Campaign Profile: Sullivan’s “Amazing Credentials”

DNR Commissioner Dan Sullivan
Republican U.S Senate Candidate Dan Sullivan

As a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Dan Sullivan has a bucket of advantages. He married into an acclaimed Athabascan family. His own family, back in Cleveland, are six-figure donors to Republicans in high places. One of his biggest assets, though, is his resume.

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Degrees from Harvard and Georgetown. Positions in the White House and State Department. And, interspersed throughout, service as infantry officer in the Marines. Gov. Sarah Palin gushed about his “amazing credentials” just before she appointed him Alaska Attorney General. Topping off his C.V.: three years as Alaska’s Natural Resources Commissioner.

His resume is part of what impresses Irene Rowan, who has worked on Alaska Native issues since the 1960s and is close to Sullivan’s wife.

“I think he’ll do very well for Alaska in Washington,” she says. “He has the drive, he has knowledge of all the Alaska issues, and he knows how to move around in the system of Washington DC.”

Sullivan deploys his resume to strategic advantage. He says he’s the only candidate in the race who has a real record of fighting the policies of the Obama administration.

“Fighting the federal government’s over-reach, taking it to the Obama administration,” he said on KOAN recently. “A lot of candidates love to talk about that. I’ve had the honor of being in the arena, battling these guys.”

It’s a candidate’s job to sell his accomplishments.  But political opponents say his resume has thin spots and complain he oversells himself. Sullivan, for instance, often says he was one of the lead AGs in the country to challenge the legality of “Obamacare.”

“In terms of credibility candidates, I’m the one who sat down, the one who sued on this, the one who laid out a lot of the intellectual framework of why we thought (the Affordable Care Act) was unconstitutional,” he said.

Sullivan’s name is on a 2010 memo to Gov. Sean Parnell analyzing the legality of the Affordable Care Act.  But Alaska didn’t file its own challenge.  It attached its name to a lawsuit out of Florida, after 20 states were on already board. It’s much the same with the dragon all the Republican candidates pledge to slay – the EPA.

“We won a case that I brought, originally brought, just three days ago,” he said at a Republican debate in June. “In the U.S. Supreme Court! With the EPA! Putting them in their place.”

The case was about the EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, which, actually the Supreme Court left intact, at least for major smokestacks. Alaska tagged on to a case filed previously filed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. These days Sullivan says he brought the case, but a press release from Sullivan’s time as AG strikes a softer tone. It quotes Sullivan saying the state’s involvement began in 2003 – years before Sullivan became attorney general.

As AG and later as DNR commissioner, Sullivan frequently cited his professional history during lobbying visits in Washington, says Russ Kelly. Kelly was an associate director of Gov. Parnell’s Washington, D.C. office and was assigned on several occasions to shadow Sullivan as he made the rounds of congressional offices.

“I was disappointed,” says Kelly. “I didn’t think the meetings went well. I didn’t think they were productive.”

After one trip, Kelly wrote a long memo to top Parnell staffers critiquing Sullivan’s work. It was recently emailed anonymously to APRN. Kelly, who had a bad break with the Parnell Administration, says he doesn’t know who’s distributing it. He says he wrote it because he felt a duty to report what he’d seen of Sullivan’s presentations on Capitol Hill.

“I was concerned that when you go into these offices and you don’t make the right impression and you don’t have substance to share, then you’re at risk of burning bridges and hurting relationships for the future,” he says.

In the 2011 memo, Kelly says in most offices, Sullivan spent too much time reciting his resume and basic facts about Alaska, even when, in Kelly’s opinion, the situation called for more complex answers.

But Kelly’s memo says Sullivan made good use of his connections, particularly with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, with whom he exchanged family news. Sullivan has connections across Washington, but his link to Sen. Portman is especially valuable. Portman’s the chief fundraiser for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, an arm of the party. Over the years, Portman and his leadership fund have received tens of thousands of dollars from Sullivan relatives in Ohio and employees of RPM International. That’s the paint company Sullivan’s grandfather founded and his brother Frank now runs. The NRSC is supposed to remain neutral in a Republican primary, but Portman’s presence at a Sullivan fundraiser on Capitol Hill last fall helped raise his profile among national donors.

So far, Sullivan has raised $3.8 million, nearly 90% of it from out of state. He’s keeping pace with Sen. Mark Begich – quite a feat for a first-time candidate. Meanwhile, two Sullivan brothers and an ex-RPM board member have paid $125,000 to an independent campaign called Alaska’s Energy/America’s Values that’s dedicated to promoting Sullivan.

Sullivan brushes off questions about how his family’s political contacts may have helped him raise money from national groups.

“We worked hard to get in front of those groups and make our case that we were the strongest candidate to win this primary, win this race,” Sullivan says.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has run a TV ad promoting Sullivan. Sullivan’s brother Frank sits on the board of the U.S. Chamber. When pressed about any help his brother may have provided, Sullivan sticks to generalities.

“There’s been a lot of people who’ve been helpful …. A lot of people who have been helpful who care about America,” he said.

One of the gems of Sullivan’s resume is his military service. Sullivan was a full-time Marine for four years. As a reservist, he spent all of 2005 as staff to the general in charge of the entire Middle East.

“Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan – wherever he was …. I was with him,” he says.

Last year, Sullivan was called up for six weeks to Afghanistan, where he says he focused on dismantling terrorist networks. As an infantry officer, Sullivan is trained to “kick in doors and kill bad guys,” as he put it to a conservative group in Wasilla, according the Anchorage Daily News.  While rival Republican Joe Miller often calls himself a “combat vet,” that’s one thing Sullivan acknowledges is not on his resume.

“I do not consider myself combat in terms of kicking in doors, shooting, being shot at. I’m an infantry officer. I was a recon officer. I’ve spent years up here training hundreds of Alaskans to be recon officers,” he says.

Like Republican opponent Mead Treadwell, Sullivan has a history on the climate change question. These days, Sullivan sounds like a skeptic: “The consensus in the scientific community on what’s going on with regard to man-made global climate change is still out.”

But in 2007, as an assistant secretary of State, he flew to Germany to help sell the Bush climate initiative. At a press conference in Berlin, he insisted to a room of doubtful reporters that the administration was serious about helping meet UN targets for greenhouse gas reductions.

“Our goal, our stated goal, has been to slow, stop and reduce emissions,” Sullivan told them, according to the State Department transcript.

Sullivan says he thinks the scientific consensus on climate change has weakened since then.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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