'The pilot here doesn't understand our plane is crashing.'

The story about the most head-turning testimony from the misery that is the Anchorage Assembly's hearing on the proposed mask mandate. The session gets going... kind of. And local elections!

Good morning, Alaska! Sorry for lack of newsletters earlier this week, it’s been that start-of-the-month freelance crunch time and it’s been particularly crunchy.

In this edition: The story behind the most head-turning testimony from the misery machine that is the Anchorage Assembly’s hearing on the proposed mask mandate. A quick take on the Fairbanks area’s local elections. The legislative session kind of gets going.

‘The pilot here doesn’t understand our plane is crashing’

Travis Neff had sat through more than 18 hours of mostly against, mostly rabidly angry public testimony on the proposed mask mandate the Anchorage Assembly has been considering over a marathon of hearings, which will continue Thursday. He expected to see anti-science and QAnon fringe conspiracy theories on display, but he told me on Tuesday that “What I saw was profoundly more upsetting than that.” It wasn’t just an airing of anti-science conspiracies and hate, he said, it was a celebration.

So, by the time that Neff reached the front of the line to testify at 11:58 p.m. on Thursday night, just minutes before the close of the day’s testimony that had been drawn out by extreme-right Assemblymember Jamie Allard’s frequent questions for the anti-mask opponents, he decided to hold it for another day.

The experience and the weekend gave him time to concentrate on what he’d say, he told me, and it certainly paid off on Monday night. In a fiery two-and-a-half minute speech, Neff excoriated Allard, Mayor Dave Bronson and conservative Assemblymember Crystal Kennedy in what has been one of the most head-turning speeches of this entire endeavor.

“There is no debate happening here when one side has medical doctors, epidemiologists, institutions, compassion, evidence and the other side has a mob,” Neff told the assembly in closing. “A mob that cheered a homophobic slur, a mob that was egged on by morally vacant politicians as our hospitals are receiving national press for crisis standards of care and our case rate remains the worst in the nation. It would be the worst in the world if we were a country. And so I ask this assembly to, please, wield your power because the pilot here doesn't understand our plane is crashing.”

It’s circulated far and wide by now, but in case you haven’t seen it, you can find it here (a full transcript of the testimony will be at the bottom of this newsletter):

On Tuesday morning, I reached out to Neff to talk to him about his experience in the chambers and what went into his speech.

“I felt like this was a critically important time for citizens to show up and I knew that what I consider a reasonable and truth-oriented side wouldn't be represented there. When I came, I kind of thought there would some anti-science and wild QAnon stuff, and what I saw was even more profoundly disturbing than that,” he said. “I sat in that room with an N95 on and surgical mask over it, listening to people talk about how they can't breath with a cloth mask for 18 hours. It's a celebration of anti-science, they'll take anybody that comes to be anti-mask and they'll put dangerous information out there. It's not rhetorical to say that people get killed from things like this. I was pissed.”

While testifying early in the night on Monday gave him the spotlight, he said it wasn’t the driving factor behind his decision. The literal daylight was also a bonus.

"The real thing is I didn't want to give that speech and walk out of that building by myself in the dark and into the parking lot," he said. "I am 6'4" and I'm a retired Mountain Rescue Group member. I have a lot of passion for this community and I'm a tough, independent person but there's no way people were made to feel safe in that place. That's a rally. ... I came back to get in line on Monday evening to try to deliver that testimony at a time that I could leave and it would be bright outside."

Several assemblymembers have been participating in these meetings via phone, saying they will not be attending in person as long as there’s concerns about their personal safety. Neff said he understands why the average person wouldn’t want to risk entry into a what he called a “plagued arena of science-denying bullies” during his speech, but said that the numbers ought to tell you where public opinion rests.

“I think we need to understand that these people that are coming out to fill this assembly chamber do not represent any large swath of our society. They are a very dangerous fringe that is making themselves heard. I see them as a coalition of all sorts of right-wing extremist types that have gathered together around this as their rallying cry, he said. I think the majority is represented in the vaccine numbers. That's the majority right there. The people who know better and are willing to contribute to a decent society. I try to speak to that collective, the people who want to live in a safe and functioning society when I do that.”

In Anchorage, 62.3% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated according to the state’s vaccination dashboard. Also, according to the Anchorage Daily News, the written testimony has been in favor of the ordinance nearly 2:1 with 1,520 letters in support.

