Asian American Pacific Islander-hosted mayoral forum marks a first for Anchorage

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Neil Bhagharva, a member of the Asian Alaskan Cultural Center, gives opening remarks at Saturday’s memorial forum in Spenard. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

Editor’s note: KNBA reporter Rhonda McBride was invited to moderate a recent Asian American Pacific Islander mayoral forum. The organizers crafted the candidate questions. This is her account of the event.

Seven of Anchorage’s 10 mayoral candidates this year attended the city’s first mayoral forum hosted by Asian American Pacific Islander groups over the weekend.

Only three did not attend Saturday’s forum at the Asian Alaskan Cultural Center in Northwood Elementary School: Nick Danger, Dustin Darden and Jenny Di Grappa.

(Here’s a link to watch the entire forum. )

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Lucy Hansen, a representative of the Samoan community, posed the first question in her Samoan language. At first, no translation was offered, which caught the candidates off guard. The confusion was by design — to give the candidates a chance to experience what immigrants feel when they run up against language barriers. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

Lucy Hansen, a representative of the Samoan community, read the first question to candidates. She asked about the city of Anchorage’s language access policy, which requires city departments to learn how to assist citizens with language barriers — speaking for about a minute in Samoan.

Phil Isley, the first candidate to take the question, was a good sport.

“Would you go over the question again? I’m not sure I understood it at all,” Isley said, before it was asked again in English.

Forum organizers wanted to spring this moment on the candidates, so they could experience the frustration immigrants feel when they face language barriers.

Bill Popp said he has a plan for implementing the municipality’s language access policy.

“Under my administration, we’d be working hard, first and foremost, to inventory the language skills with the municipal staff to know where they’re located,” Popp said. “And to make sure every department is aware of those individuals, to immediately be able to tap them as a resource.”

Most of the candidates agreed that the program needs work. Chris Tuck said he would like to see an app for bus service translated into different languages. Mayor Dave Bronson said the best way for immigrants to access government is to learn English but believes the city still needs to offer translation services.

For the most part, the candidates had similar positions on many of the issues, except when they were asked about reports that Asians in Anchorage were targeted by hate crimes during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both Tuck and fellow candidate Suzanne LaFrance said the mayor has a role to play in preventing hate crime.

“Well, it does begin with public education. We need to educate one other,” Tuck said. “We need to share and celebrate our differences — and rather than use it to divide us, really use it to bring us all together.”

Suzanne LaFrance apologized for how Asians were treated.

“Racism, we know, it exists,” she said. “I am truly sorry for those in our community who experienced that during COVID.”

Breck Craig said he heard first-hand accounts of racism.

“I remember talking to some of my Asian friends, and it was a real problem,” he said.

Bronson said he wasn’t sure whether Asians were the targets of racism during COVID.

“I don’t recall racism as a consequence of COVID. If it happened, I’m happy to be informed,” Bronson said.

Isley said preventing racism begins with access and posed a question to the audience about their comfort level in approaching city government.

“How many of you have gone down to City Hall,” Isley asked, “and failed to get what you were asking for because they didn’t understand you?”

Only one hand in the room went up.

The answers did vary widely on the last question: What was each candidate’s favorite Asian food?

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Letecia Tandina gave closing remarks at the forum. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

“Thai Kitchen in Midtown is pretty dang good,” said Bronson, who added that he also has a love of Japanese food.

“Keema Curry is near and dear to my heart,” Craig said.

“Well, a sushi roll over (at) Ronnie 2 is really, really good,” said Popp, who gave a long list of favorites.

So did Tuck.

“My dad is half Mexican and Irish, so I tell people I can eat and drink anything,” he said.

“I’m going to go with Bombay Deluxe,” LaFrance chimed in.

Isley said he had just eaten dinner at an Asian restaurant.

“I like the Fukumaru (on Spenard Road) myself,” he said. “They have a really good teriyaki.”

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The forum also included a generous buffet of Asian foods including Filipino desserts, pork adobo and stir-fried noodles, Nepalese chicken teriyaki, Laotian pork larb, Indian vegetable rice, Thai chicken curry and papaya salad. (Courtesy Jeff Chen)

The whole forum was permeated with the smell of an Asian Pacific Islander potluck prepared for the candidates. Their answers segued nicely to the reception, where you could find Filipino pancit, Indian curry chicken, spicy Thai papaya salad and much more.

“I volunteered to make the Filipino rice cake,” said Evelyn Abello, one of the organizers of the forum.

Abello said the reception was a chance for voters to not only meet the candidates but also do away with the stereotype that Asians and Pacific Islanders are a silent minority.

“They can mingle, interact, ask questions of the candidates,” she said. “This would be the best opportunity for them to do that.”

Abello hopes the forum will inspire some of the young adults in the audience to run for city office someday, perhaps even for mayor.

“I would love to see that during my lifetime,” she said.

About 70 people attended the forum, which organizers hope will be the first of many.

The Asian Alaskan Cultural Center was one of the main hosts for the event. It is made up of eight member countries: China, India, Japan, Korea, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand and Nepal.

Other groups that were involved include the Polynesian Association of Alaska, the Alaska Federation of Filipino Americans, the Alaska Chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society, Rise AAPI Alaska, Make Us Visible Alaska and the Pacific Community of Alaska.

Learn more about where the candidates for Anchorage mayor and school board stand with our comparison tool, and watch the top four mayoral candidates face off in our debate, which aired live on March 21. For more coverage visit

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