For 49 years, Don Young’s ideology was ‘Alaska’

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Don Young, the irascible riverboat captain who did not so much represent Alaska as personify it for half a century in Congress, died Friday as he was flying home to Alaska for yet another political campaign.

Young was 88, the oldest and longest-serving member of the current Congress. In serving the 49th state for 49 years, he had become the longest-serving Republican congressman in history.

No cause of death has yet been given. The congressman lost consciousness on a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle and could not be revived. His wife, Anne, was traveling with him.

Young was first elected to Alaska’s only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in a special election in March 1973. Four months earlier, he had lost the regular election to Democrat Nick Begich, the incumbent congressman who had disappeared on a campaign flight but would not be declared dead until December.

From that inauspicious start, the Republican from Fort Yukon fashioned a career as Alaska’s winningest politician ever, gradually building the kind of seniority in Congress that became its own compelling argument for his reelection. Through five bruising decades of every-other-year electioneering, he bested a who’s who of Alaska Democrats, with only a couple of close calls.

The one-time schoolteacher was widely caricatured for mangling the English language (“bladderdash”), for crude gaffes followed by gruff apologies, and for outrageous gestures (he once sat through a congressional hearing with his fingers turning blue in a leg-hold trap, where he was attempting to demonstrate that trapping was not inhumane).

He showed up in committee hearings wearing cowboy boots, and cleaned his fingernails with a Bowie knife. The walls of his office were decorated with the trophy heads of animals he’d killed. “With my bare hands,” he would say, pointing to the grizzly bear pelt. Above all, he embodied Alaska’s relationship with Washington, D.C.: growling constantly about federal interference in Alaska’s affairs, while raking in billions of federal dollars for Alaska projects.

[Rep. Don Young: Tributes pour in from colleagues and friends]

But he was no country rube. After moving on from the state Capitol in Juneau, Young quickly mastered the levers of power in Washington, learning when to bluff and when to trade. He could be surprisingly bipartisan, in what seems now an old-school style — neither rigidly ideological nor party-first when Alaska’s interests were at stake.

‘Kiss my ear’

Young arrived in Congress during an exceptional moment in history, when one major Alaska bill after another was front and center. He played an important part in laws affecting oil development, national parks and implementation of Native land claims. He often cited, as proud achievements from that first chapter, the bills allowing the trans-Alaska pipeline and creating the 200-mile exclusive fishing limit.

Young reached the height of his power between 1995 and 2006, after longevity made him a committee chairman. He was assigned natural resources, a significant post for his home state, and then got an even bigger plum, transportation. The Alaskan putting together a $286 billion highway-spending bill wielded wide influence while drawing tribute from donors and lobbyists. In elections back home, he was untouchable.

From that pinnacle, Young fell into his darkest period, beset by campaign-finance scandals, FBI investigations and the demise of the appropriation system that his own heralded earmarks, including Ketchikan’s “Bridge to Nowhere,” had come to symbolize. In 2008, embarrassed Republicans stripped him of his committee seniority. The next year his wife, Lu, died. She was a Gwich’in Athabascan from Fort Yukon, and they had been married since the days when he was teaching fifth grade.

[Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young dies at age 88]

But by 2011, Young was back on his feet. A long and secretive investigation by the Department of Justice was dropped, and a critical House Ethics report left little sting. Contributors stepped up to cover legal costs of more than $1 million. The congressman from Alaska embarked on another decade in office, where, in the words of one reporter, he would continue to “revel in his reputation for colorful metaphors, bluster and the possibility of fisticuffs.” Those years were highlighted by a second marriage, in 2015, on his 82nd birthday, to Anne Garland Walton, a former flight nurse.

Young was never shy about touting his accomplishments and lambasting his enemies. He defended the practice of tucking earmarks into federal spending bills as necessary for a young state like Alaska, which he said lacked basic infrastructure. At a 2003 news conference in Anchorage, he was positively gleeful about his committee’s highway bill, saying he had “stuffed it like a turkey.” When the practice started drawing bipartisan critical attention, he invited the critics to “kiss my ear.”

