Alaska News

Candidate profile: Dan Sullivan, Marine and ex-resources chief, aims for US Senate seat

He's a tough-talking Marine with a killer resume: Georgetown law school and White House fellow, assistant secretary of state and top adviser to a combat commander, Alaska attorney general and natural resources commissioner.

He's a native of Ohio who says Alaska is his home now, but still finds himself trying to convince some voters he's Alaskan through and through. He's intense, driven and, these days, very partisan.

He's one of the Republicans hoping for the chance to knock Democrat Mark Begich out of the U.S. Senate this November, in what promises to be one of the country's hottest political races of the year.

He's the "other" Dan Sullivan, not the native-born Anchorage mayor, but the one foes deride as "Ohio Dan" and fans call "DNR Dan" or sometimes "Afghan Dan," in a nod to his wartime military credentials.

Democrats, Begich supporters and a Republican rival, fellow candidate Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, question his Alaska authenticity. Public records reveal a somewhat contradictory and confusing Alaska residency.

The primary election faceoff between Treadwell, Sullivan and a third well-known Republican, Joe Miller of Fairbanks, is just four months away.



Many Alaskans know little of Sullivan's story. It starts in metro Cleveland, includes stints in Boston, Washington, Afghanistan and Iraq, and covers two stretches in Alaska, where he worked at the highest levels of state government.

He rarely mentions his Ohio roots, but his family is prominent there. Sullivan's grandfather, Frank C. Sullivan, started a small business in Ohio back in 1947. The company grew into RPM International Inc., a publicly traded corporation with more than 10,000 employees and $4 billion in annual sales. Its subsidiaries make industrial products from roofing systems to the paints and sealants that line hardware store shelves, including Zinsser, DAP , Plastic Wood and Rust-Oleum.

That success did not come easy, Sullivan says. His grandfather was born into a big Irish Catholic family of eight children "who did not have much at all." None went to college. The business was still small in 1971 when his grandfather died suddenly and son Thomas -- Dan Sullivan's father -- took over.

"My dad was young, I think 34, 35, when that happened. Six kids. Just worked hard to try and grow a business," Sullivan, who has three brothers and two sisters, said in an interview. "So I saw that struggle."

When a younger sister was born, the family had to move out of its small home into a bigger one, he says.

While Democrats challenge his Alaska credentials, Sullivan points out that he hasn't lived year-round in Ohio since he was in middle school. He went to a private prep school, Culver Military Academy, in Indiana.

"Dan is considered the Alaskan Sullivan," said a cousin, Thomas Kelly, a Democrat who hosts a political talk radio show in Cleveland. The Cleveland Sullivans are low-profile philanthropists, he said.

At a January Senate forum before the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, Sullivan gave no hint that his family includes captains of American industry. Instead, he talked about his uncles and great uncles returning after World War II to become "the greatest generation salesmen and factory workers and builders and small business entrepreneurs."

Some did well and others failed, he said.

"And that's what I grew up in, in a family where I worked in a factory, where I drove my brother's fish truck, where around the dinner table we talked about things related to business and success and failures and opportunities and, most of all, about giving back," Sullivan told the chamber crowd.

He didn't talk about RPM, and how his father built into what it is. His brother Frank is president and chief executive of the company. Another brother is a vice president there. A third brother is an entrepreneur who started a seafood company.

Sullivan didn't try to make a career for himself at RPM. When he left Ohio, he never looked back -- though he still holds significant stock in the company.

Executives at RPM and subsidiaries DAP Products Inc. and Rust-Oleum Corp. had contributed more than $53,000 to his campaign, plus another $5,000 from the RPM PAC, as of Dec. 31. Relatives too have contributed tens of thousands.

In years past, brother Frank has been a big campaign donor to Republicans, GOP organizations, business and conservative political action committeess, and politically active nonprofits, giving more than $170,000 from the 2010 election season through late 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In January, Frank Sullivan gave $25,000 and their father gave $50,000 to a SuperPAC working to elect Sullivan that is being run by Anchorage political consultant Art Hackney. A former long-time RPM board member, Donald K. Miller, donated $50,000 last year to the Alaska's Energy/America's Values SuperPAC.

Overall, Ohio residents were Sullivan's No. 1 donors last year, providing more than 31 percent of individual contributions to him, compared to 11 percent from Alaskans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Some 172 Ohioans donated almost $380,000, compared to 113 Alaskans who gave $131,000, which was slightly above the amount given by New York residents.

