A sit-down with Sullivan

Alaska’s junior senator discusses economic recovery, legislative priorities and pandemic response

Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan is running for reelection this year against the Democratic Party nominee Dr. Al Gross. Sullivan has been the junior senator for Alaska since 2014. He sat down with the Clarion on Thursday to discuss his reelection bid.

Legislative priorities and looking ahead

The interview opened with a discussion of what his priorities would be in 2021 should he be reelected. He emphasized his record on issues critical to Alaska voters, including access to federal land, resource development, strengthening the military, and the Second Amendment.

”What I want to be able to do is build on the record that we’ve already established. One of the big reasons I ran in 2014 was we had a federal government, in my view — remember that was Obama, Biden, Harry Reid — that was an obstacle to opportunity for Alaska across a whole host of areas. I think most Alaskans recognize that. And the story that was never told during that time was how much the anti-resource development, anti-access to federal lands, the dramatic cuts in military, 25%, and Coast Guard, how these hurt working families, the average Alaskan, by the thousands. I saw it.”

Sullivan specifically cited the recent opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and the Trump Administration’s similar plans for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska as initiatives he has pushed for and continues to support. He also noted his advocacy for the road projects in the Tongass National Forest and the village of King Cove against Democratic opposition.

“We’ve made huge progress on those. A lot of that’s legislative, some of it’s executive and legislative working together. And then other areas that I care about — domestic violence and sexual assault. That’s been a top priority of mine since I was attorney general.”

Sullivan cited his work specifically as a sponsor of the POWER Act, which provided pro-bono legal services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. That bill was signed into law on Sept. 4, 2018. On issues of environmental conservation, Sullivan noted that his Save our Seas 2.0 Act, which passed in the Senate in January of this year, was considered by the Congressional Research Service as “the most comprehensive ocean cleanup legislation ever in the Senate.”

“So we think that’s a really strong agenda,” Sullivan said. “It’s an Alaskan agenda. Because it empowers people, it’ll create jobs, but here’s the big issue: The national Democratic Party, and I always say national because I’m trying to get Democrats to support me and I have a lot already, Republicans, independents, Democrats, the national Democratic Party unequivocally has an anti-Alaskan agenda.”

Sullivan criticized Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, for their advocacy for the Green New Deal and other legislation that target the fossil fuel industry.

“Just look at the Biden-Harris platform right now, you know, Bernie Sanders, Biden and this congresswoman from Brooklyn I always forget — Octavio Cortez — were the task force chairs on climate and energy. What were some of their top recommendations right now? Shut down ANWR, shutting down the NPRA, no drilling for oil and gas on any federal lands. Just that will destroy the jobs and economic opportunity in our state.”

Sullivan also criticized his opponent, independent Al Gross, for supporting Medicare-for-all and a single-payer health care system. Gross wrote an op-ed for the Anchorage Daily News advocating for single-payer health care in Alaska in 2017, but in a recent interview with KTUU Gross said he supported Medicare as a public option but not a Medicare-for-all single-payer system. The campaign website for Gross also states that he supports Medicare as a public option.

In addition to legislation he’s already gotten passed and signed into law, Sullivan spoke of some of the pieces of legislation he would pursue in the Senate in the upcoming session if he were reelected, including his ongoing work to station six ice breaker vessels in Alaska that were previously authorized under the National Defense Authorization Act and are currently under construction.

”There’s a big debate going on. I just had a phone call with Secretary Pompeo yesterday and the National Security Adviser to the president last week,” Sullivan said. “Where are we going to station these icebreakers? Well, where do you think it makes sense? That’s what I’ve been telling them. It makes sense to put them in the Arctic. This would be huge for us. It would be great for our national security, it would be great for our communities, by the way, it would be great for research.”

Sullivan noted that he also has legislation in the works to get the federal research vessel the NOAAS Fairweather stationed in Ketchikan and another research vessel, the RV Sikuliaq, stationed in Seward.

“All of these things are happening. They’re not like pie-in-the-sky ideas. The icebreakers have been authorized. We’re building them. The NOAA Fairweather — I have legislation passed that brings the Fairweather back,” Sullivan said. “We just did a ceremony in Ketchikan to start the RFP for the demolition of the old pier to build out the new pier.”

Pandemic response

As part of the federal response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Sullivan said that he is pushing for an increase in mining and processing of “critical minerals” and hopes to take advantage of Alaska’s strategic location for air cargo transportation as a way to bolster local manufacturing and diversify Alaska’s economy.

