Flanked on either side by Anchorage Assembly Chair Elvi Gray Jackson and First Lady Mara Kimmel, with Vice Chair Dick Traini joining the on-camera phalanx, Felix Rivera announced his candidacy for the Assembly Tuesday morning.
Rivera has run for office before. The Louisiana native moved to Texas as a child, graduating high school in San Antonio. He moved to Anchorage to attend Alaska Pacific University in 2008, where he served as student body president at APU and graduated with a BA in liberal studies (with a focus on journalism — he would go on to intern for the Alaska Dispatch) in 2011.
Rivera became active in the Anchorage community, concentrating on a wide range of issues which has only increased in scope in the years separating then from now.
In 2009, he became a board member of Identity, Inc., Anchorage’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center, a nonprofit that seeks to advance the LGBT community through education, advocacy, and connectivity. He continues to hold that position. In 2012, when Anchorage attempted (but failed) to pass a ballot measure targeting discrimination against the municipality’s LGBT community, he jumped on the board supporting the measure.
Currently, Rivera serves as board president of the Alaska Institute for Justice — with Kimmel — which provides legal services for immigrants and refugees. And he was recently appointed by Mayor Ethan Berkowitz to the Public Transit Advisory Board (PTAB), working on public transportation policies.
In 2014, Rivera ran for office against Senate President Kevin Meyer (R-Anchorage). With little name recognition running against a prominent Republican serving in a leadership position, it didn’t pan out. Rivera lost by nearly 40 points.
He’s not running as an unknown entity this time, gaining two powerful endorsements on Tuesday.
“I’m going to be endorsing [Rivera] because he’ll make a good Assembly member,” Traini told reporters during the press release, calling him a “good replacement” for his departing midtown colleague. “I’ve been on the Assembly for a few years and I’ve worked with a lot of people. I think Felix is in a good position to come on the Assembly and be an advocate for different communities in Anchorage. He comes to community council meetings.”
To deconstruct that humble-brag for a moment, Traini is the longest serving Assembly member in Anchorage municipal history — and has served as chair longer than anyone else as well. He was first elected in 1991 and has worked for six different administrations, alongside nearly three dozen Assembly members.
“I’m really excited to endorse Felix Rivera because Felix is running for all the rights reasons and that’s really important to me,” Gray Jackson spoke next. “I’m also excited because Felix is going to work as hard as I have… and that makes it really easy for me to endorse him this afternoon.”
Gray Jackson began her tenure working for the Assembly in 1988, starting as an administrative assistant and rising all the way to Director of Budget and Legislative Services. She first ran for the midtown seat in 2007, losing a close race to longtime Assembly member Dan Coffey. The following year she defeated Traini, now her strongest ally on the body, by roughly the same 400-vote margin that Coffey bested her with previously. Her web adverts also markedly improved.
Those margins of victory changed in her favor quite a bit over the years. Gray Jackson put down conservative challenger and Alaska Family Council board member Dave Bronson in 2011 by more than 15 points. By 2014, nobody bothered to challenge her and she enjoyed 85 percent of the vote (rather astonishingly, despite no one contesting the election, her vote tally still increased by 17 percent). She was sworn in as the Chair of the Assembly in April of this year.
“The fact of the matter is I’m the second minority to ever serve on the Anchorage Assembly. And I really want to see more minorities serve the public,” Gray Jackson told me after the presser. “I want our legislative branch of government to look like our community and to continue to look like our community.”
So, that was important to me to support and endorse a minority, but it wasn’t the only thing. It’s great that Felix is a minority, but he’s also running for all the right reasons. He’s running because he really wants to make a difference in this community. And I also wanted somebody to run for office who could say to me, “You know, Elvi, I know how hard you’ve worked for the last eight and a half years and I’m going to work just as hard as you have.” I needed that commitment before I endorse somebody and say to all of my constituents, “This is the person that I’m endorsing to take my seat.” You know, I needed the commitment. I got that commitment from Felix.
Anchorage (and the broader state) has struggled with a history of older, straight, white men holding the overwhelming bulk of elected offices — occasionally disrupted by older, straight, white women. Bettye Davis was the first African American elected to the state legislature, serving in the state house first from 1990-1996, and then was elected to the state senate where she served from 2001-2013. She now serves on the Anchorage School Board, where she began her career in Alaska politics back in 1982.
David Wilson (R-Wasilla) became the second African American elected — and the first Black man ever elected to the state senate. He pulled off the upset of the year over Rep. Lynn Gattis (R-Wasilla), who was expected to glide into the seat left open by retiring Sen. Charlie Huggins.
Anchorage tells a similar story. As Gray Jackson noted, since the municipality’s unification in 1975, only she and Melinda Taylor have represented the African American community on the 11-member body. Taylor served in the late-1990s.
According to census data, 65.5 percent of municipal residents identify as “White alone,” meaning that for the Assembly to look like its constituents, three or four should be, accordingly, not white.
There aren’t any definitive data on citywide sexual orientation and gender identity demographics available, but there has never been an openly gay man or woman to serve elected office at the state or municipal level in Alaska.
Rivera is openly gay and one of two candidates running to break that barrier in Anchorage this April. When I asked him about it, Traini interrupted.
“We don’t care if they’re gay or if they’re straight or anything,” he said quickly. “That’s their business. Anchorage is changing. The demographics are changing dramatically. And he represents a constituency.”
“It certainly, I think, is a symbol to my own community — the LGBT community — that times are changing, like Dick says,” Rivera added. “That you can be you and not be worried about discrimination. Or, if you are worried about discrimination, which I’m sure still happens, you have opportunities of access to get justice, right? And those are the biggest things. There were barriers for us to get justice and now there are not, so we feel we can be ourselves.”
The Assembly finally passed a nondiscrimination ordinance last year.
But there are plenty of more issues to tackle, Rivera told me. Homelessness (he is a big fan of the “Tiny House” movement), public transportation, and — perhaps the most pressing issue — public safety during a spree of homicides plaguing the municipality.
“Our police force does a great job keeping us safe. Sadly, they have been destroyed over the past few years,” he added. “We have an administration now that is intent on rebuilding our police force and I’m thankful for that.”
He talked about the need for community policing models — aimed at integrating officers into the communities they serve so that interactions aren’t restricted to punitive measures. Sacramento, California, for instance, adopted a program called “Officer Next Door,” which incorporates the hyperlocal social media site “NextDoor” to improve police-resident relationships.
“They adopted it, and within a year they saw a 7.7 percent reduction in crime and a 30 percent reduction in shootings,” he said. “So, that’s just an example of what the community can do with the police force; what the community can do with our municipality to work on these issues together. And that’s really why I’m running: to build common ground, to serve the needs of the community. And that’s really — any public servant — what they should do. Serve before anything else.”
As for Gray Jackson, I wouldn’t recommend betting on her to ride off into the sunset any time soon. I asked if she had any immediate plans.
“I’m not really sure, but I have some options. And, no, I’m not just going to go away. By no means,” she answered. “You know, I’ve loved being on the Anchorage Assembly. I love it because I enjoy helping people, and I’ve helped so many people in this community. And people just want you to listen to them. They know that you can’t solve all the problems. They know that. But they just want to be heard.”
Next year’s municipal election will be held on April 4.