“He can be direct, but you always know where he stands on things, or really, where you stand with him,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan in 2018, when Young was elevated to the honorary title “dean of the House” as its longest-serving member.

[Alaska’s first ranked-choice election will be a special vote to replace Rep. Don Young]

Former House Speaker John Boehner knew where he stood with Young when the congressman for all Alaska held a 10-inch knife to his throat. Boehner described the moment to Politico, years later, saying the two had argued over earmarks. The incident, confirmed as “mostly true” by Young, evidently left no hard feelings: Boehner later served as best man at Young’s 2015 wedding.

Early in his career, Young brought in a Maryland campaign consultant whose TV and radio jingle — “Don Young, Alaskan Like You” — was meant, the adviser said years later, to convey the image of Davy Crockett frontiersman. The image stuck. Later reports of lavish trips paid for by lobbyists and industrialists, to exclusive hunting clubs and MGM’s five-diamond Bellagio casino in Las Vegas, could not dislodge the caricature of the one-time trapper, gold miner and Bush village teacher.

His combustible political style helped cement the image. Sometimes his bluster got him in trouble. He had to apologize in 2014 for referring in committee to his father’s migrant workers as “wetbacks.” But not for calling environmentalists a “self-centered bunch, the waffle-stomping, Harvard graduating, intellectual idiots.” Young was politically incorrect before it became politically correct for certain Republicans to be politically incorrect.

‘A condition of nature in the 49th state’

Yet for all his brusque manner, Young’s career was marked by a willingness to strike deals and make friends across the aisle. In 2020, he was one of the first House Republicans to congratulate Joe Biden on winning the presidency, and later affirmed his electoral college victory while also voting against Donald Trump’s impeachment.

As the Democrats resumed control, Young introduced Biden’s nominee for Interior secretary, Rep. Deb Haaland, and urged Republicans to confirm her, despite differences over oil drilling on federal lands. Haaland was in line to become the first Native American cabinet member. Young had worked with her on legislation affecting Native Americans, a field of law important to the complex and unusual needs of Alaska’s tribes and Native corporations.

Being married to Lu and having a small home north of the Arctic Circle had not always guaranteed support from Alaska Native voters. Young’s first three Democratic challengers in the 1970s were the leading Native politicians of that decade: Emil Notti, Willie Hensley and Eben Hopson.

Young went on to fend off two challenges from Pegge Begich, the widow of the man whose seat he took. In 1980, Young beat Democrat Pat Parnell, and in 2008 he won a close Republican primary against Parnell’s son, Sean, who later became governor. Other prominent Alaskans who unsuccessfully challenged Young through the years included Ethan Berkowitz, Pat Rodey, Peter Gruenstein, Georgiana Lincoln, Steve Lindbeck, Diane Benson, Jim Duncan and Tony Smith.

On the campaign trail, he could be a genial handpumper and storyteller, fun to be around. But his relations with the press were distant at best. He had to apologize for a few testy shoves of reporters, and never did answer detailed media questions about the FBI and ethics investigations. Still, the former tugboat captain always made good copy. Journalists wrote about his resilience with awe.

“In Alaska,” Anchorage Daily News columnist Michael Carey wrote in 2013, “Don’s bellowing was received by many constituents with ‘Oh that’s just Don Young,’ as if he were the weather, a brief earthquake, or a smoldering volcano — a condition of nature in the 49th state.”

California roots

Donald Edwin Young was born on June 9, 1933, in Meridian, California, a Central Valley farming town along the Sacramento River. He was the youngest of three children of James and Nora (Bucy) Young.

His father owned a farm that hired migrant workers in harvest season. Young got an associate degree at nearby Yuba Junior College in 1952, served in the U.S. Army 41st Tank Battalion from 1955 to 1957, then returned to school to get a teaching degree at Chico State College.

[PHOTOS: The life of Alaska Rep. Don Young]

He moved to Alaska in 1959, just after statehood – drawn in part, he said, by Jack London’s adventure tales of the North, and a desire to live someplace without snakes and poison oak. His official biography said he made a living in construction after he moved to Alaska and “tried his hand” at commercial fishing, trapping and prospecting for gold. In Fort Yukon, he taught fifth grade in a Bureau of Indian Affairs school, and delivered supplies on the Yukon River running a tug and barge. His office liked to point out that he was the only licensed mariner in Congress.

