The recall is a high-stakes battle that won’t change the balance of power

Today’s the day if you live in Anchorage’s District 4 to return to your by-mail ballot deciding whether to recall Assemblymember Meg Zalatel. It’s the second of two recall efforts borne out of the far-right private Facebook group Save Anchorage that have targeted progressive assemblymembers for recall over largely minor and technical infractions.

In this case, the complaint is that Zalatel participated in a meeting where too many people were present according to covid-19 mitigation efforts. But like with most recalls in the post-Recall Dunleavy era, it’s about far more than just that.

It’s viewed as a proxy battle between the city’s vitriolic extreme-right, helmed by Mayor Dave Bronson, and the coalition of moderates and progressives who’ve refused to rubberstamp the mayor’s agenda and have pushed for a more direct approach to curbing the covid-19 pandemic, which peaked with the passage of a mask mandate earlier this month.

For the far right, it’s a critical vote to prove that their movement extends beyond the confines of Save Anchorage and stage that is the Anchorage Assembly’s public testimony microphone, which had been dominated for nearly two weeks with angry, hate-filled and conspiratorial testimony opposing the mask mandate. The testimony’s appearance as a spontaneous grassroots effort has been undercut by clear coordination between Bronson, his allies and the audience (ditching the yellow stars after Bronson caught flack and deciding to stay home when progressive supporters planned their own demonstration).

The spending to influence the vote has already dwarfed the effort to recall Assemblymember Felix Rivera by a wide margin. Roughly $35,000 total went into that vote while an eye-watering $140,000 has been dropped on the pro-recall groups and another $130,000 has been dropped on anti-recall groups.

For the progressive side, opposing the recall is largely about keeping one of the assembly’s heavy lifters on the job. Zalatel has been a central figure in the assembly’s efforts to address homelessness and took the lead with the masking mandate. She was elected in 2019, defeating conservative Christine Hill (one of the organizers who cut out and distributed the Stars of David during the mask hearings and a member of the recall effort) and Ron Alleva (the businessman who spread hazardous chemicals on a homeless gathering spot) by a wide margin. She’s set to be up for re-election in April of next year.

What’s next

The ballots are due today. We expect to see some results reported tonight but given that Anchorage’s elections are conducted by mail we likely won’t have a full picture of how things play out for several days.

Why it doesn’t really* matter

If the recall is successful, it won’t change the balance of power on the Assembly because it’s the Assembly—which will still have its core of eight moderate/progressive members—that will choose the replacement to fill in through to the regular election in the spring. That’s critical because it takes eight members to override a veto from the mayor and nine to enact an emergency ordinance—as they did with the masking mandate that passed, was vetoed and was reenacted earlier this month.

Why it really does matter

From the spurious recall efforts to the coordination that went into wave of conspiracy-fueled testimony against the mask mandate, it’s part of the far right’s playbook to make public service at best an unpleasant task and, at worst, a direct threat to one’s personal safety and livelihood (Zalatel didn’t attend the mask hearings out of concern for her personal safety). According to Ballotpedia’s numbers, there have been 107 recalls initiated with some tie to the pandemic.

While only one of those recalls resulted in removing the official from office, that doesn’t appear to be the point. Several of the recall efforts listed on Ballotpedia resulted in an official resigning. Also what’s not captured is the impact on officials’ decisions to seek re-election or prospective candidates decisions to enter the race.

That was the case in the Fairbanks North Star Borough where a slate of three progressive/moderate incumbents all declined to run for re-election after enduring the same flavor of pushback (though the progressive/moderates challengers all ended up winning the open seats).

Organization around anger is an effective way to keep a base engaged with their eyes on the spring elections.

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