“The pandemic is causing a lot of challenges, but it also presents opportunities,” Sullivan said. “One of the big opportunities: Americans are recognizing we can’t be so reliant on China for our supply chains. My legislation in the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) talks about a critical minerals reserve. Right now, China produces the vast majority of critical minerals in the world, that are critical to even our defense industrial base. We should be doing that, we should be mining and processing that. So that’s in the defense bill right now, the beginning of that. The HEALS Act we’re working on has an entire section on critical minerals, pharmaceuticals, PPE, to bring it all back here. So to me, you build on the success, a lot of which I have legislation literally in the hopper right now. And then you look at opportunities to diversify our economy. And we have enormous opportunities to do that post-pandemic.”

Sullivan repeatedly characterized the Democratic party’s platform as “anti-Alaskan,” specifically referencing their opposition to resource development and oil drilling in places like ANWR and calls by politicians like Sanders to reduce U.S. military spending.

When asked how Alaska should balance its reliance on the oil economy with an uncertainty in long-term demand for fossil fuels, Sullivan said that he supports an all-of-the-above approach in terms of energy production.

“Look, I’ve always been an all-of-the-above energy proponent,” Sullivan said. “So, you go to Kodiak, they’re 100% renewable. That’s great. You take advantage of what you have to offer. Our state has wind, solar, geothermal, hydro in abundance in Southeast. So I’ve always been all-of-the-above.”

Sullivan also pushed back on the notion that the demand for oil will decrease any time soon, and said that Alaska should continue to play a role in the fossil fuel economy.

“You know, the idea, that somehow the demand for oil and gas is not gonna be around in the near future just belies the facts. We’re still going to need those resources for decades to come. Every study, even if we’re starting to transition. And the key question is, if you know you’re going to need it, why wouldn’t you produce it in the place that has the highest environmental standards? Now I used to be in charge of those standards as commissioner of natural resources and energy in this state. So I know that they’re the highest standards — in Cook Inlet, on the Slope. And so the second question is, if you know you’re going to need it, why wouldn’t you do it in your own country so you can provide your citizens with jobs?”

A demand shock caused by the pandemic coupled with a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia led to oil prices going into the negative in April, and Sullivan said that he was part of the U.S. effort to check Saudi America on their price war. Sullivan said that he put removing U.S. military support on the negotiating table in order to pressure the Saudi Arabian government to decrease their oil production.

“I put legislation forward to remove all military forces, including missile defense capabilities, from the Saudis,” Sullivan said. “And I had very blunt conference calls with the ambassador, the Energy Minister, the Deputy Defense Minister, and 13 very pissed off U.S. senators. The Saudis went from 12.3 million barrels a day that they announced in March, which is why energy prices collapsed to zero, to now they’re producing 7.5 million, which is the lowest they’ve produced since 2002.

And as your senator, I had a lot to do with that.”

When it came to the CARES Act, which was the first relief package passed by Congress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sullivan noted several aspects of the package that he pushed for that were specifically designed to help Alaskans.

“As you saw, we increased Medicaid payments for the states by 6%. We dramatically increased the opportunity to have the federal government pay for telehealth throughout the CARES Act. That was me and others,” Sullivan said. “I was part of a small group of senators that were very focused on what we called a ‘Manhattan Project’ for vaccines, which I think the number was about $11 or $12 billion dedicated to this warp-speed plan on vaccinations. Which is actually, I don’t want to jinx it, but it’s actually going pretty good.”

On the economic impacts caused by COVID-19, Sullivan said that he also pushed for changes to the Paycheck Protection Program so that commercial fishers and seasonal businesses, of which there are many in Alaska, could access more of the available funding.

“You may have seen that the Treasury issued regulations that enabled seasonal businesses to use the amount of employees they had last summer, versus just March and April,” Sullivan said. “More employees means a bigger PPP loan. That was me that advocated for that. That certainly is helping our seasonal businesses, those impacted negatively by tourism.”

Sullivan said that he and Sen. Lisa Murkowski pushed for a minimum amount of funding be sent to each state for COVID-19 relief, which ended up being about $1.25 billion for Alaska.

There was also a provision of the CARES Act that Sullivan pushed for that provided $300 million specifically in relief to the commercial fishing industry, but that money has yet to be distributed.

