Suzanna Smiles, 40, had never voted in an Alaska election before this year, she said.
But after a brutal pandemic for the small businesses that share an East Anchorage strip mall with Poshy Paws, Smiles’ dog grooming business, she decided to vote for Dave Bronson, the conservative, anti-mandate candidate in this month’s mayoral race.
“I never really was very political until I opened a business. And then I realized how much I dealt with the municipality — how much we’re at the mercy of them,” Smiles said in an interview Thursday, as she trimmed the toenails of a shih tzu named Myrtle. “It feels like they’re trying to muffle the voice of the people.”
Alaska, with its Republican governor and all-Republican Congressional delegation, is generally a red-leaning state. But Anchorage has recently been trending purple, or even blue: In 2015 and 2018 mayoral elections, Democrat Ethan Berkowitz trounced two different conservative candidates. Most Assembly members lean left. Last year, Democrat Joe Biden narrowly outpolled Republican Donald Trump in the city.
How, then, to explain Bronson’s narrow-yet-growing lead over progressive candidate Forrest Dunbar in this week’s mayoral runoff?
Observers and political consultants say they think the difference was voters like Smiley, who spent the last year struggling with the economic impact of the pandemic. The election, those experts said, became an outlet for residents frustrated with the mask mandates and closures imposed by the city government — to which Dunbar, as a member of the Assembly, belongs.
“Bronson was the vessel that people could pour their anger into,” said Jim Lottsfeldt, a left-leaning Anchorage political consultant. “For the people who were just furious about how the pandemic had upended their business and social and private lives, they were just voting for change, because they viewed the Assembly as part of the problem.”
Dunbar has had a statewide political profile after an unsuccessful run against GOP U.S. Rep. Don Young in 2014. He’s represented East Anchorage on the Assembly since 2016.
Since last year, that Assembly has been at the center of a caustic debate over the city government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Members of the Assembly’s progressive majority, including Dunbar, took a series of votes upholding emergency powers the mayor used to enact closures, capacity restrictions and mask requirements.
And while many economists say the virus itself, and people’s fears about infection, are more responsible for the toll businesses have suffered during the pandemic, that’s not how many of Bronson’s supporters saw it.
Across the street from Smiles’ business, at a car repair shop with a large Bronson sign posted outside, the owner said he lost three-fourths of his business during the shutdowns early in the pandemic.
“Nobody had money — everybody was scared to go out in the first place,” said the owner, who agreed to be identified only by his first name, Brad.
He called Dunbar the “poster child” for local and higher-level leaders who blew the pandemic out of proportion.
“They absolutely killed the economy,” he said. “COVID didn’t do it.”
In the restaurant and hospitality industry, owners and workers were particularly frustrated seeing differences between the mandates in Anchorage and the Mat-Su, where businesses faced fewer restrictions and no mask mandate.
They were also upset that Anchorage’s city government didn’t move more quickly to distribute relief money, said Sarah Oates, chief executive of industry trade group Alaska CHARR. Many residents were angry that the Assembly approved a proposal to put federal aid money toward buying buildings to house homeless people and provide drug treatment.
“You had people seeing multigenerational family businesses close permanently,” said Oates, who stressed that her group did not endorse a candidate. “So many business owners felt like, as the industry that’s always there for the community, the government turned its back on the industry.”
Dunbar’s campaign manager, Claire Shaw, said the decisions made by city leaders during the pandemic “saved lives here in Anchorage.”
“But understandably, a lot of small business owners and others are really frustrated by the restrictions that it placed on our daily life,” she said. “That’s 100% understandable. But those were the right votes. And I think the Bronson campaign really just tried to align the COVID restrictions, and everything else that the municipality did to protect residents, with Forrest himself.”
Bronson declined to comment on the results when reached by phone late last week. His campaign manager could not be reached for comment.
Bronson’s allies say his success in the election was more than a simple referendum on the Assembly’s performance, noting that, to get to last week’s runoff, he had to distinguish himself from a field of several conservative candidates in the April election.
But they also acknowledged that the pandemic, and the city government’s handling of it, played an important role.
“It was such an impactful year with people’s money, their family, the things they hold dear to them,” said Jamie Allard, a conservative Assembly member who supported Bronson’s campaign from its start. “Timing is everything. If Dave ran three years ago, he wouldn’t have won.”
Bronson’s campaign was closely aligned with an anti-mandate Facebook group, Save Anchorage, that served as a gathering for those frustrated by the city government’s actions in the pandemic. Smiles, the dog groomer, said the group became a source of information for her about the mayoral candidates and Assembly actions.
“Before, I didn’t really care,” she said. “But I feel like people need to start caring, or we’re going to start losing everything that is our country.”
By Friday, Bronson’s lead had grown to more than 1,000 votes, out of some 87,000 cast. That was the same day Assembly members voted 8-1 to remove the city’s mask requirement — eliminating one of the last of the remaining mandates Bronson ran against.
Observers on both sides of the political spectrum said while Bronson campaigned on an aggressively conservative platform, his agenda will be inevitably moderated by the Assembly. Nearly all the Assembly’s members lean progressive — and Dunbar will be among those voting on Bronson’s proposals.
“They’re going to have to forge a working relationship, for the benefit of city,” said Lottsfeldt, the consultant.