He was elected mayor of Fort Yukon in 1964, a year after marrying Lula Fredson, a bookkeeper in the village. Lu Young later played an active role in Young’s congressional office, and in 2005 he named his earmark-stuffed transportation bill after her: the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users — SAFETEA LU.

Don and Lu Young had two daughters, Joni Nelson and Dawn Vallely. They survive him, along with 13 grandchildren. He is also survived by his wife, Anne, and her two children and six grandchildren. No plans for a memorial have been made yet, his office said Saturday.

In his first campaign for state office, in 1964, Fort Yukon’s new mayor ran for the state House in a multi-seat district covering much of Interior Alaska. The top seven vote-getters won. Young finished 10th. (One of the outgoing incumbents in the district that year was Charles Binkley, grandfather of the current owners of the Anchorage Daily News.) Two years later, Young won, finishing third, and traveled to Juneau for the legislative session.

A big issue in his successful campaign was the Rampart Dam, proposed for construction on the Yukon River. Young, who would become a consistent advocate for resource development in Alaska, opposed the massive hydroelectric project, which would have inundated much of the Yukon Flats, including his hometown. The dam project was killed by the Interior Department in 1967.

In 1970 Young was elected to the state Senate, and two years after that challenged Nick Begich for Alaska’s single seat in Congress. Begich, the father of later U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and state Sen. Tom Begich, disappeared on a campaign flight to Juneau on October 16, 1972. Accompanying Begich on the flight was House Majority Leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana. A massive search was still underway on Election Day, when Begich received 56 percent of the vote. In the followup special election, Young defeated Emil Notti with just over 51 percent of the vote.

He slipped quickly into a comfortable role in the nation’s capitol. On the big Alaska issues in front of Congress at the time, powerful people wanted to get the Alaska congressman’s input. In 2014, in an interview with the Washington Post, Young recalled the clubby congeniality of those early years, when committee members from both parties would meet for drinks after five in the chairman’s office, and then present a united front when others in Congress tried to mess with their bill.

Back home, Young did not face a close race until 1990, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, when Alaska voters punished him for being slow to pivot from his customary pro-oil stance. Valdez Mayor John Devens came within about 7,000 votes of beating the longtime congressman. Two years later, Devens finished 9,000 votes behind Young. After that, Young’s opponents rarely mustered more than one-third of the vote total.

Young’s rise in seniority and stature did little to smooth his rough edges. In 1994, he drew wide attention during a congressional hearing when he waved an 18-inch walrus penis bone, an oosik, during the testimony of the first woman ever to lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The next year, he had to apologize after using crude sexual language in a talk to Fairbanks high school students. Then there were the famous malapropisms: recommending a “monogram” for breast cancer, or describing someone salivating like “Pribilof’s dogs.”

With the return of Republicans to power in the 1994 congressional elections, Young became chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. He scrubbed the word “Natural” from the committee’s title, though Democrats later restored it. He espoused a generally uncomplicated view of resource development as the key to prosperity for Alaska and the nation, and showed little patience for environmentalists who opposed logging or oil drilling. But he supported legislation to set aside money to buy conservation lands, citing the ethic of a hunter.

It was his leadership of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, from 2001 to 2006, that conferred the most power — and nearly led to his downfall.

‘I’ve been under a cloud all my life’

In 2007, Young came under investigation for possibly receiving favors and illegal contributions from the oil field services contractor Veco. The company’s ties to Republican state legislators and U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens had become a political scandal in Alaska. In addition, Young was investigated for ties to notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff (one of Young’s former aides went to jail in that case), and for a $10 million earmark for an interchange sought by a Florida campaign donor, which appeared mysteriously in his highway spending bill — after the measure had passed Congress and been signed by President George W. Bush.

