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Sullivan's Cleveland connections provide cash boost in Alaska's US Senate race

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS -- Dan Sullivan’s campaign biography, which extends to more than four single-spaced pages, doesn’t mention that he grew up in Ohio.

The omission is striking, seeing as how Buckeye State donors who know his family have financially jump-started his campaign for the U.S. Senate in Alaska, his first attempt at elective office.

Sullivan, 49, is running against Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and Fairbanks lawyer Joe Miller for the GOP nomination to take on Sen. Mark Begich in the fall.

A review of Sullivan’s 2013 year-end campaign finance report shows that of his $1.2 million total campaign contributions, more than $400,000 came from Ohio, most of that from people within commuting distance of Cleveland. An additional $50,000 or so came from people outside Ohio with close ties to RPM International, the publicly-traded holding company headed by Frank C. Sullivan, 53, Dan’s Sullivan’s oldest brother.

Dozens of current and former RPM executives and the RPM political action committee contributed to the campaign. The Cleveland contributions, many at the maximum allowed by law, came from a wide range of family friends, employees, retirees, business associates, and others with personal, business and political relationships with his father and brother, two of the most prominent businessmen in northeast Ohio over the last 40 years.

The president of the Cleveland Indians, the chairman of Invacare Corp., the chairman of NACCO Industries, leaders of the Timken Company and the chairman of Owens Corning are among the more prominent donors from Ohio.

Rapidly growing sales

Dan Sullivan’s father, Thomas C. Sullivan, 77, is chairman emeritus of RPM, which has 93 facilities in 23 countries and 10,500 employees worldwide. Dan Sullivan’s grandfather, described by a company biographer as one of the best paint salesmen in the country, founded the firm as Republic Powdered Metals in 1947.

He achieved early success with a unique reflective roof coating known as Alumanation 301. In later years, his grandfather had the personalized license plate “168,” representing the number of hours in a week.

“It served as a reminder that each of us has a limited amount of time, and a duty to use this gift wisely and productively,” RPM historians say.

During Thomas Sullivan’s time as head of RPM, about three decades, sales shot up from $11 million to $2 billion.

In 2002,  Dan’s oldest brother, Frank C. Sullivan, became chairman and chief executive officer of the company, one of the world’s leading manufactures of paints, coatings and sealants. His total compensation is more than $7 million a year. Company subsidiaries make household products such as Rust-Oleum, DAP and Varathane, as well as a host of industrial coatings and sealants.

Frank Sullivan, 53,  is also a member of the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the Cleveland Foundation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Timken Company. He routinely finds himself on lists such as the “Power 150,” a catalog compiled by Crain’s Cleveland Business of the most influential leaders of in northeast Ohio. That influence extends to regional and national GOP politics.

In 2005, President George W. Bush held a meeting on asbestos litigation reform in Clinton Township, Mich., at which Bush got a laugh from the audience by addressing Sullivan as “Mr. President.”

The asbestos question was an important one for RPM as two RPM subsidiaries faced massive claims, which remain under appeal today in bankruptcy court.

'Business under attack'

In 2012, Frank Sullivan served on the steering committee of “Ohio Manufacturers for Romney.” At the 2012 annual meeting of RPM, Frank Sullivan said that President Barack Obama doesn’t like or understand business.

“You can’t attack job creators and then wonder why nobody is creating jobs,” Sullivan told a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal. “You can put in the paper ... in my life, John Kennedy loved business. Reagan loved business. Clinton loved business. Bush loved business. This guy does not love business. And it’s evident. Business has been under attack by this administration. People don’t want to say it.”

One sign of Frank Sullivan’s fundraising prowess for the GOP, reported by Politico in 2012, was a reception at RPM  with Sen. Rob Portman, the Ohio chairman for Romney, which generated an estimated $300,000 for the presidential campaign.

Frank Sullivan certainly brought his experience and expertise in fundraising to bear on behalf of his brother.

Balancing campaign money in and outside Alaska

All told, Dan Sullivan received more than 40 donations from Ohio of $2,600 each, the maximum for the primary, while about 30 people from Ohio gave $5,200, the maximum for the primary and general election combined. Members of his immediate family contributed more than $30,000. There were dozens of smaller contributions from Ohio.

In Alaska, Dan Sullivan and every other candidate has to deal with a delicate balancing act about campaign money from inside or outside the state.

What’s unusual in Sullivan’s case is that, being part of a politically connected and prominent family, he has access to a rich base of donors with little previous connection to Alaska. What remains to be seen is whether that source has been tapped out and if the elevated attention that his fundraising numbers have given him will generate enough interest among wealthy Outside GOP donors -- beyond the Sullivan circle -- to see him as the best prospect for beating Begich.

