Oct. 24—Voters in Midtown Anchorage are now casting ballots to decide whether Assembly member Meg Zaletel should be recalled.
The official stated reason for recall is that Zaletel participated in an Assembly meeting that may have had too many people present under a COVID-19 emergency order last year.
But both opponents and supporters say it's actually about the balance of power in Anchorage.
"There's really no mystery about the whole recall thing — I mean, there's pretty much two sides in Anchorage, as far as the Assembly goes," said Andy Kriner, diner owner and chair of Recall Meg, a group that has raised nearly $100,000. "Conservatives tend to not like the nine liberal Assembly members."
Tuesday's special election comes more than a year after the recall petition against Zaletel was filed, after a state Supreme Court fight over whether it could proceed and after fellow Midtown Assembly member Felix Rivera defeated a nearly identical recall in April.
"It's always been about policy disagreements and not about the allegations in the recall petition," Zaletel said. It was "simply a technical allegation to move forward with something because they disagreed with a policy decision. I think that perpetuates. I think that moves all the way through to now. They continue to disagree with policy decisions."
Zaletel has called the recall a waste of time and city resources, as Midtown voters already rejected the recall of Rivera by a 13-point margin. If she is triumphant next week, Zaletel will then face re-election in April.
"The proper time to deal with those policy disagreements is re-election, not to initiate an expensive and distracting recall that really takes the member away from being able to spend their time doing what they're elected to do," she said.
Russell Biggs, a local anesthesiologist and lead sponsor of Zaletel's recall, filed two petitions against Zaletel last year. Initially, Anchorage's municipal clerk rejected both, but the rejection of one was later overturned in court.
Biggs said that while he does see the recall attempt as being about Assembly members not following the city's own capacity rule during the August 2020 meeting, it's also about much more.
Anchorage saw a bitter Anchorage Assembly fight unfold during the summer of 2020 as then-Mayor Ethan Berkowitz proposed using federal CARES Act funds to purchase three buildings for homeless services. The Assembly also considered changing zoning rules to allow homeless shelters in mixed-use areas, with a large portion of those areas in Midtown.
That was the inflection point that galvanized the group of Midtown residents participating in recall efforts, said Biggs, who is also an administrator of the private Facebook group Save Anchorage that has become a social media nexus for people vehemently opposed to the Assembly's actions. The private group, with more than 8,000 members, promoted Dave Bronson's campaign for mayor, has become a platform for Republican office-holders and candidates, and has been focused on efforts to remove Zaletel from the Assembly.
[Bronson administration fires head of city's operations at Sullivan Arena amid shakeup of Anchorage's homelessness management team]
Many involved in the recall are ardent Bronson supporters and critics of the city's previous and current COVID-19 restrictions, measures that a majority of Assembly members have largely supported. Beyond the recall, they also view April's election as an opportunity to unseat that majority.
Many people feel like the Assembly "is going to do whatever they're going to do, regardless of the public input," Biggs said.
Masks and Stars of David
In recent weeks, anger directed at the Assembly from those opposed to COVID-19 restrictions reached an apex as Assembly members considered implementing a citywide mask ordinance proposed by Zaletel and member Pete Petersen.
Those meetings stretched over two weeks, slowed by a deluge of public testimony that evolved into an attempt by mask opponents to slow the Assembly's process and delay a vote. Those meetings were marked with anger, outbursts, frequent disruptions, insults and arrests of unruly attendees.
Some mask opponents wore yellow Stars of David to the meetings to show opposition — and on the back of those stars, a message supporting Zaletel's recall was written. Bronson defended the use of the Holocaust imagery by mask opponents, sparking national outrage, but he later apologized, saying that he understands "we should not trivialize or compare what happened during the Holocaust to this mask mandate."
Zaletel called the use of the Stars of David "a completely unacceptable response to a policy disagreement."
Biggs said that his recall Zaletel group did not sanction the use of the Stars of David and was not involved in their creation or distribution. Christine Hill, the Anchorage resident and former Assembly candidate who produced and passed out the Stars of David at the meetings, is listed as a deputy treasurer of Biggs' recall Zaletel group in state records.
"The unruliness that you saw in the Assembly's chambers, I believe, is a natural — it's a very understandable and predictable response by a large group of people that felt like they have been shut out of the public process for over 18 months," Biggs said.
