Discover more from The Alaska Memo by Matt Buxton
Bronson administration meets the consequences of their anti-science, pro-covid actions
It’s been a utterly wild day for Alaska news.
Happy Friday, Alaska!
In this edition: It’s been a utterly wild day for Alaska news. The Bronson administration gets covid-19 after putting together a super-spreader event to oppose mask mandates; a judge ruled that Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Tuckerman Babcock can be held personally liable for violating state employees’ First Amendment rights with their loyalty pledge firings; and Kelly Tshibaka got hit with her $270 citation for playing “fish camp.” Also, the reading list and some musical weekend watching.
Programming note: It’s nearly 7 p.m., so this week’s edition of Friday in the Sun will be a Saturday in the Sun sort of thing, but unlike usual I actually have a fair bit of hot goss’ to spill, so be sure to tune in… sometime after about noon tomorrow.
Actions meet consequences
Following what was perhaps the grimmest night in the Anchorage Assembly’s drawn-out hearing on the proposed mask mandate—a night that featured parents forcing their children to read pre-written letters into public testimony, some not-great sing-alongs and some truly petulant actions by the Bronson administration—the Bronson administration announced that two members have tested positive for covid-19: Municipal manager Amy “I don’t run the city. Amy Demboski runs the city” Demboski and municipal attorney Patrick Bergt (both are vaccinated and experiencing symptoms, per the ADN). While Bergt was one of the few to wear a mask during the last two weeks of assembly meetings, Demboski did not and was photographed frequently standing in close contact with other members of the administration as well as members of the Anchorage Assembly, including when the administration childishly ordered the removal of plexiglass screens from the chambers.
Of course, Demboski had also been looming around the Anchorage Assembly over several days so the entirety of the Anchorage Assembly that had been present (several have been participating via telephone out of concern for their personal safety) would fall under close contacts. Most of the assembly is vaccinated and leadership opted to cancel today’s continued hearing on the mask mandate in following CDC guidelines (which has raised plenty of speculation that that was precisely the play by the Bronson administration, which has grasped at any tool available to slow the process).
What it all means at this point isn’t entirely clear.
Practically speaking, the Anchorage Assembly canceled today’s hearing and is exploring the potential to postpone the start of next week’s regular hearing, which is notable insofar as it’s the hearing where the assembly would be asked to approve a new contract or additional funding for testing (oh, right, because the administration is cutting back on testing hours and telling people not to get tested due to an apparent budget shortfall).
In the bigger sense, just how the covid-19 cases in the administration and, potentially, among the Anchorage Assembly will put a fine underline on the merits of the masking mandate just as they finally might be maybe approaching a debate and vote on the measure.
Loyalty pledge firings
It’s been what feels like a lifetime since Gov. Mike Dunleavy took office with a wave of firings of state employees who refused to sign pledges to his political agenda. Today, a federal judge ruled that not only did the two violate the First Amendment rights of the employees but that they could also be held personally liable for their actions. Judge John Sedwick ruled today that the loyalty pledges that the governor required of all at-will employees—which reached well beyond the normal bounds of political appointments to lawyers, pharmacists and, in this lawsuit, Alaska Psychiatric Institute doctors—amounted to an unconstitutional infringement on First Amendment rights by essentially requiring these employees to sign in support of a political agenda as part of their conditions of employment.
“This warning would be expected to chill employees’ political affiliations and activities that officials would consider subversive to the administration’s agenda,” he wrote.
What’s also critically important about this case is that it also strips away Dunleavy and Babcock’s qualified immunity, meaning they could be held personally and financially liable for the consequences of their actions.
It’s also good news for former state attorney Libby Bakalar, who’s also pursuing her own lawsuit against the administration over her own firing. She weighed in on the ruling on Twitter this afternoon, writing that:
“It is highly unusual for a court to strip government defendants of qualified immunity. It means that their actions were so egregious, that they do not deserve the protections of their jobs for having acted reasonably and professionally. There are some factual distinctions between my case & this, but the fundamental issues—the unconstitutionality of the patronage scheme, the egregious conduct of the defendants sufficient to strip them of qualified immunity in their treatment of the workforce—are common to both.”
That’s how much former Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly “Close the DMVs” Tshibaka has been cited for fishing without a commercial crew license. The charges stem from her particularly tone-deaf “fish camp” campaign ad where she attempted to establish her Alaska bona fides by fishing in a way that looked to pretty much everyone who’s been fishing a lot more like commercial fishing than the quaint, romantic image of hardy Alaskan self-reliance that she was shooting for.
