In the upcoming race for one of Alaska’s two seats in the U.S. Senate, Dr. Al Gross is an independent candidate running as the Democratic nominee against incumbent Sen. Dan Sullivan. The Clarion interviewed Gross on Friday about his legislative priorities, the economy and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
What would be some of your priorities as a legislator going into 2021, should you be elected?
My biggest priority as Alaska’s next senator is to bring jobs and a vibrant economy back to the state. As you know, Alaska’s had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country for the last four or five years leading up to COVID-19, and we got hit especially hard by COVID-19 because of our complete loss of tourism. I’ve got some really good ideas as to how to reinvigorate our economy, and I grew up in Southeast Alaska, during a time when there was so many opportunities for people in the state and there’s not a lot of hope for the future right now in Alaska. And I want to bring that back.
Can you talk about some of those ideas?
I think first of all, COVID-19, and the collapse of the price of oil really underscored the need to diversify our economy. And as a doctor who has stepped up and spoken about the very high costs of health care in Alaska, that’s a big barrier of entry for businesses outside of resource extraction, and I will continue to be a strong advocate for responsible resource development here in Alaska.
But that’s not enough for the state we need more. And if we can lower the barriers of entry for businesses by decreasing the cost of health care, by decreasing the energy costs, then businesses like finance, technology and information type businesses can afford to operate here on a competitive basis, and they won’t choose to set up shop in other states.
So I’ve been a leading advocate for a public option in health care, allowing people to buy Medicare at cost directly from the government, without a private health insurance company as an intermediary, as a means of leveling the playing field and making Alaska competitive with the Lower 48 as a means of bringing down the high cost of health care that will be huge step in the right direction.
COVID-19 has really shown that many jobs can be done virtually, and we need to expand internet capabilities across the state to areas that don’t have it so that people can have good jobs by working out of their homes.
And I’m a very strong advocate for renewable energy in Alaska, not only because of climate change, but because it can lower energy costs in rural parts of the state where right now, high energy makes it prohibitive to operate a business.
Given your background as a physician, how do you see something like a public (health care) option passing?
It needs to be a new piece of legislation that I think should be in parallel with the ACA (Affordable Care Act). The ACA provided for the health care exchange where people can purchase health insurance on that exchange, and I think that should be put on the exchange, as one of people’s options.
If people want to choose a private health insurance company, which might offer more choices than a public system, then that’s their prerogative to choose that, but I think people should also have access to a public system that they’re paying for. I don’t believe that it should be free. I don’t think anything should be free. It can be reasonably priced and it should.”
Why should Alaskans vote for you over Sen. Dan Sullivan?
“Because I have a better vision for the future of Alaska. I have a deeper understanding of what makes the economy hum in this state. And I have a deeper understanding of what the people of Alaska want and need, because I’ve worked alongside them in commercial fisheries a large part of my life. And as a doctor I’ve taken care of people all across the state. And I’m not a yes man to the president like Dan Sullivan is. I’ll stand up in an independent manner for the people of Alaska to do what’s right for the state, not what’s right for the party.
You’ve claimed that Sen. Sullivan represents a “rubber stamp” for the president. He’s argued that you would do the same for the national Democratic Party. How do you respond to that, and are there any specific areas where you see yourself going against the Democratic agenda?
I have some very conservative values from my background. I grew up in Alaska. I’m a very strong proponent of the Second Amendment, and I’m certainly not going to take away any guns. I will vote against banning any guns. I do support a background checks for military assault weapons.
But I will be a very strong break on the Democratic agenda to try and limit access to guns. Fiscally, I’m much more fiscally responsible than the Republican party has been. With their tax cut bill, they doubled the national debt. They’ve abandoned their fiscal conservative platform, and have become very, very liberal with printing dollars. I think that’s wrong. We can only spend as much as we make.
I’m also a strong advocate for a tight immigration policy. And I do not support open borders, especially now with so many people in Alaska and the rest of the country out of work. We need to put Alaskans and Americans back to work before we have a more open approach towards immigration. And even though we’re a nation built on immigrants, we need to take care of the people that are here first.
Alaskans are continuing to feel a lot of the economic impacts related to this ongoing pandemic. On the Kenai Peninsula, three of the biggest industries — fishing, oil and gas and tourism — have all taken a huge hit this summer. What kinds of actions would you take as senator to address those impacts going into 2021?
I’m very, very concerned about the health of our oceans. And as you likely know many of the fisheries across the state failed this year, with the exception of Bristol Bay. And we’re not going to be doing any fishing in the future if there aren’t any fish to catch.
There’s something going on out in our ocean, which is not working out very well for our fish, whether it’s salmon, halibut, black cod or cod. So, I’d be very proactive in studying the ocean phenomenon that’s leading up to this.
I’m a very big advocate for tourism. I grew up in Southeast Alaska where tourism is such an important part of the economy. I understand how much of an impact it has on the Kenai Peninsula as well. And I’ll do everything I can to promote further development of tourism and the oil and gas industry.
I love the oil and gas industry, and most of us wouldn’t be here in the state if it weren’t for that. And we wouldn’t have a permanent fund or dividend if it weren’t for that.
So, while I am very much an advocate for clean renewable energy, as long as there’s a worldwide demand for oil and gas, and as long as Alaska has oil and gas, I will work very hard to promote the development of it in an environmentally safe way.
To that end, do you support, for example, efforts to open up drilling in ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge)? And more specifically, how do you see Alaska balancing its reliance on the fossil fuel industry with what is predicted to be a slow but steady decline in demand over the next few decades.
Well, it’s not a slow, steady decline, and it’s not just a decline in demand, but also a decrease in reserves available here in Alaska. And I think that as our reserves diminish, the demand for them will have diminished as well, which is why it’s so important that we work to diversify our economy.
And getting back to your question about ANWR, yes I do support resource development up there. I think it can be done in an environmentally safe way and it should be done in such a way as to make sure that we don’t threaten the porcupine caribou herd up there. And then I will do everything I can as senator to make sure that we protect the environment while at the same time, we develop those resources.
What do you think the Senate should prioritize in whatever ends up being the next round of COVID-19 relief, as we go into winter and there are talks of a vaccine being developed in the near future?
I think that Alaska fishermen were left out in the cold, and President Trump gave a great deal of relief to the Maine lobster fishery, but where were the Alaska fishermen in his relief package? They were left out in the dark for the most part.
And Trump and Sullivan have waged a trade war on China that is absolutely hurting Alaska commercial fishermen. And we have 30-40% tariffs on fish that are sent for reprocessing in China. That, to me would be a very large, very high priority of mine is to get rid of those tariffs that are hurting the Alaska fishing industry.
Do you have any final thoughts for Kenai Peninsula voters?
I think COVID-19 has been really difficult on our state and our economy, and it’s gonna be a long time before Alaska and the rest of the country fully recovers from this.
As a physician with a background in public health, I know that a vaccine is not right around the corner, at least not a safe vaccine, and we’re going to have to be socially distanced, and wear a mask in public places for a long time. And this is going to impact our economy for a long time.
As a doctor, I have taken care of so many people across the state in my life. I know that a lot of people in this state are hurting, and I want to do what I can to bring some relief back to the middle class, people who get displaced because of COVID-19, and create opportunities for them to get back to work.
That and I really feel like Dan Sullivan has had six years to turn Alaska around, but despite him being Alaska senator, we still have very high unemployment, our health care costs continue to go up. And I really believe it’s time for a change if Alaska is going to step forward into the future in a positive way.
Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at email@example.com.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.