In Underground Rooms, Sullivan’s Senate Office Takes Shape

Joe Balash, chief of staff to Sen. Dan Sullivan, in the their temporary workplace.
Joe Balash, chief of staff to Sen. Dan Sullivan, in the conference room of their temporary digs.

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, like other Republicans in Congress, is on a two-day retreat in Hershey Penn. Speakers include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Jay Leno. Meanwhile,  Sullivan Chief of Staff Joe Balash  provided APRN a status report at the senator’s office.

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It’s not the typical Senate office. To get there, you go past the polished marble of the Senate office buildings and down to the basement, to a tunnel that connects two buildings. In the tunnel, across from a supply room, next to a freight elevator, you’ll find a doorway that leads to Sullivan’s office suite: four windowless rooms, some with cinder-block walls. A few other freshmen senators are on the same hallway.

Balash, who officially became chief of staff barely more than a week ago, says he’s not bothered by the surroundings.

“They’re fine. They’re right on Capitol Hill. They’re indoors. They’re not the portable buildings some (Senators) have been saddled with in the past,” he said. “So we’re pleased.”

The bunker-like rooms are just temporary. But it may be a while before they get out of that basement, because a new senator can’t just take the office vacated by his predecessor. A more senior senator might want it. That swap would leave a different office empty, and again, seniority determines who can call dibs. Sullivan is dead last in seniority, so he has to wait out a lot of office swaps.

“Well, they’ve told us to expect to be here until June,” Balash says, “but based on how long it took them to get computers, it’s probably more like August.”

Ultimately, he expects to have 30 staffers in Washington, but it’ll have to wait until after the move.

“We just don’t have enough desks here to fully round out the staff. So for now we’re going to be asking people to do more than one job, ” he said.  “And that’s OK.”

The seven current staffers in the D.C. suite do all have computers now. They have phones. Business cards are on the way.

Meanwhile, Sullivan has co-sponsored his first bills, one approving the Keystone XL Pipeline, another to improve mental health care for veterans.

The official website is still a work in progress. Balash says they’re planning to integrate software on the website to help them handle data from constituent messages.

“As we get contacts and inquiries from the public, from the public, it’s all going through a single system so that we track and make sure we understand and are monitoring what it is people care about, what topics are hitting on particular news cycles, that sort of thing,” he said.

They’ve hired a legislative director, one of the top positions on a Senate staff. He is Peter Henry, who previous worked for Missouri senators. Balash says Henry has never been to Alaska.

“We needed, and recognized the need, for a person to come into our leg director spot who’s from the Senate, of the Senate, a creature of the Senate, and Peter’s been working in the Senate for 10 years,” said Balash.

Balash, like the new senator, is a former state commissioner of Natural Resources. He has no congressional experience, so he says Henry is just what they needed, and he added, Henry plans to visit the state next month.

The other big hire is Amanda Coyne, co-founder of the Alaska Dispatch website and, until she stopped a few days ago, a popular blogger on Alaska politics. Coyne will be Sullivan’s speechwriter and a senior advisor.  Balash says Coyne can present a different perspective to the staff.

In particular, what we were seeking was somebody who would prevent us from suffering from an echo chamber.

As he sees it, Coyne rode Sullivan hard in her blog, on issues such as the Affordable Care Act, which she favors. Back in October, Coyne wrote that Sullivan displayed a “fundamental lack of understanding of health care” and “doesn’t appear interested,” although at other times she had a lot of praise for the candidate, too.

“The big thing is Amanda is just a phenomenal writer,” Balash said, “and bringing the communications skill set to bear on his job of communicating with Alaskans, with the public, is something that will help him do a better job, help Alaskans understand what he’s doing, why he’s doing it.”

He says Coyne will start in February.


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

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