Home Community Politics Assembly Beat: Anchorage Emotional and Epic Changes to the Anchorage Assembly. Here’s An Illustration

Emotional and Epic Changes to the Anchorage Assembly. Here’s An Illustration

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The photo will make sense if you read this article. I promise.

Nothing gets me more excited than the annual Anchorage municipal elections. Barely anyone shows up — less than 20 percent of Anchorage voters turned out in this year’s municipal elections, even though 55 percent of the body governing Alaska’s largest city was up for grabs. We spent much more attention to safe seat Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) held by 15 points over her closest opponent.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) similarly won easily with roughly the same margin.

Nearly 62 percent of registered voters turned out, despite Murkowski’s presence in the senate equating to one percent of the body and Young’s a dismal 0.23 percent in the House.

So, the biggest turnout shows up for the least immediately important elected posts. Fun. Neat. Great priorities.

Moving on.

As a college professor once told me, the world belongs to those who show up. Evidently, the same goes for municipalities.

My favorite moment in politics happened tonight, as the Anchorage Assembly thanked four retiring members for their service and welcomed their newly-elected replacements.

The Assembly has struggled with its identity over the past ten years. The body is nonpartisan by Charter — our city’s constitution — but has begun to mimic the state and federal legislative bodies in recent years. That is unfortunate. The objections from the electorate, who, broadly, seem to only opine when the people they didn’t show up to vote for or against do something they haven’t bothered to research but heard they should object to, are kind of annoying. But, hey, democracy! (Rebuttal: It’s a republic! Re-rebuttal: it’s a constitutionally limited, representative, democratic republic — google it.)

But the Anchorage Assembly is still, in practice, small enough of a body to offer up a beacon of hope.

Tuesday evening was that annual event. I’ve sat through a decade of these. This was the most emotional — though now-Rep. Harriet Drummond’s (D-Anchorage) puppet show send-off to Sheila Selkregg was a notable second.

It was emotional for many reasons — and, admittedly, struck close to home. I was a staffer on the Assembly for three years for Patrick Flynn, the sole representative of the downtown district. And tonight, I saw my boss term out. I saw a close friend replace him. Christopher Constant and Felix Rivera broke a giant ceiling with their electoral wins this year, becoming the first openly gay elected officials to ever be elected to office in Alaska’s largest city. They burst through that barrier and accomplished something amazing — twice in one night.

On the other hand, well over half a century’s worth of institutional knowledge just walked out the doors of the Assembly Chambers in the heart of the Loussac Library with the departure of Bill Evans (South Anchorage), Patrick Flynn (Downtown), Elvi Gray-Jackson (Midtown), and Bill Starr (Eagle River).

Bidding Farewell

Flynn, Gray-Jackson, and Starr are terming out after three three-year terms. Evans chose not to seek reelection after an effective first term, including drafting the first version of AO-96 — an ordinance protecting LGBTQ residents of the municipality from discrimination — despite being a conservative representing a deep red district in South Anchorage. He also took on the taxi cab union and expanded the amount of permits accorded in an attempt to create competition. Voters backed him up on that move, by the tune of a near 20 point advantage.

“I don’t think all conservatives are cut out of the same cloth or believe exactly the same things, although some demand that they do,” Evans told me shortly after introducing the anti-discrimination ordinance, which was a significant plank of the Berkowitz Administration’s mayoral campaign. “No, I fully support what I’m doing. I think it’s the right approach to this.”

Berkowitz’s opponent in that election was then-freshman Eagle River Assembly member Amy Demboski, who credited Evans for her decision to run and then ran opposing such an ordinance.

“It’s always fun when you have people who are independent thinkers, because it challenges you to look for creative solutions. And Mr. Evans, there’s no question. You have left a mark on the Anchorage Assembly and the Municipality of Anchorage,” she told Evans Tuesday evening. “I’ve watched you. I’ve learned from you. And I just appreciate the way you critique issues and the way that you challenged me on my own ideas. I will miss you. Believe it or not, I will.”

“We’ve got two types of people working on this Assembly: potted plants and people who want to get things done. Thank you for not being a potted plant,” Dick Traini (Midtown) said. “You shook things up. I may not always agree with you, but you shook them and I appreciate you for that. Thanks for working with us.”

Some were happier to be moving on than others.

“I’m not going to be here after tonight. That’s probably a good thing,” Starr told a crowded room. Starr has been a consistent voice for the shrinking conservative contingent on the body. “I think we all came into this with the idea that we were going to change the world and, to a certain degree, we did change our little world.”

It should be noted that, in my experience, if Starr found a topic that he thought he might presumably take issue with, he would study it with a veracity and devotion that gave him an advantage over anyone else on the body. And anyone who ended up on his bad side immediately regretted their error.

“I take credit for some of it. I also really commend the folks that stayed up here with me and we did it all together,” he added.

“Bill, you’re going to go back, but you’re going to watch us. You’re going to know what’s going on,” Tim Steele (West Anchorage) responded. “And I hope to hear from you when you’ve got something positive to say.”

