Alaska News

From Capitol basement, Sullivan talks staff, committees and Senate hash browns

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As the current session of Congress winds up, Alaska's U.S. Sen.-elect, Republican Dan Sullivan, is getting ready to start, organizing his new staff and preparing for his January swearing-in from a windowless, undecorated office in the bowels of the U.S. Capitol complex.

Sullivan announced last week that he'd hired a chief of staff, former Alaska natural resources commissioner Joe Balash, as well as a scheduler and a spokesman.

His transition team is now working out of a few rooms in the basement of a Capitol office building, where on Friday afternoon Sullivan and Balash discussed their next steps with a reporter.

Balash, who's working without a salary until the start of the new congressional session, said he and Sullivan had completed interviews for their office's legislative director and will be focused on selecting a state director next week.

Also in the office Friday was Sullivan's new scheduler, as well as Robyn Engibous, the finance director for Sullivan's campaign, who will be a key member of Sullivan's official staff, according to Balash.

Ultimately, Sullivan's annual office budget of $3 million will support a staff of up to 50 people, but Balash said they're hiring from the top down and won't have all those jobs filled before Sullivan is sworn in early next month.

Seated at a desk covered with printouts, congratulatory notes and a gift from Oklahoma GOP Sen. James Inhofe, a book Inhofe wrote about global warming called "The Greatest Hoax," Sullivan said it's been "humbling" to start his work at the Capitol, which has included meetings with senators from both parties, interviews with potential staff, and a breakfast at the dining area reserved for Sullivan and his Senate colleagues.


"Two eggs over easy, bacon, and hash browns," Sullivan answered, when asked what he'd eaten. "It was excellent."

Tasks have also included angling for committee assignments. Balash said Sullivan's top priority was a spot on the Senate Commerce Committee, given its jurisdiction over fisheries.

Sullivan's defeated opponent, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, also had a spot on the committee, and chaired an influential subcommittee on oceans, fisheries, and the Coast Guard. Balash said Alaska has been represented on the Commerce Committee for every year since statehood but two.

"We want to make sure it continues," Balash said.

Other duties have included attending a lottery for office space along with the four incoming senators who hadn't previously served in the U.S. House, Sullivan said. After a quick consultation with the political strategist from his campaign, who was sitting in the room, Sullivan grinned sheepishly and admitted: "You're looking at 100 out of 100."

Sullivan said he does not plan to move to Washington permanently with his wife and three daughters -- instead, he will commute from Alaska, at least for his first year in office.

Balash said he and Engibous will be based in Washington, adding that Sullivan was seeking a legislative director with "Senate-specific savvy."

While Balash doesn't have much history in Washington, Sullivan said his chief of staff does have experience managing a large organization and knowledge of policy and politics specific to Alaska. The two have also worked together before; Balash was a deputy when Sullivan was Alaska's natural resources commissioner.

"Is it also important to have somebody on your staff who understands how the Senate operates, how to move opportunities for legislation? Yeah," Sullivan added. "We'll certainly be making sure we have people who understand that aspect, too."

Sullivan was hesitant to discuss the current Congress' work, declining to say whether he would have supported the contentious spending bill that passed the House late Thursday.

And he was reluctant to weigh in on the specific findings of a recent report from the Senate's intelligence committee condemning a defunct CIA interrogation program, though he said he was skeptical of the fact that the report had been written solely by Democratic staffers.

"People are calling it 'the Senate report.' It's actually the Democratic Senate report," Sullivan said. "You have, I'm sure, senators of good intentions on both sides of the aisle, on the Intelligence committee, of CIA directors -- the current one, working for the president -- none of whom can agree on this. To me, I'm not so sure how much utility that has when we're not trying to come together on getting agreement on some of these critical issues."

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at