Even on short notice one day in advance, a community meeting with Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, last Friday quickly overflowed its scheduled spot in the 15-seat conference room at the Homer Harbormaster’s Office.
By the time Sullivan arrived a little after 1:30 p.m., Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins had moved the meeting outdoors on the front lawn of the building. About 100 people came, including Homer City Council members and other city officials.
Sullivan spent much of the hour-long meeting doing a congressional update, but with Homer Mayor Bryan Zak selecting citizens asking questions, the event turned lively and a bit contentious. At one point after several boos and shouted comments in response to Sullivan’s discussion of the economy, Alaska’s junior senator asked for some decorum.
“When I do these community meetings in Alaska, they’re always respectful. Of course we don’t agree. Trust me, it’s always respectful,” Sullivan said. “If you disagree with anything, please, you can raise it.”
Sullivan had criticized former President Barack Obama for not growing the economy enough.
“In eight years of Obama, we never hit 3 percent for the gross domestic product,” Sullivan said, to which one person yelled, “Thanks, George Bush.”
“We have to do a lot more to increase our growth in Alaska,” Sullivan said.
Former Homer Mayor Jack Cushing defended Obama and offered some advice.
“I personally thought Obama did a good job in everything he did,” Cushing said. “I would encourage us no, we’re not politiciking, it’s not the other guy’s fault. Let’s work together … I just encourage you, everybody, to pick up and go forward.”
Sullivan said the U.S. Senate’s work in the first 100 days of the President Donald Trump administration has been on the “advise and consent” side — weighing in on Trump’s cabinet nominations. Sullivan said that while none of the nominees appeared before committees he serves on, he did ask to meet with as many nominees as possible.
“I think it’s going to be a strong cabinet,” Sullivan said. “Wilbur Ross in terms of Commerce, (Ryan) Zinke — a Navy SEAL — Secretary of Interior, (Secretary of Defense) Gen. Mattis … I think they’re going to be really good.”
Sullivan got some loud boos, however, when he said “I voted for Scott Pruitt,” the Environmental Protection Agency administrator. “Enthusiastically voted for Scott Pruitt.”
Pruitt will take the EPA in a new direction, Sullivan said. The last EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, was “somebody that saw the rule of law and statutes that governed their power as something to be ignored.”
A lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, Sullivan just came to Alaska after doing his reserve duty at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Sullivan said he supports more defense spending.
“If you look around the world, whether it’s North Korea or what the Russians are up to, we have a lot of challenges right now. Our state plays an important role in the world in defense,” he said.
In response to a comment by Homer fisherman Don Lane on North Korea, who said, “Sometimes I have the feeling that any day we’ll hear we’re at war,” Sullivan downplayed that.
“I don’t think it’s on the verge,” he said. Trump has put together a good military team, and inherited good generals from Obama’s administration. “We have a good team. I think everybody should breathe easier.”
Still, Kim Il Jong, the North Korean leader, is a cause for concern with his nuclear weapons and missile program.
“All the experts say it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ Kim Il Jong is going to be able to shoot a ballistic missile at us,” Sullivan said. “One thing I think we’re going to need to do is a much better job of missile defense in our country.”
Health care and the Affordable Care Act came up in several questions. Ginny Espenshade, an advocate for opiate addiction prevention and treatment, asked if Sullivan would continue to support parity in mental health treatment for opiate addiction currently in the ACA. She asked if Sullivan would protect those provisions in any bills proposed to change the ACA.
“I’m working on a bill right now trying to do more for people with addiction and recovery centers — which we don’t have anything for,” he said.
Saying he didn’t want to repeal but “repair” the ACA, Sullivan said people unfairly criticized the Medicaid changes in Trump’s failed effort to repeal the ACA. Trump tried to make a compromise on Medicaid expansion with the states who did elect it — mostly with Democratic Party governors, but some like Alaska with Gov. Bill Walker, an independent — and those who did not.
Trump’s bill would have allowed states with Medicaid to expand until 2020 at a 90/10 federal-state match. People on Medicaid now would get that 90/10 match, but those who came on after 2020 would get a 50/50 match. The reason for the compromise was that a lot of states didn’t expand.
“Senators said, ‘My state didn’t expand. My guys weren’t treated fair,’” Sullivan said.
One small business owner, Dylan Weisser, said he supported ACA.
“I am one of the thousands of Alaskans where the Affordable Care Act is working,” he said. “It’s enabling me to continue to work, to grow a small business. I want to encourage you, when those votes come up, to see me, to hear Ginny’s concern. That is the face of Alaska — small businesses making it work.”
Sullivan said while the ACA works for Weisser, he also has heard others say it’s putting them out of business.
On fisheries issues, Sullivan said he supports a bipartisan bill, the Save Our Seas Act, to address the issue with ocean pollution. It would bring more money to coastal states like Alaska to clean up shores, but also would address through treaties efforts to reduce marine debris with countries in Asia who are major contributors to plastic ocean trash.
Sullivan said Congress is looking at reauthorization of the 40-year-old Magnuson-Stevens fisheries act. Halibut Cove fisherman and former Alaska senator and representative Clem Tillion urged Sullivan to reauthorize the act. Tillion also praised fisheries regulations as a way to manage fisheries.
“We have to be able to move regulations, and not have this idea that to pass one, we remove two,” Tillion said.