After allegations against manager, Gross campaign says it has ‘gold standard’ harassment policy

A white man in an orange jacket stands in front of a tree.
Independent U.S. Senate candidate Al Gross, who’s running with the support of the Alaska Democratic Party, in Ketchikan last year. (Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

Alaska Republican women last week sent a letter accusing U.S. Senate candidate Al Gross of tolerating abuse and sexual harassment, citing a year-old Wisconsin newspaper report on an investigation of Gross’ campaign manager in his previous job.

Gross is running as an independent with the Alaska Democratic Party’s endorsement. And the Alaska Young Democrats, who were the first to question Gross’ hiring of campaign manager David Keith, now say their concerns were addressed.

But sexual harassment and misbehavior continue to plague Alaska politics. In the past two months, the state’s attorney general and the mayor of its largest city both resigned after acknowledging sending inappropriate messages to women who were not their wives.

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Those events, combined with the allegations against Gross’s campaign, raise questions of how Alaska campaigns are handling the problem, and how they’re protecting workers in jobs that are notorious for long hours, stressful working conditions and loose boundaries between the personal and professional.

A spokeswoman for Gross, Julia Savel, said his campaign is setting the “gold standard”: A local painters union represents its workers, and a five-page “anti-harassment, anti-discrimination, anti-bullying and anti-retaliation policy” governs the behavior of staff and volunteers.

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Sullivan’s workers have their own code of conduct and “strict policies against any sort of harassment,” said campaign manager Matt Shuckerow, though he wouldn’t release a copy of the policy itself.

A man speaks at a podium
U.S. Sen Dan Sullivan at the August 26, 2020, opening ceremony for the Operation Lady Justice Task Force Cold Case Office in Anchorage. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The campaign of independent U.S. House candidate Alyse Galvin, who’s running with the Alaska Democratic Party’s support, requires employees and managers to take an online harassment training program. And a spokeswoman shared a “standard of behavior” that sets out a reporting process for sexual harassment and bars workers from drinking alcohol at campaign events.

The campaign of her Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Don Young, did not respond to repeated requests for comment and requests to share its policies around sexual harassment.

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None of the eight female Republican lawmakers who signed the critical letter last week agreed to be interviewed. State Sen. Shelley Hughes and Reps. Cathy Tilton, Colleen Sullivan-Leonard, DeLena Johnson, Sarah Vance and Sara Rasmussen didn’t respond to phone calls and texts; Rep. Kelly Merrick said she had a cough and Rep. Sharon Jackson said she was recovering from oral surgery.

In a prepared statement, Lindsay Kavanaugh, the Alaska Democratic Party’s executive director, said the women “have let themselves be used by the Sullivan campaign as political mouthpieces pointing fingers at a staffer working for a campaign they’re scared of.”

An “intense, focused” political operative

The allegations against Keith, Gross’ campaign manager, surfaced more than a year ago. But the public letter last week resurrected them.

In the letter, the eight Republican legislators cited an August, 2019 message from the Alaska Young Democrats to their party leaders, which was first reported by the Alaska Landmine.

In the message, the group said there were “serious allegations of inappropriate conduct and abusive behavior” against Keith, Gross’ campaign manager, from Keith’s previous political work outside Alaska.

The young Democrats’ message appears to reference a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story published six weeks before, when Keith was working for a political group called the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC.

Citing seven anonymous sources, the newspaper reported that Keith “routinely made inappropriate sexual comments to and about female staffers and volunteers, used crude language and had angry outbursts — at times yelling and throwing things at his subordinates.”

The newspaper reported that the PAC had hired a human resources firm to investigate Keith’s conduct. But details around his departure from the group never emerged: No report was ever made public, and Keith’s final payment from the PAC — described in a federal financial report as “salary/separation” — was more than $20,000.

Officials from the PAC did not respond to requests for comment, and Keith declined to be interviewed. Savel, the Gross campaign spokeswoman, said any allegations that Keith had behaved in an inappropriate sexual manner were false — though she acknowledged that Keith can be a demanding boss.

“As anyone who has been in a political campaign can tell you, they are grueling,” Savel said in a prepared statement. “David is an intense, focused person who prioritizes results — that’s why he’s been successful and why his teams respect and trusts him.”

In their message last year, the Alaska Young Democrats asked party leaders for five things from Gross’ campaign: details of Keith’s hiring process, a copy of his previous employer’s human resources investigation, an enforceable code of conduct, a guarantee that sexual harassment would not be tolerated and a non-candidate, non-campaign manager point of contact for human resources problems.

Gross’ campaign would not grant an interview with the candidate. But in response to questions, it directly addressed three of the young Democrats’ five requests.

The campaign does have a non-candidate, non-campaign manager point of contact, said Savel, though she wouldn’t identify them. She also provided the Gross campaign’s five-page anti-harassment policy — which says “harassment, bullying or discrimination of any kind” will not be tolerated — along with a two-page acknowledgement that employees must sign.

The policy requires managers and supervisors to report all suspected violations to the campaign’s designated contact.

Savel would not provide details about Keith’s hiring process or any reports from his previous employer. But she released a statement from the young Democrats that said group members reviewed Keith’s hiring themselves.

“It was open, transparent, and addressed our concerns directly and promptly. We were also pleased to learn of their unionization process and rigorous HR policies,” the statement quoted Genevieve Mina, the group’s president, as saying. “As young Alaskans in politics, we support these efforts to advance the standards of campaign safety in Alaska.”

Where other candidates stand

Alaska’s three other leading Congressional campaigns gave a range of responses when asked about their sexual harassment standards.

Gross’ Republican opponent, incumbent U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, has strict policies against harassment and abusive behavior, said Shuckerow, the campaign manager. While he wouldn’t release precise details or a copy of the policies, he said in an email that they contain “important safeguards for employees and clear guidelines for reporting, investigation, disciplinary actions and dismissal.”

“Alaskans for Dan Sullivan is committed to fostering a culture of compliance and providing a safe workplace environment, free of any kind of harassment,” Shuckerow said. He also pointed to Sullivan’s work as a public official to pass legislation fighting sexual harassment.

Congressional candidate Alyse Galvin in Juneau. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Galvin, the independent U.S. House candidate endorsed by the Alaska Democratic Party, requires staffers to agree to standards that bar discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and other characteristics; it also makes workers responsible “for creating an affirming and supportive culture.”

The standards say that any form of sexual harassment should be reported immediately to the campaign manager or candidate, and that workers will be “protected from any adverse actions resulting from your reporting.”

“We’re proud of our policies and practices that have kept our team safe from harassment of any kind,” Galvin’s campaign manager, Malcolm Phelan, said in a prepared statement. “It is imperative that employees on the Alyse for Alaska team feel safe and protected from harassment or hostility.”

Galvin is running against Young, the incumbent Republican. Young, who’s represented Alaska since 1973, introduced legislation earlier this year to improve the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s sexual harassment policies, saying the bill was a “crucial initiative to protect employees and help survivors heal from these heinous acts.”

But his campaign manager, Truman Reed, and co-chairman, Nicholas Begich III, did not respond to repeated requests for information about the Young campaign’s own sexual harassment policy, or to requests for an interview.