests are supposed to be run through a new Public Naming Commission.

The latest port renaming proposal began before the new process was created, though. And the new commission only exists on paper. Its members haven’t been picked yet.

Bronson’s chief of staff, Mario Bird, argued that abandoning the panel’s proposal discounted its work, as well as Young’s 49-year run of election wins and Alaska’s current congressional delegation’s wishes.

“Love him or hate him, Don Young achieved an order of magnitude as a statesman in Alaska that should be recognized,” Bird said.

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about its next step on the renaming effort. The Assembly plans to reconsider its vote to postpone indefinitely at its next meeting on Jan. 9. If the reconsideration goes through, Assembly Chair Chris Constant says he intends to hold a work session to review options before a final vote in February.

Young was 88 when he died. He was the most senior member of Congress at the time, representing Alaska in the House of Representatives continuously since 1973.

a person behind a podium talking to a debate moderator
Then-U.S. Rep. Don Young addresses debate moderator Lori Townsend on Oct. 22, 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Correction: An earlier version of this story had outdated date references that have been corrected. Additionally, it has been updated with a later development that the Assembly will vote on reconsideration.

a portrait of a man outside

Jeremy Hsieh covers Anchorage with an emphasis on housing, homelessness, infrastructure and development. Reach him atjhsieh@alaskapublic.orgor 907-550-8428. Read more about Jeremyhere.

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