The Anchorage Daily News asked candidates for U.S. Senate to answer a series of issue questions. Here are their responses. Read more here.
AL GROSS | Nonpartisan, Democratic nominee | Occupation: Orthopedic surgeon and commercial fisherman | Age: 58 | Residence: Anchorage | Relevant experience or prior offices held: This is my first time running for office, but I have a master’s in public health. | www.dralgrossak.com
Why are you running for office?
I’m running for office because I don’t like the direction our state and our country are headed. And when I saw Dan Sullivan vote repeatedly to take away healthcare from thousands of Alaskans, I got mad. Alaskans deserve better leadership, someone who will represent their interests, not corporate interests or someone who just tows the party line. As a doctor, commercial fisherman, and lifelong Alaskan I feel like I understand our state a lot better than Dan, which is why I’m running for office.
Name two big problems or challenges currently facing Alaska and how you plan to address them if elected.
Two of the biggest challenges Alaska is facing are spiraling cost of healthcare and an economy that was in recession before COVID-19, and is facing freefall now. These two things are closely linked, and a big reason I decided to run for Senate. As healthcare costs increase, government budgets and schools get squeezed, while at the same time creating huge obstacles to diversifying our economy—new businesses won’t come to Alaska because healthcare is prohibitively expensive.
We need to ensure that people are getting the help they need by extending some form of enhanced unemployment, another round of $1,200 checks, and most importantly, making sure that people do not have to pay out of pocket for COVID treatment. Our incumbent senator has done nothing as these programs have expired and people are left on their own.
Do you think the federal government has effectively dealt with the coronavirus pandemic as a public-health issue? What specifically should have been done differently?
As a doctor, I have a lot of problems with the federal response to the pandemic. For one thing, we started way too late. We should have mobilized a massive response immediately in early February by invoking the Defense Production Act to ensure we had what we needed to effectively respond.
Also, the Administration’s minimization of the danger, which continues to this very day, has materially contributed to the dangers of the virus, compounded by the Administration’s lead from behind approach. The Federal Government should have taken the lead immediately, and worked in close coordination with the states.
At a time of great uncertainty and fear, the American people needed a calm, steady leader giving them accurate information about the risks, as well as the actions they should be taking. Instead, we got exactly the opposite, and we are still paying the price for the lack of leadership, both in the Administration, and Senators like Dan Sullivan who failed to hold them accountable.
What should the federal government be doing to repair economic damage related to the pandemic?
I believe in the old adage that when your house is on fire, you don’t argue about the cost of the hose. And our house is most certainly on fire. We need to do absolutely everything we can to minimize the long-term, permanent damage this pandemic could do to individuals, families, and communities. That means another significant relief package that includes extending the extra unemployment insurance that was allowed to lapse, funding for states and municipalities that are facing a budget crunch, and crucially, fully funding our Postal Service. The Postal Service is not just important to Alaska, it is a critical lifeline for so many people who live off the road system to receive food, medication, and other essentials. There is no doubt that we will have to reckon with the price tag in the long term, but if we don’t do everything we can to mitigate this crisis right now, the long-term total cost will be much greater than whatever we spend in this moment.
What will you do to address high health-care costs (and access to quality care) for Alaskans?
I believe we need to allow individuals and small businesses to buy into Medicare at cost, so it won’t cost the taxpayers a dime. This will increase competition, which should bring down costs. At the same time, I think we should allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceuticals, as well as allow the importation of FDA approved drugs from places like Canada. We should also increase our investment in telehealth, especially in rural Alaska—which will require a commensurate investment in expanding access to rural broadband.
What should be done, if anything, to change federal immigration policies?
While there’s a lot of debate about immigration reform, there is bipartisan support for solving the DACA problem sooner rather than later. These people were brought to the US at a very young age, and many who have no real connection to their countries of origin. It makes no sense to punish them for an action they didn’t take, and we should move to give them a path to legal status immediately.
We also need a thorough review of our immigration policy more broadly. First, we need to ensure that we have a strong, secure border. This doesn’t mean building a wall that won’t work or the inhumane policy of separating families at the border. But it does mean deploying evidence-based interventions that we know work. And we need a bipartisan solution for undocumented people who have committed no crime other than crossing the border. Democrats, Independents, and Republicans in both the House and Senate have in the past come together around such plans, but they went nowhere. That needs to change.
