When stately, svelte Dan Sullivan stepped to the podium to deliver his speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention in his hometown of Cleveland, it would have been foolish to think any Alaska Democrat or Independent could mount a serious charge against him for his U.S. Senate seat in 2020.
A former Marine with a law degree from Georgetown, Sullivan was representing the ‘Never Trump’ wing of Republican insiders — those whose conviction to morals and decency supposedly outweighed the temptation to get behind the inexperienced populist and openly corrupt reality TV personality who’d surged past the original 15 statesmen in the field and threatened to contest the convention if he didn’t get his way.
When Trump ultimately secured the nomination, Sullivan held his nose for party and for country and did his best, it seemed, to try to educate the new president on matters he cared about and matters that affected all Alaskans.
Then, rather abruptly, the Junior Senator from Alaska capitulated wholeheartedly to The Donald. Casting aside the convictions of his freshman year in D.C., Sullivan began voting in virtual lockstep with the President. His vote to deprive Alaska’s military bases of $100 million in funding in order to support Trump’s asinine Mexican border wall, was the most obvious proof, but certainly not the only evidence that Sullivan had gone over to the Dark Side.
That Sullivan betrayed his earlier idealism isn’t even in question. Though, to be fair, it is the kind of thing that happens to everyone as they move up the proverbial ladder of success, and when that ladder is one built on rungs as unsteady and cynical as it is in politics, the about-face can come off even more distasteful.
Sometimes, though, those sorts of contortions can be expedient and even necessary, for political gain. But was the move toward Trump and his tender, sensual, bigger-than-average hands good politics for Dan Sullivan?
Dr. Al Gross, a lifelong Alaskan and longtime orthopedic surgeon from Juneau and Petersburg, doesn’t think so, and he’s mounted a strong early effort to unseat the Ohio native. Running as an Independent, Gross got an all-important endorsement from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and is getting support from the DNC, as it sees Sullivan as one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for re-election in 2020.
The results in real dollars have been significant, as Gross has raised more than $2 million through the first two quarters of fundraising, and with the AK Dems agreeing to not field a candidate against him, Gross is able to retain his Independent status and apply the entirety of his war chest to the run against Sullivan. According to his internal polling — take that for what’s it’s worth — Gross is in a statistical dead heat with Sullivan and the doctor took some time out of his busy campaign schedule to come by our office recently for a little Q&A…
Was there one headline or event that triggered this decision to run?
There was. About two-and-a-half years ago, a health care bill came out in the U.S. Senate and Dan voted against health care. He did that on numerous occasions, taking away pre-existing conditions coverage or taking away the ability for those under 26 to stay on their parents’ plans. It became clear to me he didn’t understand or really care about the economic impact health care is having on our state, how it’s holding back the economy of our state. Alaska has the most expensive health care in the world and I really believe it’s keeping new businesses from moving here because the overhead costs for businesses are just too high, other than the natural resource extraction industry.
Do you have any background in politics or in government?
I grew up in a very political family. My father was Jay Hammond’s attorney general and together they created the Alaska Permanent Fund, Rural Schools and many other things in the state. My mom founded the league of women voters and was the first director of the United Fishermen of Alaska, so I grew up on politics at the kitchen table… Even though I haven’t been in politics I’ve been in leadership roles in everything I’ve ever participated in, including health care.
Did you ever think you’d run for political office?
I actually didn’t think I’d ever run for political office, nor did I have a desire to, but I care deeply about the state. I love Alaska, I spent most of my life here — other than school — and seeing what’s happening to the economy here, it breaks my heart. It really makes me want to step up and lead the state to a better place.
You got the Democrats’ endorsement, but you’re still running as an Independent. Why?
I’ve been an independent since I was 18. My dad was a Democrat and Jay Hammond was a Republican, so I grew up in a very, very functional bipartisan administration… When Trump won I briefly became a Democrat out of protest, but I switched back to Independent a few months later because that’s truly what I am. Alaska allows Independents in the Democratic Primary, and I suppose because people believe I’m a strong candidate, Alaska Democrats have chosen not to field a candidate against me, to endorse me and when I win I will caucus with the Democrats because Democrats seem the most interested in promoting policies geared toward economic development in Alaska.
U.S. Senate is a big office to start out a political career. Did you think about running for dog catcher or school board or something like that first?
Donald Trump had never run for public office before and Dan Sullivan had never run for public office before and I think Alaska needs better leadership in the U.S. Senate. I think health care is certainly going to come up as a major issue in the U.S. Senate for the next 4 to 6 years and we need to be sending somebody to the Senate who understands health care, how to fix health care and is motivated to fix it for the right reasons.
How are you doing with name recognition. Do voters know who you are?
I grew up commercial fishing throughout the state. I started at 14 when I bought my first boat then I worked at five different fisheries all across the state the next 10 summers and put myself through medical school working hard as a fisherman and then as an orthopedic surgeon. I went through the WWAMI program at UA, based at the time in Fairbanks, as a med student and then as a doctor taking care of people and listening to people all across the state, especially in Southeast. I had a mental health family practice in Kotzebue and Novatak, and in Anchorage and Fairbanks, all across the state… Yes, I don’t have the name recognition that a politician may have who has run for office before but we’re getting our name out there effectively.
Do people sound unhappy with Dan Sullivan out on the campaign trail?
The biggest thing I hear about Dan Sullivan is his partisanship, that he’s essentially a rubber stamp for Trump; he shows no independence for the state. Primarily I think that’s because he’s not from here — he’s from Ohio and spent most of his career in D.C. He has very, very little personal connection to the people and the business of Alaska, but how could he possibly understand the state (when he’s not from here)? He purports to support the military but Alaska has gotten military money for years and years and will continue to long after Dan’s gone because of our strategic location in the world. There’s a lot more to Alaska than the military — the military is important to Alaska, but we need to attract other businesses.
Where is Dan Sullivan most vulnerable?
He’s most vulnerable amongst independents who want an independent-thinking Senator who’s stepping up to do what’s best for Alaska. I think women voters are unhappy with his Pro-Life choice. I think he claims to be an advocate for (fighting) sexual assault and abuse in rural Alaska, and yet the numbers and the statistics for that problem have not improved, and that needs to be addressed as a huge priority, I believe.
What have you learned about yourself as a candidate so far?
It’s nonstop. If you really want to win a race like this you have to give 101 percent and I’m doing that. I put my orthopedic surgery practice on hold back in May… Even though I was born and raised in Alaska and feel as though I have my pulse on Alaska in a lot of ways, there’s a lot of things I don’t know, so I’m learning a lot that way.
In speaking out against high health care costs aren’t you speaking out against the very thing that made Alaska doctors like you rich?
Well, I’ve been endorsed by the Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons nationwide and I have tremendous support from doctors across the country and most doctors are very frustrated with the health care system we have in one way or another. Virtually all of them will tell you our health care system is a mess and if you don’t send people to Congress who understand it, we’re not going to get out of this mess.
So what alternatives to the current system would you be in favor of?
I think it makes a lot of sense for a state like Alaska to let individuals and small businesses buy into Medicare as an option and present that option to those people so they could buy into Medicare at no one else’s expense. That would get rid of having a third party in private health insurance companies… and you would get coverage for probably half of what you’re paying today. If a business is trying to decide where to put their employees, and if health care costs are half as much in Idaho as they are in Alaska, they’re going to put them in Idaho. But if it’s a level playing field and you have the same overhead for employees, there’s no reason not to put those employees in Alaska. In health care, I’m tired of being on the phone with Alaska-based companies with people in other parts of the country almost entirely because the benefit packages cost so much in Alaska.
Senator Dan Sullivan may not be from Alaska, but he has a very Alaska name. Do you think that helps him?
Yes, he has the same name as the former mayor of Anchorage. It certainly seemed to help him get elected. There was confusion on the ballot. In rural, even in urban Alaska a lot of people have never met him or know who he is or what he looks like.
Are you working on an endorsement from Mayor Dan Sullivan?
(Laughs) We’re just getting started on the endorsement list. We’re very proud Vic Fischer, the last standing author of the Alaska Constitution endorsed us, Bella Hammond and Emil Notti, one of the fathers of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act… We haven’t thought about Mayor Dan Sullivan, but that wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Where is this race going to be won and lost, geographically and on the issues?
For me, it’s going to be very important to get out the rural vote. I have personal relations and connections in rural Alaska and all along the coast… and all up and down the Railbelt, a lot of people are terribly affected by high health care costs. One-third of our state is currently covered under Medicaid. That is a very high number and that wasn’t the original intent of Medicaid to cover that high of a percentage of the population. It clearly indicates we have a problem with the health care system. We have a fair number of low paying jobs people won’t take because they’ll lose their health care benefits. We saw that over and over across the state, falling back on the Medicaid system to provide health care. Those people then aren’t getting into entry level, lower jobs in order to ascend in our capitalist world. We’re seeing that in the Mat-Su, Kenai and Fairbanks and Anchorage.
What kind of show is Al Gross 2020 going to be?
The 2020 show is going to be me getting around as much as possible, me doing town halls. I’m friends with (former governor) Bill Sheffield and I read his book and listened to him talk about his election in 1982. He was a fairly not-well-known entity when he ran for governor. The way he won was going everywhere and meeting everyone. I know so many people in this state who told me they’d never vote for someone if they hadn’t met that person. Alaska is very much retail politics and with 50 percent of voters registered Independents, there’s a great potential to swing the vote and not be so partisan-bound. We need someone who will lead the state in the right direction — we need Alaska 2.0. Alaska 1.0 worked for a while, but we’ve fallen on our face right now and we need a new vision for the future.