By ZACHARY HALASCHAK
Daily News Staff Writer
U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, was in Ketchikan over the weekend. He conducted a town hall, visited a number of local businesses and stopped by the Daily News on Saturday.
Sullivan’s most public event while in town was a town hall held Friday evening in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough chambers. About three dozen people showed up, and although there were some tense exchanges, the crowd was, by and large, civil.
Sullivan told the Daily News he was pleased with the turnout to the town hall as well as the wide breadth of questions asked.
“That was a very respectful (town hall),” Sullivan said. “And they’re good. They’re good to let people blow off steam, ask questions.”
Sullivan said he has been holding these events “all over the state,” noting that he was also in Wrangell on Friday for a noontime town hall.
The senator said a lot of the same issues were brought up at both the Wrangell and Ketchikan town halls. Sullivan also said visiting people in Ketchikan allows him to better understand the issues that are important to the Southeast Alaska community.
Before the Saturday interview, Sullivan visited the Vigor-operated shipyard. He said that the potential for having more projects in Ketchikan was discussed, specifically regarding collaboration with the U.S. Coast Guard.
“To be on the ground, seeing it, showing me where we could do that,” Sullivan said. “That provides me very, very good ammo, knowledge and information.”
“I wouldn’t get that in a D.C. briefing,” Sullivan said.
In addition to the shipyard, Sullivan said that he met with some area Republicans Saturday morning, met with the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood, visited the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition to discuss the opioid epidemic, met with the mayors and managers of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough and City of Ketchikan, visited PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center, and spoke with folks from the Ketchikan Indian Community.
Sullivan said that Sunday he was planning on attending mass in the morning, having a roundtable discussion with a group of fishermen and would visit the Ketchikan Pioneer Home before heading back to Washington, D.C.
Sullivan, who is chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water and Wildlife, told the Daily News that he was concerned about the declining salmon populations in Southeast, calling for more research funding.
“There are parts of the state where the salmon runs have never been more healthy, and yet it fluctuates and the kings are not doing well,” Sullivan said. “The kings are not doing well in most parts of the state.”
“Some people think it’s predation, the whales, and others see it as the temperature and the acidification,” Sullivan said. “So the one thing that I’ve been very focused on, particularly as a chair of that subcommittee, is fully, fully, fully funding the research arms of the federal government — NOAA in particular — to make sure we have the best data for the sustainability of these species and the fisheries.”
“It’s a huge focus of mine, probably I focus on fisheries issues more than any other issue in my current job,” Sullivan later added.
The senator noted that Chris Oliver — an Alaskan — now heads up the National Marine Fisheries Service.
He also highlighted the fact that a number of Alaskans now hold national roles relating to natural resources and environment — including a third of the assistant secretary positions at the Department of the Interior.
When asked about the new Federal Emergency Management Agency flood plain mapping — an issue that many in the community are displeased with — Sullivan said he was still learning about the issue.
“Sometimes you start digging into the issue, then you come to the community, and are like, ‘Whoa, that’s a five-alarm fire going on in Ketchikan,’” Sullivan explained. “… To be honest, when I was getting ready for the trip I started reading up on all the FEMA issues and what’s happening with the new assessment.
“I know my staff has been working it, but again that’s another reason why these trips for me are so important to get the kind of the issue to come to a head,” he added.
Sullivan said when the borough sends its annual delegation to Washington, D.C., this week he would be meeting with them on the issue. The borough has requested that the 90-day appeals period be extended to a year, and that FEMA “ground truth” the newly mapped flood zones.
Another topic of discussion was Sullivan’s recent “no” vote on the 2,232-page omnibus spending bill. He said he voted no because nobody had enough time to read what was in it.
When asked what could be changed to make the process more transparent and streamlined, Sullivan said he and a group of primarily junior senators were working on ways to make the appropriations process better.
“There’s a bit of a generational divide I would say on this, where — I don’t want to be too general here — but I think the longer you’ve been there, the more you’re kind of like, ‘Hey, well this is the way we’ve been doing it, yeah it’s not great but it’s not that bad, it works,’” Sullivan said. “Well I think it’s horrible. Horrible.
“No business, no city, no borough would run their organization like this,” he added.
Sullivan said that instead of filibustering and crafting a massive appropriations bill at the last minute, the Senate should get back appropriating on a more piece-by-piece basis to avoid a “smash-up derby” of a bill that gets thrown together with just days to spare.
“The right way is — and it used to happen this way in the Ted Stevens days — the appropriations committee takes us the 12 different appropriations bills that fund the government in pieces,” Sullivan said, explaining that going about and debating each of the 12 bills individually is “a lot more work,” but saying that doing it the old-fashioned way would be well worth it for the country as a whole.
Sullivan said that filibustering has been an issue in the past, pointing to Democrats in 2015, his first year in office, but also acknowledging the problem goes beyond party.
“In 2015 it was definitely the Dems doing it,” he said. “But there is a lot of blame to go around.”
“There’s a lot of Democrats that are frustrated by this, too,”Sullivan said.
One idea he floated was to change the Senate rules to allow debate regarding appropriations with a simple majority vote of senators instead of needing 60 votes.
“Make the motion to proceed to get on the bill, … a majority vote, so that means just 51 senators — it’s 60 now,” Sullivan said. “… The motion to pass would still require 60, but once you’re on it and debating it, it becomes much harder to filibuster it at the end.”
Sullivan also expressed some interest in potentially changing to two-year budgeting instead of single-year budgeting, as is current policy.
“I haven’t decided if I fully like the idea of a two-year budget window,” Sullivan explained, “but it makes a lot of sense and would enable agencies — in particular the U.S. military — to plan. Because they can’t plan right now — they can’t even plan for one year.”
One of the questions at Friday’s town hall related to the current state of the Republican Party.