Describe your vision for Alaska.
My vision for Alaska is pretty simple: I want a place my kids will come back to and start their families. But that means we need more opportunities. Unfortunately, the opportunities my kids face today don’t come close to what I had when I was growing up here. That means a diversified economy that is no longer over-dependent on oil and gas jobs; quality, affordable healthcare; and the continued protection of our air, waters, and land. Alaska is one of the most resource rich states in the country, and yet our infrastructure is among the worst. We have a tremendous amount of wealth, and yet we persistently have the highest unemployment rate in the country. We spend an incredible amount on students per capita, and yet we have one of the worst educational systems in the country. My vision for Alaska is one where we finally invest in a way where our outcomes are commensurate with our wealth.
What is the role of the federal government to reduce high rates of sexual assault and domestic violence in Alaska?
I released my plan to reduce domestic violence and sexual assault (DVSA) earlier this summer. My plan has three pillars: increase accountability, reduce recidivism, and protecting survivors. To increase accountability, my plan will offer grants to fund prosecutors who specialize in DVSA cases, which often require an additional layer of expertise to successful prosecute. In exchange, it calls for states to increase sentencing on repeat, escalating offenders. To reduce recidivism, my plan will fund a GPS monitoring program for high-risk offenders. Research has found that offenders under GPS monitoring are 95% less likely to commit a new violent crime. It will also close the “boyfriend loophole” for possession of firearms by domestic abusers. And in terms of protecting survivors, my plan calls for housing and child care assistance to people trying to escape abusive homes, as well as guaranteeing the right to a lawyer to help them navigate the criminal justice system.
What do you think is the United States' role in the world?
As the sole remaining super-power in the world, the United States has an important role to play. We must provide international leadership to foster stability and security, act as an engine of innovation, and promote human rights across the world in tandem with mobilizing much needed humanitarian relief. America has a unique ability to project its presence practically anywhere, anytime, which means it has a unique opportunity to be a significant force for good in the world. Ultimately, our role is seize that opportunity to the maximum extent possible.
How would you describe President Trump’s term in office?
President Trump has frequently identified the right problem, for example China taking advantage of the United States, but failed to do the hard work to get something done. His trade war with China didn’t bring in our allies, and left American farmers and fishers paying for it. We need a unified approach. President Trump was right that Washington has left working families behind, but then pushed a tax bill that gave 83% of the benefits to the top 1%, when fully implemented.
How important of a priority to you is reducing the federal deficit? Explain.
While the short-term crisis of the pandemic requires an immediate response, no country can live beyond its means indefinitely. If we simply ignore the deficit, we are setting ourselves up for disaster in the future. There is no doubt that there is a long term need to balance our spending and revenue, and get back onto a path of fiscal responsibility. I wish fiscal responsibility was a value that Dan Sullivan shared with me, but clearly he doesn’t as evidenced by his support for the deficit busting corporate tax cut, which benefited the super-rich at the expense of the working class.
What should Congress and the federal government do to deal with climate change, specifically its impacts in Alaska?
Congress should double down on its investment in renewable energy, and Alaska should be at the forefront of that investment, because we have it all: solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, and others. We will never see a reduction in our use of fossil fuels while global demand continues to exist, so the best way to reduce carbon emissions is to reduce demand for oil and gas. Affordable, renewable energy does just that.
I think Congress and the Federal government must also rejoin the Paris Accords immediately. Climate change is an urgent crisis that doesn’t respect borders. The only way we’ll save our planet from ruin is by working together with our partners across the globe.
What’s your position on the proposed Pebble mine?
As a commercial fisherman who has gill-netted in Bristol Bay, I agree with the late Ted Stevens that it’s the wrong mine in the wrong place. Bristol Bay is one of the most important salmon runs in the world, and even a small amount of risk is just too much to bear, given that the consequences could potentially destroy this state and national treasure.
What other important issue would you like to discuss with voters?
I think our failed response to COVID-19 has highlighted that we need competent leadership more than ever. As a doctor and a scientist and as a registered independent, I will make decisions in the Senate based on facts and evidence, not partisanship or special interests. While Dan Sullivan has voted with his party almost 100% of the time, including on things that directly hurt Alaska, I will never hesitate to stand up for Alaska, regardless of what party bosses try to tell me to do.
Alaska Public Media interview with Al Gross: