Second of two parts.
WASHINGTON — Sen. Dan Sullivan stretched outside his home at 7:15 a.m. before a run and explained a policy, one that few states can pull off, he said. He and his staff aren’t perfect on it themselves, but they aim high: Any visiting Alaskan who wants a meeting can get one.
“With me, not just staff,” Sullivan clarified.
“My view is (if) you’ve traveled 4,000 miles to come see your senator, you should see your senator,” Sullivan said.
That sometimes means more than a dozen meetings stacked in a day, filling the spaces between his committee work, caucus lunches, staff meetings and votes on the Senate floor. If he doesn’t get a workout in early, he’ll have to wait until it’s late at night. With long days and near-weekly trips back and forth to Alaska, it’s not a lifestyle that lends itself to fitness.
“I tried, when I started here, to do stuff in the middle of the day,” said Sullivan, who keeps a chin-up bar in his office. “But that never works.”
Sullivan, 54, is 4 1/2 years into his term as U.S. senator for Alaska, and just the eighth person to have that job. He’s also a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, which means his physical fitness gets tested periodically. He takes pride in scoring high, and his next test was coming up soon.
Sullivan’s running route takes him around the north side of the Capitol and westward along the broad gravel pathways of the National Mall. If he turns around at the World War II Memorial, it’s about a 4 1/2-mile effort. Sometimes he goes “all the way to Lincoln.”
The run has more than physical benefits.
“It’s kind of an inspirational run, you know?” Sullivan said, the recently restored Capitol dome gleaming over his shoulder and the Washington Monument jutting skyward ahead.
It’s also an opportunity to get work done. He said he often calls and texts his staff while he runs.
“I do some of my best thinking early in the morning,” he said.
Sullivan came to the Senate with some Washington familiarity. He attended Georgetown University’s law school and worked on the National Security Council staff at the White House before he became Alaska’s attorney general. But the legislative branch is a different animal.
“There’s so much history in the Senate that, for me, I always, always feel like I’m learning,” he said. “It’s gone fast.”
He extended his calves to stay loose as he waited to cross a street, then followed the walkways past tour groups around the Capitol’s south side and ran home to prepare for his day.
Standing in a hallway of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Sullivan recalled an inauspicious start to his new job.
“I was ranked No. 100 when I first got here, which is not great for seniority, as you can imagine, and also getting on committee assignments,” he said.
After strategizing with Alaska’s senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, Sullivan made a bid to join four committees he described as sought-after: Environment and Public Works, Commerce, Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs.
“I actually went to (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell right as a brand-new senator and said, ‘Hey look, I don’t know how this works. I’m No. 100, which doesn’t bode well, but these are really important to me, really important to my state,’” Sullivan said. “And I got ‘em.”
“When that happened, there were some senators kind of like … ‘How do you Alaskans pull this off?’ ” he said.
Other surprises followed in subsequent years.
“There are issues that percolate up that, to be honest, you weren’t really focused on in your campaign,” Sullivan said.
He recalled a meeting, years ago, in which eight women shared personal experiences with Alaska’s opioid crisis. Sullivan called it the most poignant meeting he had ever been part of, one that spurred him to prioritize the issue.
“Since that time, I’ve been very, very, very focused on that issue,” he said, adding that Alaska has a long way to go.
Sullivan said it’s also been a little surprising how often he finds himself needing to explain Alaska’s uniqueness to his Senate colleagues and others. That includes Defense Department leadership who he said has been slow to recognize Alaska’s strategic importance.
“I’ve been battling the Pentagon for 4½ years to get them more focused,” he said.
Along the way, he’s honed a few tools of the trade.
One effective strategy: Show up.
Sullivan said a senator can submit questions for the record for committee hearings, but being there provides a better opportunity to learn more about an issue. And when he has an opportunity to ask questions face to face, he’s more likely to receive answers that benefit Alaska, he said.
Sullivan used the technique in a Commerce Committee hearing that day. He asked Heidi King, deputy administrator for the National Highway Safety Administration, if she considered public education campaigns about marijuana-impaired driving in states where the drug had been legalized.