The Assembly earlier this month approved an emergency mask ordinance introduced by Zaletel and Petersen partway through a regular meeting, bringing a close to the raucous testimony. That move further angered some residents: The emergency ordinance did not require public testimony; few members of Bronson's administration and few mask opponents were present at the meeting; and public testimony on the originally proposed mask ordinance had been scheduled to continue in the following days.
Biggs said the issue is not the mask mandate, but "the fact that the public was lied to about allowing more testimony," calling it an example of why residents are mobilizing behind the recall.
[Anchorage Assembly calls on Mayor Bronson to enforce mask mandate]
"There is a lot of very real vitriol that is organic," Biggs said. That vitriol was enflamed by what Biggs sees as obstruction of the recall process with a court battle, as well as the Assembly choosing an acting mayor rather than holding a special election after former Mayor Berkowitz resigned, among other issues, he said. (City lawyers say that was legal per Anchorage's charter.)
Another group, Anchorage Action, formed recently in opposition to "corruption and cronyism in municipal government," and is helping to support Zaletel, according to the group's co-chair, Andrew Gray. Gray said that the group formed to support "positive action" after Bronson was elected and as Bronson's supporters continued to organize on the Save Anchorage Facebook group.
"What their anger and distaste and hatred of her is stemming from is her constant, consistent advocacy for public health through COVID mitigation strategies that she was advocating for all through the end of the summer, and all the way through now," Gray said. "It's so hypocritical that the ballot itself is talking about her allowing two extra people into a room last year — that they want her recalled for not following the COVID mitigation strategies of a year ago closely enough."
Zaletel said proposing the mask ordinances didn't play into her political strategy as she faces recall.
"I move policy forward based on need and what the right thing to do is, and it was the right thing for public health and safety," she said.
'A slog right down to the end'
Zaletel said she believes a "vocal minority" are concerned about the policies she has voted for.
"I've had firm support in Midtown. I continue to have good rapport and work very hard for my constituents," Zaletel said.
Her supporters are pouring tens of thousands into her defense. So are those trying to recall her.
McKenna Brothers Paving co-owner Marc McKenna donated $75,000 on Sept. 29 to the Recall Meg group chaired by Kriner. The third-party group is separate from Biggs' group, which initiated the recall.
Kriner is the owner of Kriner's Diner, which defied previous COVID-19 restrictions in Anchorage, resulting in a lengthy court battle that the city won.
The Kriner's Diner phone number is listed as the group's contact on its registration report with the state. The address listed for Recall Meg is as the same as the address for Art Hackney Communications and Axiom Strategies, a national political consulting company that employs Alaska Republican strategist Art Hackney.
Hackney did not return a phone call and request for comment.
Kriner said that he became involved after Assembly member Jamie Allard asked him to chair the group. Allard and Zaletel have taken opposing stances on many issues, including COVID-19 health measures, and have clashed during Assembly meetings. Allard did not return a phone call or email with a request for comment.
"I'm just like the other side but I believe what I believe. They believe the way they believe," Kriner said. "So you do the democratic thing and jump through the hoops and see what you can do about it.
"... Everybody wants their people on the Assembly," he said.
The leading third-party group supporting Zaletel, Stand up for Meg Zaletel, is chaired by Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO and a frequent backer of more liberal candidates and causes. It has raised $70,000 — less than the Recall Meg group's $96,000.
[In nearly five decades there's never been an Anchorage Assembly fight this nasty, say former members]
A national labor union group‚ Unite Here, which represents hotel, restaurant and casino workers across the United States, donated $70,000 to Hall's anti-recall group in September.
Hall said those attacking Zaletel and the city's more progressive policies believe that they are the majority.
"I'm fairly certain that's not the case," Hall said. "But they are motivated, there is no doubt about it. What's unclear to me is how big is this group really, and is their behavior alienating to people who might even have been with them at some point in the past?"
Through Oct. 17, the main campaign to keep Zaletel in office had raised nearly $57,000, while the pro-recall campaign had raised just over $26,000 through Oct. 19.
Zaletel said hundreds of Anchorage residents have donated and volunteered to her campaign, and state records show most donations to Zaletel have been local.
Biggs acknowledged that Zaletel has local support, but he has been heavily critical of labor union involvement and the large Outside donation to the third-party group.
Both sides have launched door-knocking campaigns, trying to scrounge enough votes for victory during an election at an unusual time of year, when Midtown voters may not be motivated to fill out their ballots.
"It's going to be a slog right down to the end," Hall said.