It’s a headache that’s likely to dog extreme-right conservative throughout the race because, after all, there are few things more damning in Alaska politics than fish and game violations. The Trump-endorsed Tshibaka hopes to unseat Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski next year, which will come with the added challenge of the open primary and ranked-choice general election… which, for the record, Tshibaka had hoped to overturn with the Trump Big Lie.
Poisoning the well of local politics, reheated
I wrote the original version of this part of the column for the newsletter about 20 minutes into the Anchorage Assembly’s first meeting on the proposed mask mandate last week. By the time I hit send, the meeting had been interrupted several times and a thinly veiled death threat aimed at the Assembly had been applauded by the mob assembled by extreme-right Mayor Dave Bronson and his allies. The testimony on the mask mandate was still hours away and it was already abundantly clear that Bronson and his allies intended to disrupt and debase the public process with as much bad-faith, anti-democratic tactics as possible.
More than a week and a half later, it’s proved to be even worse and wanted to write an updated version of it for today (which you can also find on the blog).
Bronson’s audience has assailed the assembly with threats, jeers and disruptions with dashes of homophobia and antisemitism mixed in for good measure. They've sought to entangle the process even further by asking clearly off-topic questions intended to draw out the hearing even longer and have petty, childish tactics like pulling security, withholding resources and quite literally swiping the plexiglass dividers in the chambers during the meeting.
It’s increasingly clear that it’s a concerted effort not just to prolong the debate in a “People’s Filibuster” but to make the job of serving the public so difficult and hostile that it’ll drive away anyone not ready to rubberstamp Bronson’s agenda. This is not an administration interested in anything other than "Owning the libs" as long as it keeps the base motivated, angry and scared.
As someone who’s covered Alaska politics in one form or another for a decade, it’s a deeply disheartening sight. This deep-rooted, rotten anger is anger for anger’s sake. It’s an effective tool utilized by the extreme-right and their cheerleaders to rile up the base to the point where they’re disrupting meetings and dragging everyone else into this deeply adversarial and counterproductive muck. It’s not unique to the Anchorage Assembly either, but a countrywide movement that we’ve seen take root at everything from school board meetings with the hollow fear mongering over critical race theory to, well, the January 6 insurrection. Where we once hoped that the attempted insurrection would have been a turning point for the country, the acrimony has only deepened and worsened. On the local level, there’s a general anxiety about when the shouting and disruptions will turn to violence thanks to the constant drip of misinformation and vitriol fed to them through channels that know full well what they’re doing. The outrage is far too valuable.
What’s particularly disheartening for me, a wonk who ultimately likes when policy makes sense and has a meaningful and equitable impact on bettering people’s lives and opportunities, is that there’s nothing but garbage contained in this outrage. There’s no call to make things better beyond this conspiracy-laden approach of “It's fine that people die as long as we’re free from mild inconvenience.” The refusal to go tolerate the minor inconveniences for the good of the community ensures the pandemic, its uncertainty, and all the pain and suffering will drag on much longer.
What economic growth is there when covid-19 outbreaks close your doors for you? What return to normal is there when people continue to worry that getting your hair cut or testifying to the Anchorage Assembly is putting your personal safety on the line? What freedom is there when you’re gasping for breath, about to be intubated?
The assembly is not talking about vaccine mandates, limitations on gatherings or business closures. They are talking about face masks that limit the spread of aerosolized breath droplets that carry and transmit the highly contagious delta variant. It’s not even about eliminating the virus anymore—a possibility that has long gone out the window—but about lowering the risk for everyone in a way that allows you to still eat out, go shopping, see movies and attend what few shows are still being held under the banner headlines of Alaska’s out-of-control covid-19 cases.
But unfortunately, Bronson and his allies are so committed to the us-versus-them mentality that they’ve resorted to using every tool in the toolbox to delay and sow doubt about the pandemic. In the face of the continued high cases and high positivity rate, the Bronson administration is cutting back testing hours and telling people not to get tested. Bronson has also endorsed the use of ivermectin to treat covid-19 and accused hospitals of lying about being strained to the breaking point, fomenting a continuing surge of ire and abuse targeted at the state’s health care workers that continues to make national headlines.
The continued strain on hospitals, preventable deaths and unchecked spread of covid-19—including inside the assembly chambers—is all far too valuable a tool to drive the wedge that much further into the community.
Kevin McGee, the head of Anchorage NAACP, summed it all up well in an editorial last week: Alaska’s failed leadership has given us a fatal lottery:
I was going to write, “We are living through…” but I stopped myself. “We” are not all living through this lottery of death created by the utter failure of leadership by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Mayor Dave Bronson and their chorus of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists who have flooded Alaska hospitals. So some of us are living, others are dying, and so-called “leaders” who refuse to do anything to contain this virus will remain stained with the blood of our fallen neighbors forever.
