It’s hard to imagine a more batshit crazy year in Anchorage politics than 2020, but 2021 — the year in which we were supposed to start putting the pandemic and implacable political divides behind us — came disturbingly close.
The election of far right mayor Dave Bronson in May galvanized the Save Anchorage contingent and by late summer had turned Tuesday Assembly meetings into exhausting fights over the city requiring the implementation of facemasks. These endless public comment periods would stretch meetings day after day, not for the purpose of any policy making, but so mostly the members of the anti-mask contingent could grandstand and preach on vague notions of ‘freedom,’ all the while trying to intimidate assembly members with homophobic and anti-Semitic language and imagery.
For Chris Constant, Forrest Dunbar and Felix Rivera, the outspoken lightning rods of the progressive majority on the Assembly, this kind of relentless fighting was more or less what they signed up for. But not so much for Meg Zaletel, a disability attorney by day who began representing her Midtown neighborhood in April of 2019.
Zaletel took over as interim executive director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness in November and throughout the summer and fell led the charge in October reinstituting mask mandates and social distancing against great resistance, even as Alaska led the nation in Covid infections in September.
All of this she did without becoming a firebrand for outrage, or castigating her opponents, even as they successfully mounted a recall election against her that ultimately she beat back by a 3 to 1 margin.
For sticking to principles that invariably saved and improved lives and doing it all with grace, empathy and class, Meg Zaletel is the Anchorage Press’ choice for 2021’s Person of the Year.
“Dynamic,” Zaletel described 2021 in one word. “There was a lot of just going with the unexpected, accepting each challenge as it came and hopefully doing the right thing.”
Zaletel was even conciliatory about the yellow-Star-of-David-toting hordes who filled the gallery of the Assembly at the Loussac Library, and made the $25k a year members receive, hardly worth the aggravation.
“Anything that gets folks involved is good,” Zaletel said. “I think that these are very challenging times and I tried to remember that everyone is stressed out. Covid hit everyone in a different way; the stress of uncertainty for months and months on end, and of course, you can expect pushback to restrictions. Even though it’s the right thing to do you can’t expect to be met with gladness.”
After Rivera survived the recall attempt against him in April, Zaletel figured the Save Anchorage contingent would be coming for her next, particularly because she, too, represented Midtown.
“Frankly, I wasn’t surprised after Felix’s recall, but it’s embarrassing for people to say you’re not doing the work you’re supposed to do. And you’ve got to go out there, get your people together and run a campaign. This all has to be donor while you’re also doing the work you’re supposed to do,” Zaletel said. “We have to remember all this stemmed from the proposed drug and alcohol rehab facility in Midtown with access to shelter — and both are very needed and deserving projects — but it evolved into a referendum on other issues. All told, between different Independent Expenditures, $300,000 was spent trying to recall me. That’s $300,000 that could have gone to a lot of good causes.”
Rivera had plenty of advice to offer.
“The advice I had for her is that it was going to suck,” Rivera said. “It will be the most depressing and nauseating experience of your life. You feel like you’re gonna give up but after you get through it it’s going to feel amazing, once you see the results and how well you feel.”
Rivera doesn’t hold much hope for 2022 being a more productive and cooperative year in city government.
“I’m not necessarily optimistic that the culture is going to change much. We’ve been stuck in this paradigm a little long,” Rivera said. “I’m certainly optimistic that (progressives) will maintain our majority on the assembly. Look at the last mayoral election — there were only two districts the mayor won; one is South Anchorage and the other is Eagle River. The rest of the city is with us.”
True to form, Zaletel carries a rosier vibe for the year ahead.
“I’m always optimistic about the culture of politics because that’s how we make progress,” she said. “A lot of folks were really dismayed when the mayor was elected, but I’ve taken it in and embrace creative conflict. (Bronson) comes from a perspective very different from the assembly, so those ideas clash and hopefully what comes out of it is something even better.”