After bruising campaign, Bronson says he’s looking for common ground in Anchorage

a person in a suit speaking into a microphone
Anchorage Mayor-elect Dave Bronson speaks with Alaska Public Media during an interview at Tent City Taphouse on June 1, 2021. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

A retired pilot, Dave Bronson has never seen himself as a politician. 

“I don’t necessarily like the work. It’s not very precise work,” he said, in an empty dining room at Tent City Taphouse in downtown Anchorage earlier this month. “There’s people that don’t tell the truth. In the flying world, everyone told the truth.”

Bronson spent the last three decades as a commercial pilot, flying to Shanghai or Amsterdam a few times a week for Northwest Airlines, which was later absorbed by Delta. He had routines in each of his usual cities, but said Anchorage was always home.

“I’m a hunt, fish and fly kind of guy. It’s real simple for me,” he said. “And I can’t imagine a better place in the world to live [than Anchorage] if you want to hunt and fish and fly airplanes.”

Last year, in the middle of the pandemic, Bronson took an early retirement package, trading the grueling schedule of an international pilot for his favorite activities at home. But, he said, it was hard to relax. 

“I was hunting, fishing, flying — everything I’d worked for — and I got to the point I just didn’t enjoy it. Because all I just sat and thought about a lot [was] how broken the city was, and it was just going in the wrong direction,” he said. “I make it sound like a campaign talk, but that’s just what it is. And I thought I’d step up to the plate and fix it.”

Bronson, who is 62, has never held political office before. He will take over the helm of Alaska’s largest city next month. 

But while he may seem like a newcomer, in the 30 years he’s lived in Alaska, Bronson has been an active citizen, attending Assembly meetings and serving as Republican chair for District 25. He ran for the Midtown Assembly seat in 2011, but lost to now state Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson. He helped found Alaska Family Council, a nonprofit that advocates for conservative Christian values and opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. Bronson served on the board until a few years ago. 

Bronson and his wife Debra, a certified public accountant, have also attended Anchorage Baptist Temple for nearly 30 years. They have a son, who is also a commercial pilot, and a daughter, who is working on a biochemistry PhD out of state. 

Fred Dyson, a former Assembly member and state senator and current Alaska Family Council board member, remembered Bronson visiting him in Juneau to talk about policy. Dyson described him as sharp and principled. 

“My sense is he’s not a guy who enjoys sitting around making small talk, or talking about baseball games or weather and stuff,” Dyson said. “He’s a pretty purposeful kind of guy.”

When Bronson put his name in for the mayoral race last summer, Dyson said he was glad to see it.

“[I’m] not at all surprised that he’s willing to roll up his sleeves and work on it rather than, like lots of people, stand on the sidelines and yell or clap. This is a go-getter,” he said.

Anchorage has been deeply divided on issues like COVID response, relief money and homelessness in the last year. Many times, assembly meetings have gotten tense and confrontational.

Much of the 2021 mayoral race centered on the way Anchorage officials handled the COVID-19 pandemic. Bronson’s campaign rose out of the Save Anchorage movement last summer, which criticized the city’s largely progressive Assembly and mayors for measures like the mask mandate, gathering limitations and business shutdowns. 

Dyson and other conservatives argue that the last election indicates a turning political tide in Anchorage. 

“You look back, and by and large, the Assembly has been moderately or significantly left of center for a long, long time,” Dyson said. “Dave was in the right place at the right time to catch this wave of people’s anger and resentment and frustration.”

As his transition team prepares for him to take office on July 1, Bronson is outlining strategies to address major issues facing Anchorage, including economic repercussions of COVID-19, homelessness and housing affordability.

“We’re kind of reinventing government, we’re reorganizing government,” Bronson said.

Among the team’s ideas are a controversial proposal for a massive homeless shelter in East Anchorage, a plan to rebate property taxes to businesses shut down during the pandemic, and creating economic incentives for developers to build in downtown. 

But the conservative mayor-elect is still going to be paired with a majority-progressive Assembly to get things done.

Dan Coffey, a former Assembly member and 2015 mayoral candidate, said a good working relationship is in the best interest of both sides if they want to avoid a cycle of mayoral vetoes and Assembly veto overrides.

“It’s not going to work well if [Bronson] tries to do anything that’s earth-shattering. He’s got to build relationships, he’s got to convince them he’s not an ogre, he’s got to let the temperature from the campaign die down,” he said.

As for Assembly members, Coffey added, “They got an election coming up in a few short months. And if they’re completely anti the mayor, that’s going to backfire on them.”

In an interview last month, Assembly member Felix Rivera said despite their differences, he’s hopeful and willing to give Bronson’s administration “the benefit of the doubt” that they are willing to work with the Assembly.

“We have a homelessness issue that we have to address, we have to rebuild our economy post-COVID-19. There’s just some really important pieces that we’ve already started. And I’m hopeful that this new administration will come in and rather than try to change direction entirely, will hopefully try to have a conversation with us,” Rivera said.

Bronson, who describes himself as “center-right,” said he thinks he’ll be able to work successfully with a majority progressive Assembly. 

“We agree, I think, on more than we disagree on,” he said. “I think I can get together and work with Felix and even Forrest and Chris Constant. I think I can get together and we can work on those things. I’m not this right-wing ogre that a lot of the campaigns portray me as.”

While he’s committed to working together, Bronson said he also won’t sway from his conservative principles. Echoing national conservative rhetoric, he said he doesn’t want to see Anchorage look like largely blue, west coast cities like San Francisco or Portland. 

“We used to know how to run cities, run them well … There’s people that seem bent on changing what America means,” he said. “I’m not for that, and I’m here to resist that with every fiber of my being.”

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