“Now, as you know, that’s actually quite a lot of money for a state of 730,000 people,” Sullivan said. “And a lot of that CARES Act money, with the governor and the Legislature, has now been sent out to the borough, to the cities. I just talked to the mayor last night about what they’re using that for. Sometimes you’re using it for additional businesses, sometimes you’re using it for additional relief for families. To me, my job has been, as many resources as possible through as many channels as possible to local officials, governors, mayors, city council members, who are closer to the action on the ground, and let them figure out how to do it. So I have a bill that would provide more flexibility for state and local communities and enable them to use this CARES Act money that’s already out the door.”

Looking toward the near-future, Sullivan acknowledged that many Alaska business owners and workers will still face financial challenges from the pandemic as fall approaches. Sullivan noted several aspects of the HEALS Act — which is the next coronavirus response package being pushed by Senate republicans — that address the ongoing economic impacts of the virus.

“We have a new PPP program in there that would be a second round of PPP loans particularly for businesses that have had dramatic revenue losses. Unfortunately for our state, that would be a lot of them. For smaller businesses of 300 employees or smaller it’s a 35% revenue loss, so that would be a big opportunity for our small businesses. We have more flexibility for the state and local communities to use existing CARES Act money. We have an $8 billion tribal fund that Sen. Murkowski and I worked very hard on. That’s tied up in litigation, but that was in the original CARES Act and that will dramatically help Alaska and our economy given our Alaska Native Corporations and village corporations play such an important role in the overall economy. And in this HEALS Act that we’re debating right now, I got that $300 million fisherman’s fund plussed up to $500 million. So there’s a lot that we’ve done that we’re still executing, and that we put in legislation that’s being debated as we speak. I’m focused on the very question that you mentioned, which is what happens next. And of course there’s money for schools, there’s still money for testing, there’s money for hospitals. Our bill is much more targeted (than the HEROES Act).”

Sullivan criticized the HEROES Act, which is the alternative relief package being pushed in the U.S. House of Representatives, partially for its exclusion of Alaska Native Corporations in receiving the relief that is meant for Alaska Native and American Indian populations. Section 191301 of the bill, HR 6800, does specifically state that only federally recognized tribal governments are eligible for payments from the Coronavirus Relief Fund. He also claimed that the bill would provide a tax cut for wealthy Americans, citing its temporary elimination of the cap on what taxpayers can deduct from their federal taxes based on what they paid in state and local taxes. The Republican-led CARES Act also included a provision that benefited primarily the wealthiest Americans — a temporary suspension of the cap on the amount business owners could deduct for their “pass-through” corporations. People making over $1 million annually received more than 80% of the benefits from that provision, according to a report from the Joint Committee on Taxation, a nonpartisan congressional body.

Sullivan was also asked why Congress hasn’t reconvened to provide additional federal unemployment insurance since the extra $600 a week ended at the end of July. Sullivan said that he and other Senate Republicans pushed for a temporary extension of those benefits for one week while negotiations continued, but that temporary extension was blocked by Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and later by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, who argued that the one-week extension would be impossible for state agencies to implement effectively.

“So look, you might have seen, and again the national media wouldn’t pick up on this, I was one of the senators who went down and said, ‘as we’re negotiating with our Senate Democrat friends, and we haven’t been able to get to a spot on this, let’s just extend the $600 for a couple weeks,’” Sullivan said. “I was down on the floor, making that argument. You know who blocked it? Chuck Schumer. Chuck Schumer. I watched him. I looked at the media and I said, “I sure hope you guys write this story.” Chuck Schumer just blocked extending unemployment insurance for hurting Americans.”

The Senate convened without passing any negotiated legislation, but Sullivan said that once they return he’ll be pushing for at least $300 a week in federal unemployment insurance as part of the next relief package.

“Our bill does have something. We’re still debating it. It would be less than $600, because what I’ve heard from a number of Alaskans, we do these tele-town halls every week, Sen. Murkowski and I, is that you don’t want to create a disincentive for people to go back to work. But there’s still a lot of people hurting. So what’s the way to balance that? And we’re debating something in the $300 to $400 range, but again, we had offered to extend the $600 as we continue to negotiate this.”

Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at bmazurek@peninsulaclarion.com.

Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska sits for an interview Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, at the Peninsula Clarion in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska sits for an interview Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, at the Peninsula Clarion in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)