When Sen. Dan Sullivan comes up on C-SPAN with his familiar sunset poster, a sigh of relief runs through Washington.
“It’s that time again,” he says, standing next to a mountain scene aglow with orange, pink and purple.
This is “Alaskan of the Week,” the only speech in the Senate that elicits gleeful tweets from jaded floor watchers. They know what it means for the chamber — and pre-pandemic, their evening plans.
Business is usually done and almost everyone is gone. The last thing left to do is sit back and hear tales from the 49th state.
“Alaska is dotted with small villages, without roads, freezing cold temperatures,” the Republican said earlier this month as he praised two doctors, Ellen Hodges and Elizabeth Bates, for their efforts to deliver COVID-19 vaccines.
“Our health care workers are jumping on boats, single-prop airplanes, snow machines and yes, in a couple cases, dog sleds,” he said.
Every senator wants to brag about their home state, but Sullivan has made it a regular event, giving dozens of speeches that often fall at the end of the legislative week. The series has a cult following on the Hill and little competition, especially after Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse discontinued his recurring “Time to Wake Up” speech about global climate change. (The Rhode Island Democrat decided 279 speeches was enough.)
Sullivan got the idea when he first came to the Senate and had to take his turn in the presiding officer’s chair. New senators in the majority have to preside more frequently, and Sullivan said he listened to a lot of his colleagues make speeches about constituents who died. It might be nice to honor Alaskans while they’re still around to hear it, he thought.
He gave the first speech in 2017 and kept going. “We try to highlight people who are doing something really good for their community or the state or even the country, but who really have not gotten the recognition,” Sullivan said in an interview.
One such person is Homer resident and biologist Julia Bevins. When her husband’s plane disappeared during a polar bear research trip with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990, she used some of his life insurance money to establish a grant with the International Association for Bear Research and Management.
Hearing her name on the Senate floor was a “real highlight of the year to me,” she said of the speech Sullivan gave last August. “The story was told again, and something beautiful came out of that.”
After he gives a speech, Sullivan signs a copy of the Congressional Record and sends it to the honoree.
It’s one thing to submit something to the record, but it’s another “to actually give a speech, right where it’s on C-SPAN and Alaskans and Americans can watch it,” he said.
His team scours news reports and takes recommendations from constituents to find the next Alaskan of the Week. During the early days of the pandemic, Sullivan gave an impromptu speech in his backyard to highlight essential workers as he quarantined with family in Anchorage.
Sometimes it’s personal. Sullivan honored his father-in-law, a Fairbanks dentist and a former member of the state legislature, in December 2019. He died in February at age 91.
Hugh Fate, or “Bud,” as he called him, was an “Alaskan renaissance man through and through,” Sullivan said, recounting the time Fate had to walk a mile back to shelter after his tractor froze up.
Engine oil and antifreeze freeze when temperatures near 40-below — a well-known winter occurrence around the Arctic Circle — and many Alaskans have engine block heaters to keep their vehicles warm.
One of Sullivan’s earliest speeches has stuck with him. His friend Dan Fauske, head of the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, was dying of cancer and didn’t have much time.
“Right before I went to the floor to give the speech, hoping that he would see it, he passed away, so it was very emotional,” Sullivan said.
Back home, Fauske’s son D.J. started getting calls and texts. “I’ll never forget it,” Fauske said. “It was the best tribute you could do for a son losing a father.”
When Sullivan rises to speak and pulls out his sunset poster (designed by his former press secretary Michael Soukup), the Senate chamber is even emptier than usual, since it’s typically a Thursday afternoon.
Many lawmakers are already boarding flights to get out of town, but at least one is still around, stuck in the presiding officer’s chair.
When Republicans were in the majority, that was often Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, who said he kindly asked his colleague to try wrapping it up before 5 p.m. Still, he didn’t mind the ritual, calling it “neat that he honors somebody each week.”
GOP Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who also spent a lot of Thursday afternoons listening to Sullivan’s speeches, said he often praised citizens in a similar way during his time as governor of the Sunshine State.
“You have to recognize people for what they’re doing, and there are great stories,” he said.
Republicans are no longer in the majority and off the hook to preside over the chamber, so Democrats will be the captive audience for at least the next couple of years. But Scott said he asked Sullivan to keep sending him information about his Alaskans of the Week in case he doesn’t catch the speeches.
Perhaps the biggest fans of the tradition are reporters, who have been known to exuberantly tweet when it begins. Comments can range from an enthusiastic “Alaskan of the Week!” to CNN White House correspondent Phil Mattingly’s lament last May: “The saddest moment is rushing through kids bath time in the hopes of catching Alaskan of the Week.....and just missing it.”
Mattingly’s colleague Kristin Wilson, a CNN Capitol reporter who sometimes posts photos of bears when the speech begins, owns a pillow with a Sullivan quote that says, “Kristin, I know you love bears.”
Sullivan said his main goal is to demystify the massive state that has huge animals, endless summers, dark winters, rainforests, deserts, the aurora borealis and tons of snow.
His speeches have a lot to offer the “lower 48,” he said. Being the last thing on the docket is an added bonus.
“We try to tell big stories,” he said. “But it definitely signifies the end of the week too. And I think the reporters like that signal as well. So it might be a combo.”