But even when the pandemic eventually subsides, I’m deeply worried about the future of public service. With the disruptive hearings, the death threats and the spurious recall efforts, I wonder who the hell would want to run for public office anymore?
While doing some research for an article about how the Bronson administration promoting the recall probably violates election laws (which, hooboy, you can find that story here), I stumbled across Ballotpedia’s aggregation of more than 100 recall efforts that have been launched during the pandemic. According to that breakdown, only one of the 103 (99 when I had first written this column) efforts successfully removed the targeted person from office. Most never make it to the ballot, but what was particularly striking to me is the half-dozen or more that resigned rather than deal with it.
I have a feeling that that’s the point.
For most, running for school board or the assembly isn’t so much about a grand political agenda as it is about serving the community. That sense of service really made my initial years in Alaska covering the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly enjoyable. I saw people there work across deep political divides to enact meaningful measures and, heck, took off time when they felt that there wasn’t any pressing tinkering to do with the laws. There was a sense of community, of working together to pull in the same direction that now seems so alien when I see the flag waving and not-even-thinly-veiled death threats at the Anchorage Assembly meeting.
I look at the political climate today and wonder why any good, decent person would want to get involved with it when the job comes with guarantees of threats, personal attacks on them and their family—and possibly worse. I don’t blame anyone who looks at the whole situation and thinks “Nah, I’m good.” But I’d also say that that is letting that other, acrimonious side win.
The recent Fairbanks elections also are a reason for some cautious optimism.
Voters this week sent extreme-right candidates packing in a sharp rebuked of fringe conspiracies theories and the division that threatens to cut a community in two. Observers there chalk up the victory to a combination of stronger, coordinated campaigning by the moderates and progressives, voters who were galvanized by the Anchorage Assembly's uncivil display and, critically, conservatives who saw and understood the risk and pulled their support of those far-right, casting votes that were more against the hate than in support of the progressives.
If Anchorage hopes to turn the tides, it's critically important for people to meet next spring's elections, this fall's recall election and whatever else with energy and organization. The barrage of hate and acrimony is precisely because they don't have the votes on the Anchorage Assembly to effectively make Bronson a king. They hope to turn this ire into a surge that will put more like extreme-right Nazi plate-defending Assemblymember Jamie Allard into Assembly seats.
It's important not just for moderates and progressives to stand up against this but for conservatives to do more than just quietly and privately express their concern about the direction of the city. Anything else is quiet approval of the direction that Bronson and his goons are steering this city.
As Travis Neff said in fiery testimony earlier this week, "the pilot here doesn’t understand our plane is crashing."
But, it seems, that might be the plan.
The reading list
Speaking about the economic cost of the pandemic, it turns out that someone’s been keeping track of things. From the Anchorage Daily News: COVID-related cancellations of conferences and events pulled $39 million out of the Anchorage economy this year
While it’s doom and gloom in the Anchorage area, there’s some reasons for optimism following Fairbanks voters’ rejection of extreme-right candidates in this week’s local elections. Observers chalk up the results to a mixture of stronger campaigning, the galvanizing effect of the Anchorage Assembly fight and key conservatives abandoning the increasingly toxic extreme-right. From the blog: Voters send extreme-right candidates packing in Fairbanks elections
It feels like a month ago that we all woke up to a magical half-day where Facebook had gone down. Amid all of that there was a really ground-breaking report by 60 Minutes with Frances Haugen, a whistleblower who blew the doors open on Facebook’s profits-focused approach to hooking people to social media and fueling outrage. The segment is worth a watch. From 60 Minutes on YouTube: Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen: The 60 Minutes Interview
In non-Alaska news, this week marks the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire. An old journalism friend helped edit this story that does a really neat breakdown of how the fire spread and how people responded to it (Spoiler: Gunpowder made frequent appearances) as well as how it laid the groundwork to really rethink the city. From the Chicago Sun Times: Through the Flames
And now for something completely different
I’ve been in the hunt for a new keyboard so my YouTube recommendations are all hecked up this week—filled with keycaps, mechanical switches and weird ASMR videos—so I don’t have a lot to share this week, but with the start the Halloween season I’ve been thinking a lot about one of my favorite Spanish-language shows in recent memory “Los Espookys” on HBO Max. It’s got a weird, absurdist comedy that I just really love. Which is all a really long-winded excuse to share a music video that shares a lot of the vibes and style of the show for a song that has been helping me get through, well, everything:
Have a nice weekend, y’all.
Take care, be safe, be patient and, most importantly, be kind.