Forrest Dunbar

Age: 36

Family: N/A

Occupation: Attorney and Judge Advocate in the Army National Guard

Previous government experience or community involvement: I ran for Congress against Representative Don Young in 2014, was the Democratic Nominee, and won over 40% of the vote. In 2016 I ran successfully to represent East Anchorage on the Anchorage Assembly, winning by 22% in a district later won by Trump. I then won my reelection contest in 2019. I helped found the Muldoon Farmers Market, which partners with refugee farmers, and advocated to upgrade and protect our green spaces as a board member of the Anchorage Parks Foundation.

Highest level of education: MPP, Harvard Kennedy School and JD, Yale Law School

What is the latest book you’ve read? Or, what book do you recommend and why?:  The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. I went on a bit of a classic science fiction kick during the pandemic, though I don’t read for pleasure as much as I used to or I would like to. The Assembly provides one with a large amount of reading every week! In terms of books to read, I would highly recommend Bruce Ackerman’s We the People Volumes I and II. The nation is clearly going through a “constitutional moment” right now — or perhaps is at the end of one with Donald Trump not being re-elected — and Ackerman’s book helps put eras like this one into their proper legal, historical, and political context.

COVID closures, cancelled civic and culture events and the decline of summer tourists have turned Anchorage’s downtown into “a ghost town.” How will you revitalize downtown Anchorage?

Downtown should be the premier location in Alaska for live entertainment, convenient shopping, and award-winning art. I am hopeful that this summer we will be able to hold many more events and concerts downtown, using physical distancing, cleaning and what we’ve learned this past year to keep folks safe. My administration will seek to transform 4th Avenue and E Street into pedestrian promenades, working with the nearby businesses, as these have been successful in other cities in increasing commerce and safety. We can also showcase existing trails, murals, and shops with a better wayfinding system — one that incorporates Indigenous places and language — and work to improve the brand of both downtown and Anchorage for visitors. In addition, making downtown feel safe and vital means having “eyes on the street” and folks actually living downtown. Regulatory changes, incentives, and leveraging the municipality’s own property holdings can make affordable downtown housing a reality.

Do you support a minimum wage of $15 for municipal workers? Why or why not?

Yes, I support a $15 dollar minimum wage for municipal workers. Hard working individuals who devote their careers to the advancement of our community should be able to afford to live in our city. Paying a fair wage allows municipal workers the ability to participate more fully in our local economy, which will help our businesses recover faster in the wake of the pandemic. Finally, I am hopeful that the U.S. Congress will pass a $15 federal minimum wage, and we can see many more people get additional money in their pockets and for their families.

What ideas do you have to ensure that the make-up of the municipal workforce reflects the diversity of the Anchorage community?

One of Anchorage’s core strengths is our diversity, and I am committed to hiring a municipal workforce that reflects that diversity. I have stated repeatedly that I intend to have the most diverse Administration in Anchorage’s history. In addition to senior positions, I will expand efforts to recruit and retain municipal employees from underrepresented backgrounds at every level of the municipal government. I had great conversations with a young leader in the firefighting community in New Orleans this past summer, who has been doing work there to diversify their city workforce. It is clear that there are no easy answers or shortcuts — you must identify barriers to hiring and promotion in your departments, have department heads and managers who take these issues seriously and then meet folks where they are and where they live when you recruit. You also need to start further upstream for some of these jobs, with job training in high school that prepares underrepresented communities for jobs that they have historically been excluded from. Partnering with the ASD to make this a reality will pay dividends in my administration and administrations thereafter.

With steep declines in revenue sharing from the state of Alaska, how will you support essential city services? Will this level of support be enough to attract future investment?

I have prioritized fiscal responsibility on the Assembly, and will continue to do so as mayor. Anchorage must preserve our excellent bond rating that keeps the cost of municipal borrowing low, and move away from over-reliance on property taxes and the unstable state budget by diversifying our revenue streams. We need to find a balance between providing critical services and keeping rates, fees and property taxes affordable. On the Assembly, I helped ensure that the proceeds from the sale of ML&P were deposited into the Municipal Trust, supported the fuel tax, approved targeted cuts to every department but public safety, and voted for audits that returned millions to the municipality. A significant upcoming discussion around alternative revenues will be the proposed Stormwater Utility, which has the potential to be an acceptable alternative to bonding for drainage projects. But if Anchorage is to attract future investments we must provide core municipal services, like water, fire and police protection. We have to be both creative and pragmatic in finding ways to deliver those services in an efficient and affordable manner. On the Assembly now and as mayor, I will seek ways to maximize every dollar, collaborate with private and nonprofit organizations, and develop programs that utilize grassroots energy to achieve our goals.

Do you have a commitment to incorporate and utilize renewable energy sources?

Yes. By diversifying our energy sources and converting to more modern technologies, we can increase our energy independence and lower costs. Energy costs are a burden for many Anchorage residents, and prevent important large-scale investment by commercial and industrial businesses in our community. There are opportunities for solar and wind energy production across the municipality, and even less traditional sources like tidal and in-pipe hydro in water and wastewater as well. At least two large-scale solar projects are now being discussed: one at the Port of Alaska and one off of Raspberry Road. For homeowners, office building managers, and large-scale facilities, these adaptations and the introduction and expansion of renewables means cheaper energy bills and more redundancy in case of emergencies. In addition, I will seek comprehensive energy audits for municipal facilities, a continuation of the existing Intra-Admin Resiliency Task Force, and the further creation of an Environmental Equity Council to work on the issue of environmental inequalities.