He raised almost $1.3 million last year and, his campaign announced recently, more than $1.3 million the first quarter of 2014. His campaign had just under $2 million ready to spend.



Sullivan wanted to be a doctor. He was "pre-med" for his first two years at Harvard University. After organic chemistry in his sophomore year, he said, he gave up on that idea. Instead he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in economics.

In 1990, he was a Georgetown law student when he met Julie Fate, then a staffer for U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, later a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and now Julie Fate Sullivan.

"He was the most positive person I'd ever met in my life. His can-do spirit," Julie Sullivan said in an interview. "It was one of those things that clicked."

They've been married nearly 20 years. In the process, Sullivan became part of a prominent Alaska Native family. His mother-in-law is Mary Jane Fate, an Athabaskan leader who was the first woman co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives, a University of Alaska regent and for years a board member of Alaska Air Group, which runs Alaska Airlines. His father-in-law is Hugh Fate, a former state representative, retired dentist, Bush pilot and former president of the university board of regents.

Julie Sullivan said she grew up "in a pretty traditional Athabaskan family," with moose stew on the stove, a beloved uncle who played the fiddle, and fish camp every summer 30 miles down river from where the Haul Road crosses the Yukon.

"Those early years, that's where we would go. He'd fly into Fairbanks and we'd head straight to our fish camp. He'd just pitch in and work like everybody else," Julie Sullivan said of her husband. "There's always things to fix and outhouse holes to dig. But he loved it. He just fell in love with it."

Her husband still goes to fish camp when he can, she said. He dipnets, too, on the Kenai River. He went moose hunting with Marine buddies twice last fall but wasn't successful, she said. In September, the day after word of Sullivan's resignation as natural resources commissioner created buzz about a possible Senate run, he applied for a tag to kill a brown bear.


The couple has three teenage daughters: Laurel, 13, Isabella, 15, and Meghan, 17. They all attend public school in Anchorage. Julie is PTSA president at the youngest's school.

The family belongs to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish. Sullivan is on the board of The Thomas C. and Sandra S. Sullivan Foundation, his family's charity based in Cleveland, which provides money to Catholic groups and other organizations for education and anti-poverty work.

While Sullivan sidesteps some policy questions with the caution of a practiced lawyer, on two big social issues the lifelong Catholic has a ready answer: He's anti-abortion, except in cases of rape or incest or when a mother's life is in danger, and he opposes gay marriage.


At Georgetown, Sullivan earned both a law degree and a master's in foreign service in 1993. He then took a unusual detour: He enlisted in the Marines as an infantry officer.

When he completed his active duty with the Marines, he, Julie and their baby daughter made their way by Jeep and ferry from Camp Pendleton, Calif., to Fairbanks, his wife's hometown. That's when he says his Alaska residency begins, in 1997. But it's not quite that simple.

Is he a four-year resident, marking when he moved back in June 2009 to become attorney general, as Democrats say? Has he been here 10 years, counting both stretches, as he said on his 2013 hunting and fishing license application? Or more than 16 years, as he now maintains on the campaign trail, which includes seven years when he wasn't physically here.

Early on, GOP rival Treadwell told Politico, "I've got a jar of mayonnaise in my refrigerator that's been there longer than Dan Sullivan's been in Alaska."

Legally speaking, it doesn't matter. The U.S. Constitution says only that senators must live in the state "when elected."

Sullivan's Alaska residency came in two chunks, from 1997 to 2002, and from 2009 to the present.

In 2008, he lived in Bethesda, Md. He declared his home there to be his principal residence, which qualified him for a property tax break, but at the same time he voted absentee in the Alaska general election. In 2011, he said on a fishing license application that he had lived in Alaska for two years, but on last year's application he said 10 years, counting all his time in the state.

"I always say I moved here -- 1997, right, after I got out of the military like thousands of other Alaskans. And was settling down, starting a family, and getting involved in the community," Sullivan told the Daily News.


He and his family moved away in 2002 for good reason, Sullivan says: "9/11 happened and that changed everything."

