A letter signed Thursday by conservative state lawmakers detailing accusations against a U.S. Senate candidate’s campaign manager sparked condemnations, denials and accusations of hypocrisy from elected officials and party leaders.
A representative for independent Senate candidate Dr. Al Gross unequivocally denied allegations of sexual assault and abusive behavior against the campaign’s manager made in a letter sent by Alaskan Republican state legislators.
“It couldn’t be more baseless and it’s a shame that people are using women’s lived experiences as political ammo,” said Julia Savel, communications director for the Gross campaign.
The letter, signed by eight Republican state lawmakers and addressed to Alaska Democratic Party leadership and sent to members of the media, claimed Gross’ campaign manager David Keith was fired from a progressive political action committee in Wisconsin while working for the campaign of Democrat Randy Bryce who was running for Congress in that state.
According to the letter, Keith was fired from the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, “following well-documented allegations and a subsequent investigation into alarming behavior that included ‘inappropriate sexual comments’, ‘crude and derogatory language to describe women and gay people,’ ‘angry outbursts’ and ‘throwing things at his subordinates.’”
The letter cites a July 16, 2019, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article and an Aug. 25, 2019, letter from the Young Alaska Democrats to state party leadership expressing concerns at David’s hiring.
But Savel maintained those allegations were entirely false.
“I was the highest-ranking woman on the Bryce campaign,” she told the Empire Friday in a phone interview, saying she had previously worked with Kieth for more than a year.
“(The allegations) couldn’t be more untrue, I worked in the same office. I’m disappointed by these Republican lawmakers who are using other women’s lived experience for political warfare.”
Savel said the campaign was aware of the allegations against Keith when he was hired, but said he’d been thoroughly vetted before being hired. She also claims Keith was not fired from the PAC as the letter states. The Journal Sentinel article reported Keith no longer worked for the organization but does not specify the conditions of his leaving. The Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC did not immediately respond to request seeking comment.
However, the PAC did hire a human resources firm to investigate the allegations against Keith, the Journal Sentinel reported, but Savel said the findings of that study were not substantial enough for the PAC to fire him.
“I believe he left on his own accord,” Savel said. “Not because of the allegations but because he had the opportunity to come to Alaska.”
Parties fire volleys
The letter, signed entirely by Republican women; Reps. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, Wasilla; Sara Rasmussen, Anchorage; Sharon Jackson, Eagle River; Cathy Tilton, Wasilla; Kelly Merrick, Eagle River; Sara Vance, Homer; Delana Johnson, Palmer and Sen. Shelley Hughes, Palmer; says the lawmakers and others are concerned about Keith’s hiring, particularly given the prevalence of domestic violence and sexual assault in the state.
Noting October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month in Alaska, the letter says Alaskans deserve to know Gross’ record on critical issues.
“Unfortunately, it appears that as one of his first decisions as a candidate for the U.S. Senate Al Gross turned a blind eye to abuse and sexual harassment. This type of behavior should not be tolerated,” the letter said.
Speaking to the Empire by phone Friday, Sullivan-Leonard said she and her colleagues felt Gross’ campaign and Alaska Democrats should re-examine their vetting process for employees they bring to the state.
“A lot of the information in this letter just recently came to light, we thought it was important for it to come to light,” she said.
In reference to the Sentinel Journal article being published in 2019, Sullivan-Leonard said she had recently read about the allegations in an article by Susan Downing, who runs the Alaska politics blog Must Read Alaska. Reading of the allegations brought back painful memories of instances of sexual harassment within the Alaska State Legislature, she said, and led her and her colleagues to write the letter questioning Gross and other Democrats’ vetting process.
“Why would they allow this person to work in key campaigns,” Sullivan-Leonard said. “I really question their vetting process, why are they allowing this to happen? These are things that we are trying to put a stop to. Alaska does not tolerate this kind of thing.”
The Alaska Democratic Party responded with a statement condemning the letter for what it called smear tactics and political maneuvering.
“In reality, these allegations were addressed by the Alaska Democratic Party and the Alaska Young Democrats, reported on by the press, and refuted over a year ago,” the party said in a release. “These legislators know this, but waited over a year until voting was underway to pretend they were releasing new information they thought would be damaging to a Democratically-endorsed campaign. We should expect better of our legislators than this.”
The statement cited the recent resignation of former Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, who left the job over revelations of inappropriate text messages to a state employee. Clarkson was appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy in 2018.
“We would like to know when the Governor became aware of the harassment of a junior staffer by Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, and why it appears that the Governor was prepared to allow him to keep his position after a month vacation, while keeping all this information secret from Alaskans. We assume that these legislators are equally concerned about this, and look forward to follow-up,” the release said.
Sullivan-Leonard said she was not speaking on behalf of the governor, “and as far as (Clarkson) he no longer works for the state of Alaska.”
She also declined to comment on the long history of sexual misconduct allegations against Republican President Donald Trump.
In October of 2016, a video surfaced of Trump in 2005 bragging about sexual assault to Access Hollywood host Billy Bush. In Sept. 2020, the Guardian reported that no fewer than 25 women have made accusations of sexual assault or harassment against Trump.
But Sullivan-Leonard said that was confusing the issue. She and her colleagues’ concern was the process by which political operatives are brought from the Lower 48 without proper vetting of their background.
“I’m not talking about the President,” Sullivan-Leonard said. “I wanted to bring this to light, so did my colleagues. Were’ hoping there’s a vetting process. We need to protect Alaskans.”
At the end of their letter, the Republican lawmakers said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who is in a close race with Gross, has been endorsed by Trump and said he will vote for Trump, has a strong record in combating domestic abuse and sexual assault.
Repeatedly calling the accusations against Keith baseless, Savel said, “The only person Alaskan women have to fear is Dan Sullivan who is trying to take away their right to choose.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.