In the race for the U.S. Senate, Al Gross is running against Sen. Dan Sullivan. The Clarion spoke with Gross on Oct. 19. The Clarion reached out to the Sullivan campaign multiple times, but the senator had not agreed to an interview with the Clarion as of press time Thursday.
If elected, what would be your top legislative priorities?
Gross: Well, the first thing we have to do is get COVID under control and get our country back to work. And the only way we’re going to do that is if we restore trust in government, and lead by example, and try and oversee a national effort and help to coordinate a national effort so that we don’t have 50 different states, executing 50 different plans. It makes no sense if we’re going to try and get control of COVID.
How do you think that could be changed or different from what’s being done right now?
Gross: Well, right now, there’s no federal leadership and our leaders are having huge rallies, some of them indoors. They’re not leading by example. And we definitely have to pass another relief package. The CARES Act was just the first step in the right direction, but approximately 2% of Americans have been infected with COVID, and we already have about 220,000 dead Americans. This is really just the beginning of a very, very slow moving tsunami, the effects of which we’ve never seen before, and to assume that we’re over the hump and we’re on the back end of this is a major mistake. This is a huge problem.
Do you have plans for making health care more affordable and accessible across the state and then potentially across the country?
Gross: Yeah, absolutely. The only way we’re gonna be able to get people to go back to work is if they know that they’ve got health insurance coverage, otherwise, they’re going to be inclined to stay on public assistance, where they’re eligible for Medicaid. We need to get people back to work and there needs to be an affordable way to do that.
The high costs of health care are one of the big reasons why I stepped up to run against Dan Sullivan, because I saw how much it’s hurting Alaskans, small businesses here in Alaska and preventing new businesses from coming here. And I have a plan to do this, like, you know, I went back to school, I got a master’s in public health. My wife, Monica, who’s also a doctor has a master’s in public health.
When I get to the Senate, I want to lead the effort to get a public option across the finish line allowing people to buy into the public health system by buying Medicare at cost and nobody else’s expense. And this will create competition in the marketplace and drive down costs, and eliminate out-of-pocket expenses like deductibles and copays, which are hurting people so badly.
As cases in Alaska continue to rise, is there anything that you think needs to be changed as we head into the winter, and people are going to be spending more time indoors?
Gross: Well, I do not support a mandatory mandate. I think that’s an infringement on our personal rights. But you’re right, people are going to be indoors more and more, and we need to maintain social distance.
My recommendation would be that people wear masks when they’re in congested areas indoors and any kind of gathering should, in my opinion, be outdoors. It’s a serious public health risk, and I’m very, very concerned about this upcoming winter.
I do not think we should shut down our economy. We need to find ways to keep it open because there are too many people already out of work. You know, and then once the vaccine becomes available, we need to make sure people have access to it. But more importantly, we need to make sure it’s safe, and that it’s not politicized by our federal leadership.
And when the doctors and the scientists from the CDC say that we have a safe vaccine, then I’ll get the vaccine myself. I’ll have faith in that but I don’t want to see the vaccine politicized for the sake of trying to win an election and be released prematurely.
Could you expand a little bit more on what you mean by that?
Gross: Yeah, well, President Trump has been trying to rush a vaccine through to try and end this pandemic. I would like this pandemic to end too, but as a doctor, I know that it takes a long time to develop a safe vaccine. I think President Trump is trying to push a vaccine through faster than it is safe to do so.
I think we should follow, you know, the recommendations of the experts like Dr. Fauci and Dr. Anne Zink here in Alaska and not listen to President Trump, or Dan Sullivan, who’s standing at his side with respect to the safety of a vaccine.
What do you think should be in Congress’ second stimulus package and what specifically do you think Alaskans need right now?
Gross: Some people are going to be unable to go back to work because of the type of work that they do. Either they work in very closed spaces, or they’re in industries that have been heavily affected by COVID, such as tourism or travel. And so those people need help, and they’re going to need to have money in their pockets to help get through the winter.
I think that we should do everything we can to promote jobs, though, so that we can save jobs, so that we can get people back to work, and, preferably, outdoor jobs. I know Alaska is a tough place in the winter, but not everywhere in the state.
We should be working to put in renewable energy projects and expand our broadband internet across the state, because as you know, so many people are working remotely out of their homes, virtually, that this presents a whole realm of opportunities to rural parts of the state that have not been available in the past. I think that virtual jobs will continue for at least the next few years. This creates a great opportunity for people who live in rural Alaska, but they need access to broadband first.
You know, and I think Alaska really ended up on the short side of the stick with respect to CARES Act money so far. For example, the Alaska Native corporations lost out on $160 million in the CARES Act because of the careless wording in the legislation that did not address the tribes versus the corporation. So the ANCs lost $160 million.
And fishermen all across the state, including the processors, the fishermen, the commercial fishermen and the sportfishing industry only got $50 million in the first CARES Act, which was completely insufficient. Alaska produces 60% of the nation’s seafood, but we only got 15% of the CARES Act money.
So Dan Sullivan has not been delivering in the way that he should be to the state. To put that into comparison, the Washington, D.C., Ballet got $25 million in CARES Act relief and the entire Alaska fisheries industry only got $50 million.
