Anchorage voters still have about a week to cast their ballots as the city chooses its next mayor in a runoff election. The two candidates, East Anchorage Assembly member Forrest Dunbar and retired commercial pilot Dave Bronson, are in the middle of a contentious race as they try to amass voter support for their starkly different visions for Alaska’s largest city.
Forrest Dunbar grew up in rural Alaska and has served on the Assembly since 2016. He’s a captain in the Army National Guard and has been involved in the city’s pandemic response over the last year. Dunbar has also worked on community improvement projects both on and off the Assembly over the years.
Dave Bronson is a retired commercial airline pilot who also served in the Air Force. He’s spent more than twenty years as a military officer and lived in Anchorage for 30 years. Bronson has never held elected office, but says his leadership experience with the military and in the private sector give him a different “results-oriented” perspective on how to improve government.
How are they planning to respond to the pandemic?
Bronson got into the race over the summer in the midst of backlash over the city’s health restrictions and CARES Act spending. He describes himself as a “limited government” person and strongly disagrees with the emergency orders like the mask mandate, capacity restrictions in businesses and the shutdowns over the last year. He says those kinds of health measures should be a matter of personal choice.
“If we would have stuck with the original plan, which was to go with social distancing, and those people with comorbidities staying home and letting everyone else go back to work, we wouldn’t be dealing with the economic crisis that we’re facing right now,” Bronson said at an Alaska Public Media forum on Monday.
Dunbar, on the other hand, has voted in support of a lot of those emergency orders and points to data from state and local health officials who say that mask orders, gathering limitations and other precautions have helped minimize the death rate and keep hospital ICUs from overflowing.
“If we hadn’t had these health controls, we would have had far more people get seriously ill and far more people die,” Dunbar said at Monday’s forum. “It wasn’t the shutdowns that harmed the economy. It was the pandemic.”
When it comes to economic recovery after the pandemic, Bronson has focused a lot on the idea that the city needs to reopen and people will get their jobs back. With no remaining gathering or business restrictions, it looks like the summer will look fairly normal already, but Bronson says he also wants to rebate businesses property taxes from the periods they may have been shut down. PLAN?
Both candidates say federal relief money will be key, though Dunbar says he wants to prioritize equity in distributions since marginalized communities have been hit harder by the pandemic. Bronson says factors like ethnicity shouldn’t be part of the process.
CG: What other differences do you see between Dunbar and Bronson?
KG: Homelessness is another big topic. Dunbar supports integrating homeless resources throughout the city, Bronson favors consolidating them.
Bronson says the city needs to continue its public-private partnerships but also says that law enforcement should be used to address the issue.
“We need to intervene, if you’re breaking the law on the street, no one is above the law. So if you are defecating or urinating on the street, that is against the law. And we’ve turned a blind eye to that.”
Dunbar supports prior assembly work to shift the city’s mental health response from police to behavioral health experts. He also says that law enforcement should not be a primary tool to address homelessness.
“The idea that people are immune to criminal prosecution, because they’re homeless is also not true. If they are engaging in criminal acts, they are subject to arrest and prosecution. But ultimately, that can’t be the primary solution at all, it has to be housing, treatment, employment”
Talking about police, Dunbar supported expanding APD by about 100 sworn officers under Mayor Berkowitz’s administration, and he says he wants to maintain it at between 430 and 450 officers. Bronson said he’d like to see it expand to closer to 500.
The candidates also disagree about budget issues. Bronson says property taxes are too high and he thinks every department of government should see some cuts, except for police.
Dunbar says the Muni is too reliant on property taxes and is in favor of diversifying revenue through interest from the sale of ML&P, the existing alcohol and tobacco taxes, motor fuel tax and possibly other sources.
CG: Okay that’s a lot of differences. Is there anything they agree on?
KG: Kind of. Both candidates agree, for instance, that there is not enough affordable housing in Anchorage and that’s in part because it can be expensive and cumbersome to build here.
Dunbar says he thinks the city planning department should be restructured to make it easier for developers to get construction approved. Bronson says the city codes around building safety and planning should be looked at to make it less expensive to build.
Dunbar also supports more infill housing and renovating existing properties, basically increasing housing density, since there’s not that much undeveloped land in the Muni left.
CG: Kavitha, why do things feel so contentious in this election?
KG: The mayor’s seat isn’t partisan and both candidates say they don’t see this as a partisan fight, but they’re each painting the other as too extreme. Dunbar’s campaign has filed multiple complaints to the state Public Offices Commission about the Bronson campaign’s alleged finance violations. Back and forth rhetoric has also gotten quite heated — Dunbar has criticized a Bronson ad from March that referred to Assembly members as “a bunch of idiots.” Here are samples of some of the more confrontational parts of a debate last week:
“Mr. Bronson, please stop lying. I’m you constantly this mistruths and misinformation about what I say what the policy is what what the reality is.”
“I get real frustrated. I’m sorry. But you don’t have the sense God gave an anvil. Sometimes this city has to be run as a business, because that is what it is in the end. And you seem to miss that.”
Over and over voters, candidates, observers have told me that this is the most politically divided they’ve seen Anchorage, and it’s going to be a big job for whoever the next mayor is to bridge that gap.