When asked by the Daily News on Saturday what he thinks the GOP should do differently going into the midterms, especially in light of some national embarrassments for the party — such as the candidacy of accused pedophile Roy Moore in last year’s senate race in Alabama — Sullivan said that the GOP needs to become more inclusive.
“The National Republican Senatorial Committee specifically did not endorse Roy Moore,” Sullivan emphasized, adding that he recently gave an address to the Alaska GOP in Anchorage where he urged more inclusion.
“I’m a big, big fan of kind of the ‘big-tent’ Republican party,” Sullivan said. “… That means literally accept and bring in everybody and anybody who believes in kind of core principals. We don’t always agree on everything, but that’s OK; that’s not bad.
“And you can’t have kind of litmus tests on certain issues that if you don’t meet this litmus test you’re out of the party,” the senator added.
Sullivan also said that the GOP would do best by providing an “optimistic picture” for the state and the country. He repeatedly noted a Colin Powell quote saying that “optimism is a force multiplier.”
The senator also noted the difference between the Trump administration’s policies and Trump’s behavior.
Sullivan reiterated the number of Alaskans in the current administration and highlighted what he says are positive elements of the “sea change” between the Trump administration and the Obama administration.
“What I don’t support is bad behavior. I don’t like insults. … People think, ‘Oh, it’s the president whose making the civil discourse more coarsened’ — I think he has, to some degree — but go on my Facebook page,” Sullivan said, noting that he estimates 95 percent of comments on even his non-political posts are vitriolic.
“The civility quotient could be improved on all sides,” he said.
Sullivan also sits on the Senate Armed Services committee and is currently a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. When asked if he was disappointed about the departure of H.R. McMaster as national security advisor, he said he was.
“I’m close to (McMaster). I text him all the time … I think McMaster has done a really good job. … I really like McMaster. I wouldn’t have fired him. He’s been really good on the Iran strategy; he’s been good on a whole host of areas.”
And although Sullivan said he was displeased with McMaster being replaced and the way it was announced (through Trump’s Twitter account), he said he was looking forward to meeting with McMaster’s replacement, John Bolton — who has been described as a polarizing figure in the foreign policy community.
Bolton served briefly as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under the Bush administration as a recess appointee, but resigned when it appeared unlikely the Senate would confirm him for the role.
“He clearly has like, you know, background — it’s not like pulling someone off the Fox News set, ‘Saying, hey by the way, you want this job?’” Sullivan said. “I mean he’s done (work) at the highest levels in a previous administration.”
National Security Advisor is a role that doesn’t need to be confirmed by the Senate, and when the Daily News asked if he would have voted “yes” on confirming Bolton if it were a Senate-confirmed position, Sullivan demurred.
“I don’t know how to answer your question, and maybe I’ll just dodge it for now, but I plan on meeting him very soon,” Sullivan said. “I already have a request.”
“But I think, you know, it’s a credible choice,” he said. “I mean he’s hawkish, there’s no doubt about it, but it’s not like he’s some kind of — at least from my knowing him, and I’ve met with him many times — he’s certainly not some kind of lunatic.”
Quite a few questions from Friday’s town hall event related to guns, gun control, school shootings and the second amendment. Sullivan doubled down on his view that “cultural” factors might be a large part of the problem — a position he said he has gotten some “ridicule and scorn” on.
“If you look at the last four years say, have we had more or less restrictions on gun ownership? I think we’ve had more, it certainly hasn’t gotten more liberal — it’s gotten more restrictive,” Sullivan said. “In the ‘70s you could pretty much own a machine gun. … Now what has changed? To me one of the very obvious things is the coarsening of the culture with the movies and the video games.”
“Go watch Call (of) Duty and those active shooter games, it’s all about killing people,” he said. “And it’s bloody, and it’s violent — and again I’m not saying all the kids who watch it (are) going to be a killer, the vast, vast, vast majority aren’t. … I was a Marine, I’ve been trained to kill people my whole career and I’m not a psycho. … But if someone is on the margins, the notion that that’s not impactful — I just find very not credible.”
“How many people in Congress are talking about that? Zero. Me — and like, you get the, ‘Oh, that’s Tipper Gore from the 1980s —’ well no. This is serious,” Sullivan added.
When pressed on why other countries that have the same violent video games and films don’t have the same levels of gun violence, Sullivan said comparing countries is tricky.
“You’ve got to be a little bit careful when you’re doing the cross-country cross-cultural comparisons, because you can find different examples,” Sullivan said, noting the high rate of gun ownership in Switzerland.
Sullivan also talked about making schools tougher to penetrate by providing resources to local communities.
“You saw that issue came up again and again and obviously I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” Sullivan said. “ … There are ways to kind of harden — and it’s kind of a military term, I don’t like even using it when it comes to schools — but there’s like serious ways to harden targets. Schools for the most part unfortunately are soft targets.”
“This will be up to the different communities on how far they want to take it; I think a lot of this needs to be driven locally,” he said.
Arming teachers has been a political flashpoint recently, with Trump expressing support for the idea publicly. Sullivan said decisions regarding arming teachers should not be made federally, but on a community level.
“I have my own doubts about that, but that is a decision that clearly should be made at the local level,” Sullivan said, noting differences between a school district in Alaska and one in New York City.
When pressed about his personal views about arming teachers in his own district in Anchorage, Sullivan didn’t have a completely solid opinion, but again reiterated his view that schools need to be made more difficult to attack.
“Again, it would depend on the school, it would depend on the circumstances, it would depend on the comfort level of the teachers,” Sullivan said. “… Like I said, I have my doubts on the wisdom of that.”
Sullivan told the Daily News that he has enjoyed his time back in Ketchikan, and said that being able to see and hear from residents helps him to do his job and represent Alaskans.