Alaska is already experiencing the global climate crisis in terms of coastal villages being threatened, fire seasons and salmon populations at risk. What are your plants to address how environmental issues are already being felt in Alaska?
Gross: Yeah, well, the first thing is, I wouldn’t be calling people “climate change alarmists,” that’s for sure. I was born and raised in Juneau and I used to play in huge piles of snow that we cut tunnels through and have a big labyrinth. My kids didn’t have that experience growing up at all.
I’ve seen huge climate changes across the state. Our fish or migrating north, our crab or migrating north, and our western shores are exposed to huge erosion problems because of the massive winter storms, because the ice is no longer there. So we’ve got a huge problem on our hands.
Dan Sullivan keeps saying that I’m in favor of the Green New Deal and that’s just not true. He’s making that up. But I do support jobs and I do support clean energy jobs. You don’t have to look any further than a place like Kodiak, where they have almost 100% renewable energy, clean, renewable energy and 15 cents per kilowatt hour energy costs.
If we can have energy costs like that out in rural Alaska, this would really promote economic development and I’d be a huge fan of that. I don’t support the Green New Deal because it’s got a timeline associated with it and because it’s got carbon taxes or carbon pricing associated with it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be for renewable energy, which I am.
You’ve said before that you’re interested in reentering the Paris Climate Agreement and you’ve talked about energy tax credits. Could expand a little bit more on concrete, tangible steps you would like to see the country take in terms of environmental policy?
Gross: Yeah, well, I absolutely am in favor of joining back up with Paris. It’s nonbinding, and so we’re not committed to anything by doing that.
It makes perfect sense to bring our scientists and leaders in climate change to the same table with other world leaders and other world scientists to discuss how we can best mitigate the problems associated with climate change. I think we should be sharing information on this and working together to try and address the issue.
And we have to admit that it’s real. Our climate is changing. You can’t just be a climate change denier and stick your head in the sand on this. This is a big problem.
Where do you stand on Pebble Mine and recent revelations about lawmakers’ role in the project?
Gross: Yeah, well, you know, I grew up in commercial fishing, including in Bristol Bay, and even in the 1980s I was well aware of the Pebble Mine and have been against it ever since I learned about it.
It threatens an entire culture out there and it threatens 15,000 jobs in the summer and the world’s largest wild sockeye run. It’s a huge environmental threat.
I’ve been opposed to it from very, very early on and will continue to oppose the mine. And, you know, my opponent has passively allowed this mine to work its way through the permitting process ever since he came to Alaska in 2009 and has been facilitating the permitting process ever since. He finally came out against Pebble Mine and hid behind President Trump’s shadow after Trump came out against it.
But it was only three weeks after Dan Sullivan had come out against the Pebble Mine that Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Mine partnership, was caught on tape saying that they had Dan Sullivan where they wanted him quiet in the corner and that that’s how he was planning to ride out the election.
So this is a full three weeks after Dan had come out, as opposed to the mine. Tom Collier is a very good friend of Dan Sullivan and so we really can’t trust Dan on this at all. I’ve been opposed to the Pebble Mine from day one.
Is there anything that you think voters on the Kenai Peninsula specifically, or voters in Alaska generally, should know about you and your campaign?
Gross: Yeah, well, first of all, I’m an independent and I’m doing this for Alaska. I’m not beholden to any corporations. I don’t take any corporate donations, unlike my opponent, who’s beholden to multiple corporations.
I stepped up to do this for Alaska and I truly am an independent. I’ll caucus with the Democrats because the Republicans have absolutely failed when it came to health care. They’ve had multiple opportunities and all they’ve ever tried to do is strip away coverage for preexisting conditions, take away coverage of your kids until they’re 26 years old and take away Medicaid expansion, which has been very, very helpful for Alaska.
I have a vision for the future of Alaska and I have a vision for how to get control of COVID-19, and to bring new jobs and economic development back to the state.
Dan represents the status quo and the status quo is not really working here. All you have to do is look around and you’ll see that Alaska is not better off than we were six years ago. We had the highest unemployment in the country leading up to COVID-19. Dan’s overseen the worst recession in Alaska’s history, and has no plan to bring Alaska into the future. I grew up friends with and in the shadow of Gov. Jay Hammond and learned a lot of what I know about Alaska from him and I share in his vision for a successful state. I want to see Alaska do well and I’ve got some really good ideas as to how to get us there.
I know I’m speaking to people down on the Kenai and I want you to know that I know how important energy and oil and gas production has been here in the state and I will continue to promote production and development of oil and gas both down in Cook Inlet, but also up in the North Slope on federal lands, including ANWAR.
We wouldn’t have a permanent fund or permanent fund dividend if it weren’t for oil and gas, and as long as there’s a worldwide demand for oil and gas, and we have the resource, of course we should continue to produce it because if it weren’t for oil and gas, we wouldn’t have great programs here in the state, like the permanent fund or the permanent fund dividend.
So I’m very, very excited to continue to work for resource extraction in the state, but we need more than that here in Alaska. We need to diversify our economy and I have the tools that it’s going to take to get us to do that.