Austin Quinn-Davidson, a relative newcomer, sworn in as Anchorage mayor

a person stands in front of a house
Anchorage Assembly Chair Austin Quinn-Davidson in her Turnagain neighborhood on October 22. Quinn-Davidson will become the interim mayor of Anchorage, following Mayor Berkowitz’s resignation on October 23. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Earlier this month, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz announced his sudden resignation after a scandal. Newly elected Assembly Chair Austin Quinn-Davidson will be sworn in as Anchorage’s new mayor Friday evening.

The city she is inheriting is in an unprecedented and precarious situation — COVID-19 case numbers are the highest since the pandemic began, schools face uncertainty about in-person classes, businesses are struggling and residents are more politically divided than ever.

“I think at our core, we all believe that people are hurting right now,” Quinn-Davidson said.

With multiple ongoing crises and a shakeup in the city’s leadership, she said it’s important for people to feel like they can trust their government.

“I think the more we make decisions that are well communicated, and that are reasonable, and fair, and made with compassion, the more people will feel trust in those decisions.”

Quinn-Davidson is a lawyer by training. Since moving to Alaska in 2011 she’s worked for the Great Land Trust and the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. She grew up in Hayfork, a remote logging town in northern California. She said her parents, a carpenter and a cook, instilled in her a sense of justice. 

“When I went to school, I remember thinking, what kind of job could I do, where I could right some of those wrongs, or where I could protect the small guy or help people who really needed it?”

Today, she is among the most liberal members of the Anchorage Assembly, but she grew up with mostly conservative friends in a town that skewed conservative and libertarian. Befriending and working with people with differing viewpoints is something she’s well-versed in, she said — it’s something that makes Anchorage feel like home.

“You know, if you’re stuck in a ditch, it doesn’t matter if you’re conservative or moderate, or liberal, or however you define, we’re going to help each other. And I think that’s very much how Anchorage and Alaska feel to me,” she said.

Quinn-Davidson, now 40, lives with her wife, Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, and two dogs in the Turnagain neighborhood of West Anchorage.

People who know her well say she is soft-spoken and isn’t driven by ego. Penny Gage is a founder of Our Alaska, an initiative Quinn-Davidson was also a part of that helped people learn about Alaska’s budget crisis.

“There’s a lot of power underneath that facade,” she said. “I think she’s so smart, so capable, so intelligent, [and] can really galvanize a team behind her. And you’ve seen that in her Assembly races and her campaigns and just her work in general.”

Quinn-Davidson is set to become Anchorage’s first female mayor. And this week she’s been catching herself up on the job — learning about the administration’s COVID-19 response network, meeting with the city’s budget team and talking to former mayors. Quinn-Davidson said she’s focused on Anchorage’s economic stability.

“My role, while I’m acting mayor, is going to be to revitalize the economy and make sure that we are as strong as we can be, and that people are keeping their jobs and that we’re not losing more small businesses,” she said. “And that’s so linked with public health and the decisions we make.”

During an interview on Thursday, Quinn-Davidson refrained from saying whether she plans to implement any new mandates or restrictions to combat the case surge, because she is still getting her footing while she transitions into the mayor’s seat. 

Quinn-Davidson has only held elected office since 2018, when she won a special election to fill the Assembly seat of Tim Steele, who resigned due to health issues. Her relatively limited experience in office was a concern for some, including Assemblywoman Crystal Kennedy.

“I just think that there were other people that were more experienced, have that depth of experience and basically more qualified,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy supported Assemblyman John Weddleton to become interim mayor, highlighting his years on the Assembly and decades as an Anchorage business owner. Kennedy, a conservative, said Weddleton, a moderate, would have been a more unifying choice. 

“The reason why I was supporting John is I think we need stability. I think we need enough of a break from things that might make things more politically volatile,” she said.

Quinn-Davidson said she also thought Weddleton would have been a good choice for mayor, but several other members thought she should consider it herself. Vice-chair Felix Rivera nominated her at Friday’s meeting. 

“I know some think many on the Assembly do not listen or care about your opinion,” Rivera told citizens gathered at the meeting. “Vice Chair Quinn-Davidson is an excellent communicator who sincerely cares about what you have to say, and will listen to all parts of our community.”

Rivera said he hopes to reconvene the Assembly soon to decide how to proceed with an election to permanently fill the seat of Anchorage mayor. Quinn-Davidson becomes interim mayor at 6 p.m. on Friday.

Correction: This story previously reported that Crystal Kennedy nominated John Weddleton to become the interim mayor. While Kennedy spoke in support of Weddleton at a meeting last week, it was Assembly member Suzanne LaFrance who formally nominated him.