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I wrote the original version of this column for The Midnight Sun Memo about 20 minutes into the Anchorage Assembly’s first meeting on the proposed mask mandate. By the time I hit send, the meeting had been interrupted several times and a thinly veiled death threat aimed at the Assembly had been applauded by the mob assembled by extreme-right Mayor Dave Bronson and his allies. The testimony on the mask mandate was still hours away and it was already abundantly clear that Bronson and his allies intended to disrupt and debase the public process with as much bad-faith, anti-democratic tactics as possible.
More than a week and a half later, it’s proved to be even worse.
Bronson’s audience has assailed the assembly with threats, jeers and disruptions with dashes of homophobia and antisemitism mixed in for good measure. They’ve sought to entangle the process even further by asking clearly off-topic questions intended to draw out the hearing even longer and have petty, childish tactics like pulling security, withholding resources and quite literally swiping the plexiglass dividers in the chambers during the meeting.
It’s increasingly clear that it’s a concerted effort not just to prolong the debate in a “People’s Filibuster” but to make the job of serving the public so difficult and hostile that it’ll drive away anyone not ready to rubberstamp Bronson’s agenda. This is not an administration interested in anything other than “Owning the libs” as long as it keeps the base motivated, angry and scared.
As someone who’s covered Alaska politics in one form or another for a decade, it’s a deeply disheartening sight. This deep-rooted, rotten anger is anger for anger’s sake. It’s an effective tool utilized by the extreme-right and their cheerleaders to rile up the base to the point where they’re disrupting meetings and dragging everyone else into this deeply adversarial and counterproductive muck. It’s not unique to the Anchorage Assembly either, but a countrywide movement that we’ve seen take root at everything from school board meetings with the hollow fear mongering over critical race theory to, well, the January 6 insurrection. Where we once hoped that the attempted insurrection would have been a turning point for the country, the acrimony has only deepened and worsened. On the local level, there’s a general anxiety about when the shouting and disruptions will turn to violence thanks to the constant drip of misinformation and vitriol fed to them through channels that know full well what they’re doing. The outrage is far too valuable.
What’s particularly disheartening for me, a wonk who ultimately likes when policy makes sense and has a meaningful and equitable impact on bettering people’s lives and opportunities, is that there’s nothing but garbage contained in this outrage. There’s no call to make things better beyond this conspiracy-laden approach of “It’s fine that people die as long as we’re free from mild inconvenience.” The refusal to go tolerate the minor inconveniences for the good of the community ensures the pandemic, its uncertainty, and all the pain and suffering will drag on much longer.
What economic growth is there when covid-19 outbreaks close your doors for you? What return to normal is there when people continue to worry that getting your hair cut or testifying to the Anchorage Assembly is putting your personal safety on the line? What freedom is there when you’re gasping for breath, about to be intubated?
The assembly is not talking about vaccine mandates, limitations on gatherings or business closures. They are talking about face masks that limit the spread of aerosolized breath droplets that carry and transmit the highly contagious delta variant. It’s not even about eliminating the virus anymore—a possibility that has long gone out the window—but about lowering the risk for everyone in a way that allows you to still eat out, go shopping, see movies and attend what few shows are still being held under the banner headlines of Alaska’s out-of-control covid-19 cases.
But unfortunately, Bronson and his allies are so committed to the us-versus-them mentality that they’ve resorted to using every tool in the toolbox to delay and sow doubt about the pandemic. In the face of the continued high cases and high positivity rate, the Bronson administration is cutting back testing hours and telling people not to get tested. Bronson has also endorsed the use of ivermectin to treat covid-19 and accused hospitals of lying about being strained to the breaking point, fomenting a continuing surge of ire and abuse targeted at the state’s health care workers that continues to make national headlines.
The continued strain on hospitals, preventable deaths and unchecked spread of covid-19—including inside the assembly chambers—is all far too valuable a tool to drive the wedge that much further into the community.
Kevin McGee, the head of Anchorage NAACP, summed it all up well in an editorial last week: Alaska’s failed leadership has given us a fatal lottery:
I was going to write, “We are living through…” but I stopped myself. “We” are not all living through this lottery of death created by the utter failure of leadership by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Mayor Dave Bronson and their chorus of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists who have flooded Alaska hospitals. So some of us are living, others are dying, and so-called “leaders” who refuse to do anything to contain this virus will remain stained with the blood of our fallen neighbors forever.
But even when the pandemic eventually subsides, I’m deeply worried about the future of public service. With the disruptive hearings, the death threats and the spurious recall efforts, I wonder who the hell would want to run for public office anymore?
While doing some research for an article about how the Bronson administration promoting the recall probably violates election laws (which, hooboy, you can find that story here), I stumbled across Ballotpedia’s aggregation of more than 100 recall efforts that have been launched during the pandemic. According to that breakdown, only one of the 103 (99 when I had first written this column) efforts successfully removed the targeted person from office. Most never make it to the ballot, but what was particularly striking to me is the half-dozen or more that resigned rather than deal with it.
I have a feeling that that’s the point.
For most, running for school board or the assembly isn’t so much about a grand political agenda as it is about serving the community. That sense of service really made my initial years in Alaska covering the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly enjoyable. I saw people there work across deep political divides to enact meaningful measures and, heck, took off time when they felt that there wasn’t any pressing tinkering to do with the laws. There was a sense of community, of working together to pull in the same direction that now seems so alien when I see the flag waving and not-even-thinly-veiled death threats at the Anchorage Assembly meeting.
I look at the political climate today and wonder why any good, decent person would want to get involved with it when the job comes with guarantees of threats, personal attacks on them and their family—and possibly worse. I don’t blame anyone who looks at the whole situation and thinks “Nah, I’m good.” But I’d also say that that is letting that other, acrimonious side win.
The recent Fairbanks elections also are a reason for some cautious optimism.
Voters this week sent extreme-right candidates packing in a sharp rebuked of fringe conspiracies theories and the division that threatens to cut a community in two. Observers there chalk up the victory to a combination of stronger, coordinated campaigning by the moderates and progressives, voters who were galvanized by the Anchorage Assembly’s uncivil display and, critically, conservatives who saw and understood the risk and pulled their support of those far-right, casting votes that were more against the hate than in support of the progressives.
If Anchorage hopes to turn the tides, it’s critically important for people to meet next spring’s elections, this fall’s recall election and whatever else with energy and organization. The barrage of hate and acrimony is precisely because they don’t have the votes on the Anchorage Assembly to effectively make Bronson a king. They hope to turn this ire into a surge that will put more like extreme-right Nazi plate-defending Assemblymember Jamie Allard into Assembly seats.
It’s important not just for moderates and progressives to stand up against this but for conservatives to do more than just quietly and privately express their concern about the direction of the city. Anything else is quiet approval of the direction that Bronson and his goons are steering this city.
As Travis Neff said in fiery testimony earlier this week, “the pilot here doesn’t understand our plane is crashing.”
But, it seems, that might be the plan.