His cold-weather reconnaissance Marine company wasn't deployed into combat. Instead, he sought out a fellowship in the Bush White House working under then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

In that post, he served both the National Security Council and the National Economics Council. According to an official State Department capsule posted online, he focused on international trade, property rights and economic summits. The job was more than that, Sullivan says: he worked to cut off funding to terrorist networks and advance global energy security, for instance.


In December 2004, he was recalled to active duty. Julie and the girls moved back to the home they still owned in Anchorage.

He was a frustrated staff officer, "not doing what I was trained to do, which was kick in doors and kill bad guys," he told the Conservative Patriots Group in March.


In February 2005, he came to the attention of Gen. John Abizaid, then commander of the U.S. Central Command, the strategic military authority over the long and difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Abizaid eventually wrote a letter recommending Sullivan for promotion to lieutenant colonel.

Abizaid said in a telephone interview that he was looking for smart guys, not yes men, to advise him. Sullivan's background -- Ivy League, Marine reconnaissance, White House aide -- seemed just right.

"He certainly stood out as one of the best very quickly," the general said.

Abizaid said he found in Sullivan "an extremely rare quality" of being able to move around war zones and to write insightful analyses rooted in common sense. At the forward headquarters in Qatar, Sullivan worked to clarify complex problems, "such as what drives Shia violence in Iraq, Shia as opposed to Sunni," Abizaid recalled.

Though he was a junior officer, Sullivan didn't "sugarcoat difficult truths," the general said in the 2011 promotion letter. "If I had the chance to pick one Marine to stand next to me on any battlefield it would be Dan Sullivan."

Abizaid later met Sullivan's father back in the U.S. Abizaid now sits on the RPM International board of directors. He was voted onto the board in 2008 after the elder Sullivan initiated it. Abizaid's annual compensation from RPM approaches $164,000, according to recent corporate filings.

When Sullivan's tour ended in April 2006, he and his family reunited in the Washington, D.C., area.

That June, he was sworn in as assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs, again working for Condoleezza Rice, who by then was secretary of state.

In an email sent through the Sullivan campaign, Rice praised him as a trusted advisor and endorsed his bid for Senate. She's featured in a TV ad praising Sullivan; the ad was generated by American Crossroads, the SuperPAC started by Bush administration political strategist Karl Rove. The group says it spent $180,000 to run the ad statewide last month.

Sullivan remains in the Marine reserves. Last summer he deployed for six weeks as part of a task force in Afghanistan, which Sullivan said worked on "dismantling terrorist networks, particularly focused on the Taliban."

He has a "secret" security clearance; it used to be top secret/SCI, for "sensitive compartmented information," an even higher level.

In September, Sullivan was selected from a number of lieutenant colonels to command a new reserve unit, the California-based 6th ANGLICO, or Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Co., which he described as an airborne battalion deployed in small teams to coordinate firepower with non-Marines, including Army brigades, special forces and foreign armies.

In December, Sullivan scored a perfect 300 on his Marine combat fitness test, which includes a short run, two minutes of lifting a 30-pound ammo can overhead and a maneuver drill that includes tossing a dummy grenade into a circle. Last summer, he scored 278 on the separate physical fitness test, doing 100 crunches and 20 pull-ups and completing a 3-mile run, the latter in 21 minutes, 38 seconds. Sullivan, a regular runner, would have to do it in under 18 minutes for a perfect 300.


When President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, Sullivan was out of a job. He looked back to Alaska.

Then-Gov. Sarah Palin needed an attorney general. Sullivan let her staff know he was interested. Her revenue commissioner, Pat Galvin, had encountered Sullivan several times over the previous two years and was looking for a way to bring him on board, according to an email Galvin sent to Palin in April 2009.

"I've never even heard of the guy," Palin emailed an aide. But she was quickly won over.

"Confidential til we finalize but new AG has amazing credentials, love for and ties to Alaska law, our friends in former Bush Admin are his references," Palin emailed that June to then-Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell and chief of staff Mike Nizich.

Almost right away, Sullivan was approached about running for the U.S. Senate, his wife Julie said. She wouldn't say who was behind the push.

That first year, Palin quit and Parnell became governor. Parnell was elected in his own right in 2010 and soon named Sullivan to serve as his high-profile natural resources commissioner.

Sullivan has made fighting the feds a central theme of his career in Alaska state government. Now he says he wants to continue the fight from a different front.

On Oct. 15, he kicked off his Senate campaign.

Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390.


Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.