In the week leading up to the General Election on Nov. 3, the Kodiak Daily Mirror is profiling Alaska candidates running for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and for the Alaska Senate. Explainers for Alaska Propositions 1 and 2 will also be published.
Al Gross is an independent running as the Democratic nominee in Alaska’s race for U.S. Senator. He’s facing Republican Dan Sullivan, who has served one six-year term.
Gross has very little political experience. He worked as an orthopedic surgeon in Juneau until he retired in 2013. He’s also worked as a commercial fisherman. His father, Avrum Gross, was the state’s attorney general under Gov. Jay Hammond in the late 1970s.
As a doctor, Gross talks a lot about health care. Alaska has some of the highest health care costs in the U.S., something he attributes to the state’s geographic isolation and monopolies in the system.
His solution to the high cost of health care is a public option. A public option means the government would expand its role in the insurance business, offering a public plan that would be open to anyone who wanted to buy into it.
It’s different from single-payer, where the government is the sole provider of health insurance.
Gross has, in the past, expressed support for a single-payer system, but is now an advocate for a public option. The theory is that the government competing with private insurance providers will cause costs to fall.
“I don’t support a single-payer system, I support a public option, allowing individuals and small businesses to buy into Medicare at cost, and that will create competition in the marketplace and drive down prices,” Gross said last week.
An early version of the Affordable Care Act would have created a public option, but lawmakers eventually cut it out before the bill passed in 2010.
“The Affordable Care Act was a flawed bill in that it did not address the high cost of health care. … Now more than ever, we need something like a public option out there for individuals and small businesses who are getting crushed by the high cost of health care,” Gross said.
A new economic relief bill to respond to the hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will be an important issue for Congress early in the new term. In the past few months, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has passed a $2.2 trillion bill. The Republican-controlled Senate has passed smaller bills. Resolving the two visions for relief may not happen until after the election. Whoever wins, the Alaska Senate race will have a role in shaping what comes next.
Gross said controlling the pandemic itself would be his first priority, but had several ideas for a new bill.
Unclear language in the first Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act — the first bill Congress passed to provide economic relief from the pandemic — prevented Alaskan Native Corporations from getting money, something Gross said he’d like to change in any new iteration.
He also said he’d be open to giving local governments more control over what can be done with the money. As of now, CARES rules stipulate that it can only be related to costs incurred by the pandemic, leaving things like existing debt out of the equation.
This has prevented the Kodiak Island Borough, for instance, from using the CARES money to pay back school bond debt. Gross said he would support expanding the uses of the federal dollars.
“I think as of now it has to be directly related to COVID-19, but I think there are other ways that it can be used,” Gross said. “It can go to the states and local governments, and I trust them to make good choices as to how to distribute the money.”
Fishing communities have been affected by the pandemic, but they were in trouble before, according to Gross.
“We have to admit that our fisheries are in tremendous peril right now,” Gross said.
“Last season was a disaster almost across the board with the exception of Bristol Bay, and I’m very concerned about the health of our oceans.”
He said the Save Our Seas Act, which Sullivan has sponsored several versions of, has not done enough to address the plastics problem in the ocean.
“Sullivan makes a big deal about his Save Our Seas Act, but that act was really nothing more than a toothless bill that did nothing more than funded studies and did nothing to actually clean up the ocean,” Gross said.
He opposes Pebble Mine, and cites the section of Clean Water Act that, according to section section 404(c), “authorizes EPA to prohibit, restrict, or deny the discharge of dredged or fill material at defined sites.”
In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency cited the rule to issue a restriction on where Pebble operators could put discharge from the mine, which would have made the mine much harder to build. In 2019, however, the agency withdrew the restriction.
“The EPA has the authority to veto the permit and I would work with the president and other members of the Senate to influence the EPA to activate section 404(c),” Gross said.
His stance on climate change is that the U.S. should rejoin the Paris Agreement and fund renewable energy through tax credits. He does not support some of the more aggressive climate policies, like a carbon tax or the Green New Deal, but does back drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Some of those ideas do not align with where most of the Democratic Party stands. And Gross insists that he will be an independent if he is elected.
“I’m certainly a whole lot more conservative on the Second Amendment than the Democratic platform and a lot more fiscally conservative than the liberal left is,” Gross said.
“I believe we should have a strong and enforceable immigration policy and a secure border. I don't support a wall, I think that’s medieval, but there are other ways to secure our borders, such as motion, infrared and thermal sensors,” Gross said.