Bullish on Alaska, Sen. Sullivan preaches ‘gospel of optimism’ during Chugiak-Eagle River visit

Thursday, October 18, 2018 - 13:05
  • U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan speaks during the Oct. 17, 2018 meeting of the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan spent Wednesday making the rounds in Chugiak-Eagle River.

He also ate a few, too.

Sullivan sat down for pepperoni pizza at the Eagle River Ale House, where he also made off with a handful of homemade cookies during a casual pop-in at the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Sen. Sullivan also made stops at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center and the Alaska Laborers Training Center in Chugiak during an upbeat spin through the community.

“What I’ve tried to do for the last year and a half is what I refer to as preach the gospel of optimism,” Sullivan said during brief remarks to the chamber during its biweekly luncheon.

Sullivan told the audience he’s bullish on the U.S. and Alaska economy. He said an administration favorable to Alaska projects and development — combined with bipartisan cooperation “that you don’t always read about” — means better times are ahead for a state grappling with numerous social and economic ills.

“We have a federal government now that wants to work with us,” he said to a large crowd that included local business leaders and several area elected officials. “Whatever you want to say about President Trump, I can tell you whenever I meet with him from the first meeting until just last week — he is always asking, ‘How can I help the Alaska economy?’ That’s a big change from the last administration, I can tell you that.”

Sullivan said numerous Alaskans are in high-ranking positions within the government, including the likes of NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries and Assistant Secretaries of the Interior Joe Balash (Land and Minerals Management) and Tara Sweeney (Indian Affairs). Sullivan said military spending on the state is up and

“You don’t always read about it, it doesn’t always make the news, but there’s a lot of really, really positive things that are happening in Washington,” he said. “But I think we’re going to start turning things around in our great state.”

Following the chamber meeting, Sullivan elaborated on his comments during an interview with the Star. Among the topics Sullivan commented on were the recent Brett Kavanaugh confirmation to the Supreme Court, the ongoing #metoo movement, military spending, the state of Alaska’s fisheries and what’s being done to address problems within the Veterans Administration system.

VA secretary to visit

Sullivan said he’s planning to host VA Secretary Robert Wilkie for a three-day Alaska visit starting Thursday. Sullivan previously toured Alaska with past Secretary David Shulkin, and he said such visits can have a lasting impact.

“I just wanted to get him out here to listen,” Sullivan said.

During Shulkin’s visit, Sullivan said he and the former Secretary heard stories from numerous Alaskans who had VA-approved procedures only to be left holding unpaid bills and facing persistent creditors.

After that visit, Sullivan said legislation was crafted that became the recently enacted VA Mission Act, which he said includes a provision that mandates 30-day payments to service providers.

“Shulkin learned that in Alaska and now we’re working to fix it in this bill,” he said.

Sullivan also touted recent federal increases in military spending, which he said have pumped $1.3 billion into Alaska projects in the past three years.

“I’m bullish on what’s happening.”

Fisheries to the forefront

On Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at the Dena’Ina Center in Anchorage, Sullivan will hold a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and the Coast Guard to look into the health of Alaska’s salmon fisheries. Sullivan said he has “literally no agenda” for the meeting other than to gather several knowledgeable Alaskans together to talk fish.

“There’s so much concern about salmon runs,” he said. “And because we’re such a huge state and have so much diversity in terms of our fisheries, some salmon runs are doing great, right? The sockeye run in Bristol Bay has been record levels the last three years. The king runs though have been weak all over the state.”

The hearing will feature two panels, one that includes Oliver and Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner (and Eagle River’s own) Sam Cotten; and another that will include representatives from the University of Alaska College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences; the North Pacific Research Board; the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association; Prince William Sound Science Center; and the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

“Mainly it’s, ‘what do we think is happening?’ And there will be some disagreement, and there will be some strong opinions, but I’ve been looking at this for my entire time in the Senate and if there were a silver bullet that we knew was the issue or the case we’d be on it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet, but we’ll see.”

Kavanaugh and ‘Choose Respect’

Sen. Sullivan defended his vote for Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who he said has a judicial philosophy that’s in-line with the former Alaska Attorney General’s on issues such as state’s rights and the Second Amendment.

“[Kavanaugh] believes a judge’s job is to read the statutes and the text of the Constitution as written, not make policy, which I think is not a very controversial position,” he said. “But unfortunately we’ve had a lot of judges in the federal system that believe their job is to make policy. For all those reasons and his strong skepticism on the power of federal agencies — which he’s demonstrated — and his really strong view on the Second Amendment, I thought he would make a very good justice.”

When accusations of past sexual assault were leveled at Kavanaugh by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Sullivan said he took the claims seriously. For Sullivan, the issue boiled down not to credibility, but to a lack of corroboration.

“[I] recognized that the hearing and everything raised some fresh wounds for people who have gone through that kind of trauma, sexual assault and domestic violence — which unfortunately in Alaska we have a lot of them, way too many of them,” Sullivan said. “So I met with a lot of Alaskans who were very focused on that issue. But at the end of the day, after really looking deep into the accusations, there was — although we took Dr. Ford’s accusations very seriously — there was no corroboration whatsoever.”

Sullivan said if there’s a “silver lining” to the highly charged hearings it’s that there has been a renewed focus on one of Alaska’s largest societal issues.

“We do have a huge problem in Alaska and the country on this issue of domestic violence and sexual assault,” he said. “You might remember when I was attorney general I spearheaded and launched with Governor Parnell, but it was my idea, the whole Choose Respect campaign and that was very focused on trying to change the culture.”

Sullivan said he’s worked in the Senate to address the issue, and earlier this year the president signed the bipartisan POWER Act, which mandates federal events promoting pro bono services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Sullivan said he’s been at the forefront of the issue since long before the issue took on renewed national prominence.

“I said to my Republican colleagues — even before the events of the #metoo movement from last year — this shouldn’t be a Democrat or Republican issue and it shouldn’t just be viewed as a women’s issue,” he said. “The truth is it should be viewed as a guys’ issue because it’s the men doing the abusing. So I think there’s more opportunity now to do more in that way and I’ve committed to working with Democrats and Republicans to do it.”

Aisles not as far apart as portrayed

Sullivan’s co-sponsors on the POWER Act included four Republicans — including Sen. Lisa Murkowski — but also Democrats Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. It passed unanimously in the House and Senate.

The bill is an example of the kind of good work being done in Washington D.C. that doesn’t get much attention from the press.

“I’m not a bash-the-media guy,” Sullivan said before describing a recent floor speech in which he criticized the media for failing to report on less controversial topics.

The speech was picked up on by Wall Street Journal Reporter Joshua Jamerson, who used it in a story he wrote about recent bipartisan support for opioid funding and the FAA.

“If you only report the things where it’s conflict because you like that and it sells [but] you won’t report 87 senators voted for the National Defense Reauthorization Act?” he said. “Now, is that boring? It shouldn’t be boring, that’s a huge shift in U.S. policy.”

Sullivan said he understands that “conflict sells,” but would like to see the media focus more on the ways in which he and his colleagues work together on a daily basis.

“What happens is when people back home only read, ‘Hey, these guys hate each other,’ it’s disheartening for Alaskans, it’s disheartening for Americans,” he said.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call (907) 257-4274

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