He collected about $133,000 in Alaska from identified Alaska donors in the last quarter of 2013. He did not identify donors who gave under $200, as allowed by Federal Election Commission rules, so there is no way to verify where about $19,000 in unitemized contributions originated.

Success at collecting money Outside does not guarantee success at the polls, and in a perfect world it would not be a factor in judging the quality of a candidate for public office, but dollar totals are an indicator of financial strength. And financial strength is an indicator or whether a candidate will be able to cut through the noise and be remembered on Election Day.

Going where the money is

Candidates for the U.S. Senate will go where the money is, and most of it is not in Alaska.

Sen. Mark Begich raised 83 percent of his campaign money in the last quarter of 2012 from people Outside. Treadwell raised only one-quarter of the amount that Sullivan did, but he will try to turn the Ohio connection to his advantage.

“What I’ve got is a substantial network in Alaska that is much better than my network in Ohio.  Dan’s network in Ohio has helped him raise the first slug of money.  The national guys use that as a barometer.  The barometer I care about is how many Alaskans are going to come out and vote for an Alaskan,” Treadwell said in an interview posted on a website dealing with health care and sponsored by a Northwest communications firm.

Sullivan does have financial support in Alaska, based on his year-end statement, but he has more in Ohio.

Sullivan has an added challenge. After ending active duty in the Marine Corps in 1997, he moved in Alaska, worked as a law clerk until 1999 and as a lawyer from 2000 to 2002 before going back to Washington, D.C., for positions in the Bush administration. He returned to Alaska to serve as attorney general under former Gov. Sarah Palin and later served as commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources.

Last fall, Treadwell famously told a D.C. reporter that he had a jar of mayo in his refrigerator that had been in Alaska longer than Sullivan. For his part, Sullivan said he wouldn’t want to eat a Treadwell sandwich -- a good quip, but it will not wipe away the remarks about residency.

For Sullivan, one of six children, the series of events that led to Alaska began with him following the example of his grandfather, father and his brother Frank: he went to high school at the Culver Military Academy in Indiana. After completing his education at Harvard and Georgetown, he joined the Marine Corps.

Frank stayed with the family business, where his bosses had clear expectations about performance, Frank told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in a 2006 interview.

 “My grandfather and my father's philosophy was they hoped we would all work at RPM, but we'd all work for half as much and twice as hard. RPM's history is full of fired cousins, uncles,” Frank Sullivan said.

Joining the Marines

Frank said Dan joined the Marines out of a sense of duty, triggered by a Georgetown Law School discussion one day, the gist of which was that the military was a jobs program for the poor.

“Danny is so (angry) that he comes home at Christmas and informs my parents he has signed up for Marine Corps officers' candidate school. He goes in the Marine Corps, serves four years, ends up clerking for the only federal judge in Alaska, runs a Marine reserve recon unit, gets a White House fellowship and ends up working for Condoleezza Rice at the National Security Council, then gets called back up by the Marines. He spent the last 15 months on the staff at U.S. Central Command,” Frank said in 2006.

“In our family, he's really the only guy who's still building his résumé. I said to him, ‘Dan, what do you really want to do?’ And he says, ‘I figure if I do my job well, one door closes and another opens.’”

About Sullivan's time in the Marines, Arend Westra, a Marine major, told the Plain Dealer in 2007 that "We knew Dan was a silver spoon, but he hit it pretty hard. He was not the stereotype lawyer who joins the Marines. Dan was a man of the troops. He told me he found more examples of loyalty and selflessness in the Corps than any place. He loved the Marines. Dan was a Marines' Marine."

'His heart is in Alaska'

In 2006, Dan went before the Senate to be confirmed as assistant secretary of economic and business affairs in the State Department. He received an introduction from both Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Ohio Sen. George Voinovich.

“My family and I, in Ohio and Alaska, have known both senators for many many years,” Sullivan said as he began his remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Murkowski said that while Sullivan’s roots were in Ohio and “the fine state of Ohio equally claims him,” she was proud that he was married to “an incredibly gifted, talented and beautiful Alaskan, and I think it's fair to say that his heart is in Alaska with his wife and his three beautiful daughters.”

Sullivan's wife, Julie Fate Sullivan, is the daughter of former Fairbanks Rep. Hugh “Bud” Fate and longtime Native leader Mary Jane Fate.

For his part, Voinovich said he had known Sullivan and his family for many years and echoed the idea of Sullivan’s roots in both states.

“I know his father, Tom Sullivan, and his brother, Frank Sullivan, quite well. They are a great family,” Voinovich said in his written introduction.

Sullivan paid tribute to his parents at the hearing, saying they had nurtured six children and 15 grandchildren “while building a business that has helped make this country more competitive and has spread American values abroad.”

Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DermotMCole.