‘Leadership comes in all forms’: A conversation with Anchorage’s acting mayor

Published: Apr. 30, 2021 at 5:56 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The six months that Austin Quinn-Davidson has spent serving as Anchorage’s acting mayor have been very different from the terms of those who served in the role before her.

Quinn-Davidson’s colleagues on the Anchorage Assembly nominated her to step into the role after former Mayor Ethan Berkowitz resigned amid a scandal, leaving the office unoccupied months before the next mayoral election.

“When we knew that he was resigning, it hit all of us on the assembly that that means one of us is going to be put in this role,” she said.

Initially, she pushed back, unsure if she was the best person for the job.

“This wasn’t me saying, ‘Oh, this is an opportunity for me,’ it was my colleagues and people in the community saying, ‘We think this is the moment that we need you, and we need you to show up,’ and I did,” she said.

On Oct. 23, 2020, Quinn-Davidson took her mayoral oath during a small, livestreamed swearing in ceremony. Then, in a historic moment of representation in Alaska’s largest city, she and her wife, Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, clasped hands and walked out of view of the cameras.

Quinn-Davidson is the first woman and openly gay person to serve as Anchorage’s mayor.

“I just work hard, I do my job, I care about relationships, I focus on always being available and responsive and fostering relationships, and I think that that’s the thing that’s really made me successful to the extent I have been,” she said. “And you know, I would have done that irrespective of whether I have a wife or a husband or whether I’m a woman or a man, but I think it’s been really meaningful for the community.”

Quinn-Davidson said her sister sent a photo of a little girl who has a similar hairstyle — straight hair and bangs — with an awed expression as she watched the swearing in video from home.

“It’s like, wow, for little girls, or for, you know, people who are figuring out that they might be gay or lesbian or whatever they’re experiencing, there’s flexibility here. Leadership comes in different forms, and not just in the way the leader looks, it’s not just that I’m a woman, it’s that I bring my lived experience of being a woman and sometimes not being listened to, or not being treated with as much respect, and that, or having a different communication style, and of course that isn’t always gendered, but sometimes it is ... and I think it’s a good reminder to all of us that leadership comes in all forms and I’m just another form of it,” said Quinn-Davidson.

Before she was sworn in as acting mayor, Quinn-Davidson was a relative newcomer to Anchorage’s political scene. After previously working as an attorney, she joined the assembly in 2018.

The last six months have brought tough decisions, challenges and even her own battle with COVID-19. After her December diagnosis with the disease, Quinn-Davidson said she experienced extreme fatigue and still has lingering symptoms.

“I did some of my meetings from bed, I mean, it was really hard,” she said.

Her decisions to enact restrictions on businesses and gatherings with emergency public health orders drew sharp criticism from some members of the community, but ultimately, she said she stands by them, and actually found the decisions were easier to make than she had anticipated.

“I think the decisions sort of ostensibly are hard, they’re hard externally from the outside. When you’re in the data and you’re talking to economists or you’re talking to public health experts and you’re looking at what the CDC recommends and you’re talking to epidemiologists infectious disease experts, the decisions are not hard,” she said. “They might be hard for people to understand, but they’re the right decisions and every decision we made, it was very clear from the experts that we were doing the right thing.”

Other criticism directed at the acting mayor, in the form of online comments, has sometimes veered into hate speech against members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“When someone’s mean, especially online, and they say silly things or hurtful things, I really just ignore it. It’s just noise. It doesn’t bother me. I mean, there’s been thousands of things said about me since I came into this role, probably many of which I’ve never seen and have no idea about, but really, it’s the relationships that matter to me and that I’m doing my job well. The rest is just noise,” she said.

On one occasion in late January, the noise was, quite literally, too loud to ignore. A crowd gathered inside the assembly chambers grew disruptive, appearing to boo as Quinn-Davidson spoke out against Nazism.

“That was a really low moment,” she said, later adding, “We should all be celebrating our differences and we should love our neighbors ... and it’s disappointing when we see people not doing that and being hurtful to other members of our community, and I think it comes from a lack of education and experience with people who are not like us, and I just hope that in a diverse city and a diverse country, we can keep making those personal connections.”

When asked whether she would consider a run for the mayor’s office in the future, Quinn-Davison didn’t rule it out, but said she’s looking forward to returning to her seat on the assembly.

She also noted that her experience in the role has not included what are typically considered the fun and energizing parts of being the mayor: going to events, meeting community members and even sitting down for in-person interviews with members of the media.

The interview with Alaska’s News Source, conducted in-person and without masks, was the first she’d participated in at her office. Everyone in the room was fully vaccinated and followed the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Anchorage acting mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson participates in an in-person, unmasked interview....
Anchorage acting mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson participates in an in-person, unmasked interview. Because everyone in the room is fully vaccinated, the interview was compliant with current CDC guidance.

“It’s been a hard job because of the time,” she said. “I think it would be really incredible to do it during our normal times and see how it’s different.”

Quinn-Davidson has not endorsed either of the two candidates set to face off in a mayoral runoff election on May 11 — Forrest Dunbar and Dave Bronson — but spoke highly of Dunbar, who she’s served with on the assembly.

“I find him to be incredibly bright, motivated, just a good citizen or good resident and someone who really cares about people, I don’t know Mr. Bronson personally,” she said.

Regardless of who becomes Anchorage’s next mayor, Quinn-Davidson said she’d like to see a move away from campaign rhetoric.

“I think that this job primarily comes down to listening and establishing and maintaining good relationships with people in the community, with business leaders, with, you know, community groups that haven’t been heard a lot, inviting them in to the table and saying, ‘What can we do to make Anchorage better?’ Those are the things people don’t campaign on, but they’re the things that make a good mayor,” she said.

In her short time serving as acting mayor, Quinn-Davidson has made historic appointments of her own, selecting the Anchorage Police Department’s first African American acting chief of police and the city’s first chief equity officer. Both are now serving in an appointed capacity at the pleasure of the mayor.

During her remaining time leading the city, Quinn-Davidson is focused on raising Anchorage’s COVID-19 vaccination rate and working on economic recovery and growth.

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