Potential US Senate candidate Dr. Al Gross in Sitka. Gross acknowledges that Washington DC is contentious territory, but he sees himself working with both parties as an independent. “My father (the late Avrum Gross) was a Democrat Attorney General for Jay Hammond, a Republican governor,” he says. “I see myself as someone who can bridge the divide that we’re seeing in Washington right now.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The first candidate to test the waters of the 2020 election in Alaska is not a politician by trade, but he may have some of the deepest political roots in the race.

Al Gross divides his time between orthopedic surgery at his practice in Juneau, and commercial gillnetting for salmon out of Petersburg.

He spent a few days in Sitka recently as part of a listening tour, as he explores a full-fledged race for the US Senate seat currently held by Dan Sullivan.

A pedigree isn’t necessary to hold statewide office in Alaska, but it hasn’t necessarily hurt the Murkowski’s, Begich’s, and Stevens’s who’ve carried on a family tradition in politics.

Al Gross learned at the knee of one of Alaska’s greats.

“My father was Gov. Jay Hammond’s attorney general during the formation of the Permanent Fund and the dividend,” he said. “They were very good friends and Jay was like an uncle to me growing up. So I grew up around the vision of a great Alaska future. And my mom was very involved in the state as well. She started the Alaska League of Women Voters, and was the first director of the United Fishermen of Alaska.”

Dad and mom were Avrum Gross and his former wife Shari Gross Teeple.

But politics didn’t stick with Al Gross — not at first anyway. His change in course came after two decades working as an orthopedic surgeon.

“I had a very successful practice in Juneau for 20 years,” said Gross, “and once my kids had grown up — or at least most of them had grown up — I chose to go back to school and get a Master’s in Public Health, because I was really not deriving satisfaction out of delivering health care in the way that our system delivers it. I’d seen too many of my friends struggle, and seen the state of Alaska’s economy struggle, in large part because of the huge health care costs that we see in Alaska. And that’s why I went back to school.”

Gross was recruited in 2017 to cosponsor a pair of ballot initiatives: The Quality Health Insurance for Alaskans Act and the Healthcare for Alaskans Act. However, he says it soon became clear that both initiatives would be viewed as referendum on the state’s participation in Medicaid Expansion and other elements of the national Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — and the effort was abandoned in the signature-gathering stage.

But his interest in healthcare policy has not diminished for that experience.

“That would be a priority of mine, because as you probably know Alaska has the highest-in-the-world healthcare prices, and we also have the highest unemployment rate in the country — and the two are very related,” he said. “And so I would want to find a way that works for Alaska, because Alaska has a very complicated healthcare system. So whatever solution came out of Washington would need to be something that works for Alaska. That is not the case with the Affordable Care Act, where healthcare costs were not addressed.”

To claim a seat in the US Senate next year, Gross — a nonpartisan — would have to unseat one-term incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan — who himself unseated one-term Democrat Sen. Mark Begich. Although he’s not officially declared a candidacy, Gross thinks winning is possible.

“You know Dan Sullivan had never run for public office before he ran for the senate, and neither had President Trump,” said Gross. “And so I’m not intimidated by the fact that I’ve never been a politician before. I think a fresh face in Washington is a good thing. And someone who’s motivated to help their state for the right reasons is another good thing. Now the Senate is where healthcare is going to get done, where the deal will happen, and I want to make sure that we have someone fighting for Alaska when that comes up.”

On other policy issues, Gross treads very close to the Democratic flank: He’s opposed to the Pebble Mine, he wants to research and understand climate change rather than just pay to mitigate its effects, he wants to restore US leadership on the world stage, he believes in free trade, a woman’s right to make her own health care choices, and in a strong military and a strong military presence in the Arctic.

But on one issue Gross is moderate.

KCAW – Do you support impeachment?

Gross — I do not. I think that it’s going to distract people, and it will keep people’s minds away from the election, which is what I think President Trump wants. And I think the election itself will be a vote of the people about impeachment. And so I think by the time the House actually went through the impeachment process, we’re going to be in November 2020 — and let the people decide.

Gross plans additional travel across the state this summer. His decision to formally announce for the Senate would likely come this fall. If he runs, Gross says that he’ll put his name on the ballot as an independent in the open Democratic primary in August 2020.