King responded that she had visited Washington and Colorado to learn more.
“Can I get your commitment to get to Alaska soon?” Sullivan asked. “You know, we have these issues and I think it’s important.”
“I would love that,” King said. “Thank you for the honor to do so.”
Sullivan said he has another option to force conversations about Alaska with generals and admirals moving into top positions.
“I’ve been very willing to put holds on their confirmations,” Sullivan said. “So I put a hold on the chief of staff of the Army’s confirmation. I put a hold on the secretary of the Army’s confirmation. I put a hold on the commandant of the Coast Guard’s confirmation. I recently — didn’t make a lot of news, I kind of didn’t want it to make news — but I put a hold on the commandant of the Marine Corps’ confirmation hearing.
“And it all related to issues that I just didn’t think they understood the strategic value of Alaska.”
A “hold” refers to a notification that a senator intends to object to consideration of a nominee on the Senate floor. This typically stalls the process because it triggers a time-consuming process to overcome, according to Sullivan’s press secretary Mike Anderson. It can also trigger grief from Sullivan’s colleagues, he said.
Sullivan said he put a hold on Gen. Mark Milley, a nominee to become Army chief of staff in 2015, to press him to visit the JBER-based 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division. The 2,600-soldier “4-25” had been slated for elimination as part of nationwide force reductions. He wanted to Milley to also reassess military needs in the Pacific and Arctic regions.
Milley joined Sullivan in Alaska in 2016. In 2017, the Army announced that the 4-25 would stay put. News reports then said it was the only unit that escaped the cuts of the 40,000-soldier reduction.
“That’s a tool, if you know how to use it,” he said.
Political divisions dominate the public’s perception of Washington, and Sullivan is considered by many to be a reliable Republican vote what parties collide.
FiveThirtyEight, a politics-heavy news website that leans on data analysis, tracks how often every member of Congress votes in line with President Donald Trump’s positions. Sullivan, it says, has done so 92% of the time since Trump took office. By comparison, Lisa Murkowski has voted in agreement with Trump 74.5% of the time, according to FiveThirthyEight.
But Sullivan said there’s more to being a senator than political clashes.
“There’s so much more bipartisan stuff that goes on here,” Sullivan said. “It just doesn’t get picked up and it really happens a lot.”
His work that Wednesday supported his point, at least in part. His meetings consisted of work on several non-controversial bipartisan efforts. The Environment and Public Works Committee might surprise people, he said.
“If you looked at the makeup of that committee — a lot of guys running for president, a lot of the more very liberal Democratic senators — you would be surprised at how much bipartisan work that committee cranks,” Sullivan said. “It’s really impressive how much work we get done.”
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said that the committee’s business that day would include “two nominees, six bills and 38 general service administration resolutions.” All were later advanced by a voice vote.
Sullivan’s comments came as he hustled to his next hearing, where the Commerce Committee took testimony regarding the reauthorization of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. The FAST Act, a funding bill, initially passed the full Senate by a vote of 83-16 in 2015.
When the Veterans’ Affairs Committee moved the bipartisan VA Mission Act to increase access to medical care for veterans last year, the full Senate passed it with a vote of 92-5. In the Veterans’ Affairs hearing in June, Sullivan spoke with Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie about responding to suicide rates in the nation’s veteran population.
“So many of us have been impacted by this issue. So many of our constituents have been impacted by this issue of suicide. You know, I lost a young Marine who was under my command to suicide many years ago,” Sullivan said to Wilkie. “But, I think most people in this position, whether in the military or otherwise are always asking, ‘What more could we have done?’ So I think that’s why you’re seeing this very bipartisan focus.”
Later, before Sullivan walked into the Senate chamber for a series of votes, he said he had a plan for targeting a few other senators for two more bipartisan bills. From the press gallery overlooking the Senate floor, Sullivan could be seen sitting with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.
He said later that they spoke about drumming up support within their own parties for an updated version of the Save Our Seas Act, which they co-sponsored in 2017 to reduce marine debris. At the time, the Ocean Conservancy called its Senate passage “a heartening display of bipartisan unity.”
