It was inaction on health care that ultimately made Dr. Al Gross of Juneau decide to challenge Republican Dan Sullivan, who is running for a second, six-year term to represent Alaska in the U.S. Senate.
Gross, who has opted for the Independent ticket, has fished his whole life, his four kids have fished to pay for college, and he left a 20 year career as an orthopedic surgeon to get a degree to go to work in public health.
His campaign claims Dr. Gross has the “Prescription for Change.”
“As a doctor, I stepped up and proposed a means of fishermen obtaining affordable health care, which I know is a really big deal because so many of my friends are commercial fishermen. Seeing how much they're spending to buy individual policy plans really hurts their bottom line. It's a real struggle,” Gross said in a phone interview while campaigning in Fairbanks. “Sullivan’s done nothing about that, and he voted down Affordable Health Care over and over again in the Senate. That's a big part of what incensed me to step up and run against him.”
“I think a public option allowing individuals like commercial fishermen to buy Medicare at cost and no one else's expense will allow them to obtain affordable health insurance at a fraction of what they're paying right now on the private market. I think it's a big step,” he said, adding that “separating health insurance from employer based insurance really makes a lot of sense to me, and especially in the commercial fishing industry.”
Gross’ mother, Shari, was the first executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska and founded the Alaska League of Women Voters. His father, Avrum, was state Attorney General and worked alongside Governor Jay Hammond to create Alaska’s Permanent Fund.
Gross said growing up on the water in Southeast means he’s seen firsthand the impacts that warming waters and off kilter ocean chemistry are having on fisheries and the marine ecosystem. He calls it Alaska’s biggest challenge, and said Sullivan has been silent as the Trump Administration has rolled back protections of our oceans, lands, and air.
“There's a worldwide movement to get away from petroleum products and consumption which leads to ocean acidification, and I'm very much in favor of moving towards renewable energy wherever it makes sense in Alaska as part of that broader worldwide approach,” Gross said. “We're an oil and gas state and we've benefited a lot from that, and I don't think we should stop producing oil and gas as long as there's a worldwide demand. But the reality is that demand is decreasing. And that's good, because it's going to lead towards less acidification of our oceans.”
Another major challenge to the seafood industry, Dr. Gross said, is ongoing trade wars.
“First and foremost, we need to solve this tariff problem with China. It's really hurting our fish prices and it's limiting our exports to China dramatically. That needs to be fixed and fixed fast. And it's directly attributable to President Trump's trade war that Sullivan has done very, very little to correct,” he said. “It also is not fair that Russia has not been buying our seafood for six years while we are buying from them. That is a terrible trade inequity.”
Dr. Gross cited the growth of shellfish and seaweed mariculture and using more of each fish as two of Alaska’s most exciting opportunities. Another is expanding territorial waters from three to 12 miles, as other states have done.
“It would give us more control over our fisheries, it would allow us to obtain more taxation on our coastal resources that would be directed to the state, and it would provide more opportunities for the oil and gas industry,” he explained. “And it would close loopholes that the cruise ships are taking advantage of with their dumping. It would also give the state more control to keep an eye on and minimize the fisheries bycatch that's going on.”
Dan Sullivan “has been responsive to fishermen’s concerns,” Gross said, “but I’ll be better due to my lifelong involvement with fisheries and my deep concern for the health of our oceans and rivers. I believe Dan has different motivations.”
Most importantly, Gross said he will be “an independent voice for Alaska.”
“We can change Washington, and it starts by changing the people we send there. Dan Sullivan represents a rubber stamp for Donald Trump,” he said. “He does not step outside the box. He doesn't come up with independent thoughts. He never disagrees with the president, publicly. And I think tough issues like the tariffs need to be addressed in an outspoken way. And Sullivan just hides in the shadows on all these contentious issues. And I really believe that Alaska deserves a more independent senator that's willing to speak out on the issues that matter most to our state.”