How did politics around reopening Anchorage get so heated?

OpenAlaska protesters pushing for a speedy opening of the economy gathered outside the Loussac Library in Anchorage on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska Watchman is a website offering a conservative religious perspective on Alaska news and social issues. In a video released earlier this week, publisher Jake Libbey laid out an argument about the different approaches taken by Alaska’s two most prominent executive leaders: Gov. Mike Dunleavy, and Anchorage Mayor Ethan Bekowitz.

“Both men are following data and weighing hospital capacity and medical supplies against the number of covid cases, with the aim of keeping the pandemic under control,” Libbey says, speaking into the camera. “But Berkowitz’s response to struggling business owners has struck a negative cord with many Alaskans.”

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Though state and local policies are nearly identical, according to Libbey the governor has spoken to residents more respectfully.

“Contrast the mayor’s approach to that of governor Dunleavy, who has repeatedly said he will not use police powers to enforce compliance with his health mandates. Instead, the governor has relied on the good will of fellow Alaskans,” Libbey said.

The politics around reopening Alaska’s economy are getting contentious. But blame isn’t spread uniformly. In Anchorage, a vocal contingent is faulting Berkowitz for economic woes connected to the pandemic shutdown, even though many agree the policies are largely in lockstep with Dunleavy’s. 

In explaining the lopsided criticism, some point to a divide in leadership styles, while others say the split is little more than political opportunism.

Libbey explained that he see’s Berkowitz’s willingness to use code enforcement against businesses, as well as the mayor’s advice that residents report bad behavior, as using a stick-style approach to compel the public’s obedience, rather than a carrot.

“It’s his tone and candor with respect to violations and encouraging people to inform on their neighbors that I think is the crux of the umbrage,” Libbey said during an interview.

RELATED: Some conservatives are pushing to reopen Alaska’s economy. But elected officials, doctors and economists urge caution.

By and large, businesses have been willing to abide by the Executive Order closures, even if many are not happy about it. According to a spokesperson for the Berkowitz administration, a total of five Stop Work orders were issued city-wide during the “hunker down” phase of the emergency measures.

“Overall, compliance with the EO’s by the businesses has been tremendous. There have been misunderstandings of the requirements, at times, however those were worked through,” wrote Carolyn Hall, communications director for the municipality, in an email.

Still, Libbey’s website, as well as a constellation of conservative blogs, social media pages, and right-wing commentators have heaped scorn on the mayor’s actions, even when they ran parallel with the governor’s orders. 

In a letter to the editor published in the Anchorage Daily News April 10, former Anchorage mayor Dan Sullivan faulted Berkowitz for allowing cannabis retailers and liquor stores to stay open but keeping restaurants closed. 

“I would recommend that Mayor Ethan Berkowitz re-evaluate why certain businesses are essential and can remain open while others, like bars and restaurants, if they take the proper precautions, cannot,” Sullivan wrote, although this same policy was in place all around the state. 

A prominent conservative blogger, Suzanne Downing, labeled a requirement that restaurants in Anchorage keep a name and phone number on file for 30-days each time a reservation is booked as “the Berkowitz data-mining mandate.” Though specific to restaurants in the municipality, the measure is intended to help with contact tracing in case of an outbreak, according to city public health officials.

Alaska is far from the only state seeing a politicization over the question of how to protect public health while gradually restarting the economy. Protests in the last few weeks in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states have demanded that governors relax restrictions and distancing measures. In those states, unlike Alaska, politicians were not in the process of relaxing the rules while the protests were occurring.

What some say is a legitimate response to government overreach, others see as political operators taking advantage of fear and anger about the pandemic. 

In Alaska, one such critic is Andrew Halcro, a Republican who ran against Berkowitz in the 2015 mayor’s race, and served across the aisle from him in the Legislature. He now works in the administration as head of the Anchorage Community Development Authority. Halcro sees the flood of blame directed towards the mayor as opportunistic and politically driven, and points to last week’s Open Alaska vehicle protests, which were carried out even as both the city and state announced they were  easing restrictions.

“These aren’t people with a rational argument to re-open the economy, these are people who are looking to make political hay,” Halcro said of the event’s organizers and prominent boosters. 

“To be perfectly honest with you, it pisses me off,” he added.

Halcro thinks there’s another major factor at play: next year’s mayoral race. Though the office of the mayor is technically non-partisan in Anchorage, it hews closely to orthodox party politics. Berkowitz served in the legislature as a Democrat, and his administration has had a generally liberal bend. Because of term limits, he is ineligible to run again next spring, making it an open race. Between then and now, Halcro expects candidates and partisan operators from both political parties to aggressively spin narratives that help their interests on social media, in editorials, on talk radio, and on blogs.

“For the next 11 months we’re going to get a steady stream of ‘the city’s on fire, and we need to be rescued,’” he said.

Though their political affiliations don’t align, Halcro defends the mayor’s record handling an onslaught of difficulties during his tenure: an economic recession, a major earthquake, and problems with crime and homelessness. And he argues that at least among Anchorage voters, there is clear support for the administration and its political allies in the Assembly. He pointed to the results of the April 7 municipal elections, when every incumbent assembly candidate running was re-elected, and almost every ballot measure proposed by the administration, including a new tax on alcohol, passed.

“We live in a time when everything becomes political,” said Bill Evans, a conservative candidate for next year’s mayoral race in Anchorage, who served on the assembly until 2017.

He thinks both Dunleavy and Berkowitz have done a fine job managing the crisis, but he sees people from both the left and right personalizing criticism against officials from opposite parties. Evans thinks the escalating rhetoric might be the natural outcome of a high stress situation at a time when people’s perspectives are shaped through filtered information streams.

“This is literally life and death for people, health-wise and economically. So it’s going to get people’s emotions up, and that just turns to politics,” Evans said.

He added that when people are frustrated, it is easier to direct that anger toward a politician whose views they generally disagree with. In this case, there is an outpouring of conservative displeasure toward Berkowitz. But, Evans said, he’s certainly seen the reverse.