On the Senate floor that day, Sullivan also sought Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to press him on Sen. Lisa Murkowski and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s “critical minerals” legislation. It aims to reduce dependence on China for rare earth elements used in high-tech devices.
Sullivan appeared to have trouble getting Schumer to hold still to talk, but Sullivan later told his staff that he got his attention.
“I said, ‘Look Chuck, you’ve been very strong against China. This is what this is all about.’ I said, ‘Your whole caucus is for it and they said you’re the only one who’s against it,’” Sullivan said.
Sullivan told his staff that Schumer responded he was unfamiliar with the legislation and would take another look.
In the big picture, evidence is limited that Washington is trending toward greater political harmony. Sullivan’s day also included a call into KFQD talk radio host Dave Stieren’s show, during which he howled about Democratic efforts to restrict development in Alaska, one of the senator’s common refrains.
Next year when Sullivan faces re-election, he’ll share a ballot in Alaska with Trump, whose divisive style daily dominates headlines nationwide. Sullivan withdrew his support for Trump in 2016 after the release of a video in which Trump boasted of forcing himself sexually on women.
In June, Sullivan describe the executive branch as one that has been responsive to Alaskans’ concerns. Trump returns his calls, Sullivan said.
But Sullivan said his lines of communication extend in other directions, too. Some of his best friends in the Senate are Democrats, he said.
“Whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, most people here are, I think, work(ing) hard, in it for the right reasons,” Sullivan said. “And I think it’s important for people to see that.”
Before calling it a day, Sullivan had one more stone to turn over. He planned to attend a reception for Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada, at the Canadian Embassy.
Trudeau traveled to Washington to drum up support for the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, but Sullivan saw an opportunity to air his concerns about transboundary mining pollution. British Columbia’s defunct Tulsequah Chief Mine is leaching waste into the Taku River near Juneau, according to Sullivan.
“I’m going to try,” Sullivan said in the car with his chief of staff Larry Burton, who dropped him off nearby. “I talked to him about it last time I met him. He won’t remember, but I’ll just mention it again.”
“You’d be surprised how leaders of countries remember things,” Burton said.
“We’ll give it a whirl, a college try,” Sullivan said.
Several senators were among the VIPs who attended the mixer, sipping wine, Molson beer and nibbling on seafood hors d’oeuvres at the casual affair. When Trudeau entered the room, he called the two nations each other’s best friends in his brief remarks.
Sullivan put himself in prime position for a face-to-face with Trudeau, and was among the first few people the Canadian leader greeted. He recounted the interaction after he left the party.
Sullivan said he advised Trudeau that Democratic leadership in the House would be key to building support for USMCA, he said. Then he leaned in to serve the message he came to give.
“I said, ‘You know, Mr. Prime Minister, I’ve raised this issue with you before. But in Alaska we’re very resource-development oriented like Canada, but we also have concerns about the transboundary mining issues in Canada … It’d be good for you guys to work with us to clean all that up,’ ” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said Trudeau seemed prepared for the volley.
“And he said, ‘Well, Senator, you know we’re not necessarily thrilled about the opening of the Arctic Refuge.’ To which I said, ‘With all due respect Mr. Prime Minister, that’s pretty much a non sequitur to the issue I’m raising with you.’”
By the time he departed, Sullivan had circled up a second time with the prime minister, this time with the Canadian defense minister and the Canadian ambassador joining in. They chatted about several shared concerns and bantered about exercise, like running and boxing, Sullivan said. Canadian ambassador David MacNaughton quipped that he had gone a few rounds with Sullivan about ANWR before, and didn’t recommend getting in the ring, Sullivan said.
The senator told the story with a half-smile as he walked home, seeming to have enjoyed the chase that ended the day. It felt like progress, he said, his suit coat slung over his shoulder and a patchwork of sweat showing on his formerly crisp shirt as he walked home along Constitution Avenue. He said he felt confident something good would happen soon.