Neff has been a regular participant during these hearings. He’s been active on Twitter and an image of him—hands held up and face turned to the ceiling in exasperation—was featured in the Anchorage Daily News. His speech and Twitter advocacy have already garnered plenty of positive feedback across social media—he said he was surprised to hear that it was even gaining traction on TikTok—but he said one of the most troubling responses has come from the far-right corners that accuse him of being a crisis actor based on his career in rescue.

“I have given three gallons of blood in this state, I'm considered retired from Mountain Rescue I've carried people out of the woods," he said. "I passionately care about this state and I am very hypersensitive to people who try to call that out on me. That's so profoundly upsetting and just the most pathetic way they can use to try to deflect attention from a heartfelt message."

Now that his speech is behind him, Neff says he looks forward to the day that the pandemic is under control so he can get back to activities that lower his blood pressure rather than raise it.

“I’ll be back on the yoga mat every second that I can be once our case numbers are down,” he said, adding he’s been enjoying “all forms of human-powered transportation in wide spaces to breath fresh air.”

Fairbanks election results

I’ll be honest, I haven’t paid a lot of attention leading up to the local elections. Between a combination of the grim turn in the Anchorage Assembly—which despite all the assurances that “It’s just a vocal minority” has still instilled a general sense of impending doom throughout Alaska—and Dermot Cole’s continuous warnings about the conservative slate running for office in the Fairbanks area, I expected the worst.

Instead, the Fairbanks-area races surprised and marked a reverse of what had been several years of strong performances by conservatives.

With most votes counted, voters have elected to the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly a slate of moderate/progressives in former Democratic Rep. David Guttenberg, Savannah Fletcher and Kristan Kelly. In doing so, they sent packing perennial conservative candidate Kevin McKinley, QAnon believer Patricia Silva and Lance Roberts, a guy who once had a feud with a co-op grocery store over Ms. Magazine. There were similar victories on the city council and school board.

The only two conservatives to see success were traditional, generally well-respected folks in FNSB Mayor Bryce Ward, who faced no serious competition, and Jerry Cleworth, a former city mayor and off-and-on councilor. That only the established centrists saw success in a night that saw a pretty solid rejection of fringe conservative candidates is, well, pretty interesting.

Perhaps it’s a little premature to be writing the obituary for civility.

Hooray. The special session.

The special session got underway on Monday with a mixture of unwillingness, uncertainty and tired political opportunism that has come to define this year’s deeply divided Legislature. It stands to one of the least-productive endeavors in recent legislative memory, which is really saying something.

No one really expects it to produce anything because, after all, they can’t even agree on how often they should be meeting this session.

Neff’s testimony

I came to voice my support for this proposed mask mandate as I believe any compassionate, understanding person should, but after witnessing some horrible things in this chamber this week I have a responsibility to speak up to the values I expect from leadership.

During this hearing, Assemblymembers Allard and Kennedy continuously misused their office to showcase dangerous anti-science and last Wednesday both unapologetically spotlighted and normalized testifiers standing right here wearing a symbol mocking genocide. Emboldened, our sitting mayor chimed in with his widely condemned comments. I stormed out of here when I heard you say 'I think us borrowing that is a tribute.' Did you notice that when you used the word 'us,' you took ownership of that racism, you put your arms around it, you threw your arms around it. Allard, Kennedy and Bronson, you disqualified yourselves from ever meriting public office for accepting the racism that took place in this room. You celebrated it and defended it.

And meanwhile, the three of you undermined democratic process by explicitly delaying and prolonging this hearing, on an emergency measure through the insipid clarifying questions and portraying us as a city too broke to convene a Saturday hearing. Bad faith political theater at the genuine expense of human life.

Please pass this mandate with a swift super majority because the majority of the Anchorage electorate has the good sensibility not to come into this plagued arena of science-denying bullies unwilling to mildly inconvenience themselves to save their own friends and family.

There is no debate happening here when one side has medical doctors, epidemiologists, institutions, compassion, evidence and the other side has a mob. A mob that cheered a homophobic slur, a mob that was egged on by morally vacant politicians as our hospitals are receiving national press for crisis standards of care and our case rate remains the worst in the nation. It would be the worst in the world if we were a country. And so I ask this assembly to, please, wield your power because the pilot here doesn't understand our plane is crashing.