Anchorage has a shortage of housing at multiple income levels. What can you do to mitigate the problem and how will you influence housing development toward what the city needs?

Building affordable housing is key to the healthy growth of our neighborhoods and economy. We need to consider what makes it hard to develop in Anchorage, and remove those barriers. Part of that is making changes in the Permitting and Planning departments, to reduce delays and make them more responsive to their customers. Part of it is regulatory changes. For example, I supported tax abatement for new residential properties, I was a champion for the accessory dwelling unit ordinance, and recently worked on an ordinance to make it easier to permit driveways. In addition, there are multiple prospective housing development projects that are inhibited by inadequate public infrastructure. Using processes consistent with community plans and priorities, the municipality should complete the road and utility projects necessary to allow for private development. I will also prioritize authorizing Reinvestment Focus Areas, as identified in the 2040 Land Use Plan. Getting this designation in place will allow for an influx of investment into neighborhoods that are ripe for increased density and mixed-use development. We are struggling now to retain people, and we need young families, students and seniors to find high quality, affordable housing here, with the amenities they are looking for. As housing becomes more affordable and accessible to more families, Anchorage can better retain a talented workforce.

The homeless crisis in Anchorage is persistent, disturbing and humanly tragic. How do you plan to help the municipality solve this crisis?

The long-term solution to homelessness is appropriate, affordable housing, coupled with supportive services. If we focus on camp abatement alone, people experiencing homelessness will have no choice but to move from park to park; that’s not a solution. There are also constitutional limits to what the city can do. Fortunately, revenues from the 2020 Alcohol Tax are dedicated directly to substance misuse treatment, prevention programs, and transitional housing. I am also encouraged by the news that additional federal grants and major private investments are coming online this year. My administration will seek better coordination between the municipality and private, state and federal partners, as well as facilitate better communication between those entities. I supported the development of the Anchored Home Plan and voted to adopt the plan through AR 2020-338 in September of last year. I have already worked to take action on the suggestions in the plan, such as standing up additional shelter capacity and funding Mental Health First Responders. I take seriously the need for Municipal leadership in Public Health and Safety (the pillar the MOA is the lead on) and the need to keep collaborating with community partners to find solutions on all fronts.

Anchorage is a university town with two institutions, one public and one private. What opportunities does this represent to the municipality?

Our higher educational institutions offer a pathway to good jobs for homegrown students, and can attract talented young people from across the country to put down their roots here in Anchorage. This is my family’s story — my parents moved to Alaska to attend UAF. Most thriving cities around the world have at least one large, high-quality university that is closely integrated with local industry and government, the so called “campus as catalyst” model. Partly in recognition of those opportunities, when I was first elected to the Assembly I helped restart the UAA/APU Assembly Internship Program. Going forward, my mayoral administration will work to build bridges between the municipality and both UAA and APU, with regular meetings between staff, and a voice for students in our decision making. We will also use the platform of the mayor’s office, working with the Assembly, to highlight and oppose any draconian cuts to UAA.

Can the mayor influence the tone of community dialogue? How?

Yes, the mayor can and should influence the tone of dialogue in our community. I believe honest, straight-forward, and continuous communication helps our community be more collaborative and engaged. I also believe good community dialogue means meeting residents where they are — we need to have additional town hall meetings, community-based conversations on neighborhood issues, and more collaboration with grassroots organizing bringing solutions to municipal government. I already attend community meetings, helped found my neighborhood farmer’s market, and talk with residents who have new ideas; my administration will reflect my own commitment to continuing these conversations and improvements. But we should also not turn away from the reality of the situation. Along with the pandemic, the co-occurring challenge facing Anchorage is the rise of “fact-free,” conspiratorial politics, disconnected from public health, reasonable dialogue, and the realities of governing. Our community cannot heal and our economy cannot recover if misinformation and lack of civility continue to spread. It will take a commitment from all of us, from across the political spectrum, to reject this style of politics and recommit to fact-based discourse. As stated above, my administration will be committed to better communication, transparency, and facilitation of dialogue to help this happen. We will also assist community groups who seek to make the Assembly Chambers more welcoming, and will make agencies more responsive when residents need answers and information on vital programs.

Local builders continually complain about delays in the municipal permitting process, and that Title 21 requirements make homes expensive. The complaints are old. Will you make changes?

While I will not compromise on the safety of our residents, I agree that there are other parts of Title 21, Title 23, and other portions of the code that can be updated to encourage development and affordability, Furthermore, there are certainly more efficiencies that can be achieved at the Permitting Center. Significant progress has been made on that front, but we must continue forward. Many of the recommendations made in the 2017 Bendon-Adams audit of our Development Services Department have been implemented or are in the process of being implemented. Last year was the busiest construction season we had in the last five years thanks in part to fee reductions on applications and permits in response to COVID-19. The pandemic has shifted much more of the permitting process online — we should continue in that direction. We should also be looking to ordinances that waive parking minimums, increase mixed-use and medium-density housing and encourage redevelopment of existing structures and abandoned buildings.