“I’m looking forward to leaving, actually,” Flynn half-joked. “And I had a few friends over, and one of them who couldn’t make it [tonight] said, ‘Well it’s only one-fifth of his life. What’s the big deal?'”

Flynn thanked his neighbors, who, he said, “were kind enough to let me be their voice on this body for all these years.”

“That’s the privilege of representing a district where you grew up and where people may not necessarily agree with you, but they know you and they trust you to do your best,” he added. “Maybe we’re not necessarily always going to get it right, and I certainly did not every time, but you do your best.”

There is no one who has taught me as much about politics, public policy, and public service as Patrick Flynn during my three years as his staffer on the Assembly. (I say that with apologies to the amazing professors at UAA, but I’m fairly sure they will understand.)

Elvi Gray-Jackson was emotional as the notion of leaving the body after the closing moments of her two years as chair, nine years as an Assembly member, and 29 years of public service within the municipality set in.

When it was her turn to speak, she said she had been crying all day and asked Municipal Clerk Barbara Jones to read a statement she penned.

My goal for Anchorage was to improve public safety, support public education for our children, maintain integrity and ethics in government, grow our economy, and enhance the quality of life. I did my best,” Jones said in her steed. “I know I haven’t always voted the same way some of you may have hoped, but I am proud to say I’ve always listened, never made any decision based on personal opinion, and did what I thought was best for the community as a whole.

“I am grateful to have worked with all of you, whether it’s been one year, for years, or nine years,” she concluded.

“I’ve seen firsthand just how much your community means to you. You always fought on behalf of your constituents and represented them well,” Starr told Gray-Jackson.

While reading her statement, Jones stumbled on one sentence. Gray-Jackson wrote, “To the Assembly staff, I hope you’ve enjoyed the personal notes written to each of you.”

Jones interrupted her own reading to interject, “We have.”

New Members Sworn In

Christopher Constant replaced Flynn representing the sole downtown district seat.

Felix Rivera fills the vacancy left by Gray-Jackson, who offered him her full support.

“There will be nobody, Elvi, that can replace you,” Traini opined to his longtime colleague. “Although Felix has been trying, I’m told he’s almost to where he can get into size 12 shoes. That’s some big shoes to fill.”

Suzanne LaFrance cleared a major hurdle as, after Weddleton’s victory last year, both South Anchorage seats are now held by center-left candidates.

After the new members were sworn in — and Traini was returned to the chairmanship (a position he’s held more than anyone else in the city’s history) and Forrest Dunbar was elected as vice chair — Christopher Constant raised his voice during the closing minutes of Tuesday’s brief meeting.

I just want to take a moment to put on the record that Anchorage has crossed a threshold: that for the first time, openly gay elected officials now serve this city; that the process has been long and hard; that this city’s gone back and forth for 40 years determining representation for LGBT people should be equal and that protection should be provided by law. And we’ve gotten there. And we’ve taken the next step. And I look forward to serving this body and taking care of our roads, and our streets, and our public safety, and all the issues that are important therein. And I’m glad that I’m not there alone.

From Potted Plants to Comic Books, and Credit Where It’s Due

“Let’s talk about comic books for a moment,” freshman South Anchorage Assembly member John Weddleton said, breaking the emotionally fraught proceedings.

Weddleton, aside from being an Assembly member, is the owner of Bosco’s Comics, Cards, and Games.

He noted that, during the last meeting before Christmas, he handed out custom-made buttons linking his colleagues to superheroes. “And I gave a little thought to the buttons before I gave it to them.”

Bill Evans was Magneto. And, you know, Magneto – a lot of people loathe him, a lot of people champion him. Magneto doesn’t care. But, wherever Magneto is going to go, big things are going to happen. And that was Bill Evans and he did not stop after Christmas with big things. Very, very impressive. Enjoyed working with him.

Patrick Flynn was, of course, Loki. Like Loki, if he’s only half as smart as he thinks he is, he is the brightest man in the room, and does everything with some degree of mischief. Sometimes a lot. So, it was a perfect fit.

For Elvi, interesting enough, they have been drawing the character Storm to look like Elvi for decades. So, I chose Storm not just because of that, but also because Storm is a force of nature, as is Elvi. And it’s been a joy working with her. I’ve learned so much. Not just in this year, but even in my involvement prior to being on the Assembly.

Bill Starr got Iron Man —  not just because he’s a rich guy who likes to fly, but, also, you know, one way or the other, he ends up fighting really hard for what he thinks is right and that’s really important.

 

John Aronno is a co-founder, managing editor, and award winning political writer at Alaska Commons. Aronno has had his work featured in the Huffington Post, the Anchorage Press, the Alaska Dispatch, and the Rachel Maddow Show, and is listed among the state’s top reporters on the Washington Post’s “The Fix.” He writes the weekly column “On Politics” for Alaska Commons. Aronno lives in Anchorage, Alaska with his wife, Heather Aronno, and a lot of pets.

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