Under political fire as well for earmarking $449 million for the Ketchikan’s Gravina Island bridge and the Knik Arm Crossing in Anchorage (dubbed “Don Young’s Way” in the legislation), Young was removed from the Republican Party’s leadership steering committee in 2008 and lost the committee privileges of seniority.

He almost lost his congressional seat that year as well, during Gov. Sarah Palin’s Veco-era assault on the state Republican Party establishment. Palin’s lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell, announced a surprise primary challenge at the state party convention. Young stood up and said, “Sean, congratulations. I beat your dad, and I’m going to beat you.” Young pulled off a 304-vote primary victory, after pinning the nickname “Captain Zero” on the man who went on to be Alaska’s next governor. Young beat Ethan Berkowitz by five percentage points in the general election that year.

The Justice Department investigation of Young fizzled in 2010 after the corruption conviction of Ted Stevens was overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct. Young declared himself exonerated. But some of the files were turned over to the bipartisan House Ethics Committee, which in 2014 issued a “letter of reproval” detailing lavish trips and requiring him to pay $60,000 back to influence peddlers.

Young apologized for what he called “oversights.” He continued to shrug off media questions about the investigations and his extraordinary legal bills, saying his constituents — the ones who voted for him — didn’t mind. “I’ve been under a cloud all my life,” he once told reporters about the scrutiny. “It’s sort of like living in Juneau. It rains on you all the time. You don’t even notice it.”

The skies cleared a little in his later years, as he returned to the backbench to focus on bills affecting Alaska. Though he still won reelection by comfortable margins, the races grew closer as challengers argued he had “lost his clout” in his 80s. In 2014, he shocked Wasilla High School students and faculty, telling an assembly that suicide reflected a “lack of support” from family and friends. When a student called out that a recent school suicide was the result of mental illness and depression, Young bristled and responded with profanity.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in 2020, Young said at first that public fears were overblown and blamed the media. He jokingly referred to “the beer virus” with a group of Alaska senior citizens. Within weeks, though, Young did an about-face as his reelection campaign issued statements of grave concern. In November, days after winning his 25th congressional race, Young was hospitalized for three days in Anchorage with a serious case of COVID-19, drawing national headlines as the oldest member of Congress.

As dean of the House, Young had the ceremonial responsibility to swear in Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2021. He received a standing ovation (though mostly from Democrats) when he made a pitch for the kind of bipartisan cooperation he remembered from 50 years earlier.

“I’ve been in this House longer than anybody else,” Young said. “I’ve served with you longer than anybody else that served with you. I love this institution. I will be honest, I do not like what I see. It’s time we hold hands and talk to one another.”

Then he added, in a purely Don Young touch, an invitation to settle differences with Pelosi over a drink. The speaker thanked him but pointed out she does not drink.

Within a few weeks, Young was back at it, arguing in committee against the No Congressional Gun Loophole Act aimed at keeping guns off the House floor. Were they prepared to tie Young’s hands, he wanted to know, since he learned in the Army how to kill somebody with them? “I get very angry, but I haven’t attacked anybody,” he said.

‘God’s will and the people’s will’

“It’s unclear how the former state legislator whom Juneau colleague Mike Bradner called a ‘likable farm-boy type’ became a braying congressman who thrived on verbal combat,” newspaper columnist Carey wrote back in 2013. “No doubt the seeds always were there. But it is also possible the isolation accompanying the role of lone Alaska representative in the House affected Don’s behavior. He was an army of one with a single weapon — his voice.”

Young had announced he was running for a 26th term this year. His chief opponent in the Republican primary was Nick Begich III, a grandson of the only man to ever beat him for the seat, challenging him now from his political right.

Young’s final big splash came last November, when he was one of 13 House Republicans to vote for the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill backed by President Biden. He was called a traitor by hardliners and attacked by former President Trump, who encouraged “America First Republican Patriots” to unseat him.

Young responded that the big spending bill provided great things for Alaska. He laughed off the criticism, telling the Washington Post in December he avidly supported Trump’s policies but wished the former president would “just shut up – that’s all he has to do.”

In that last interview, Young said “God’s will and the people’s will” would decide his next chapter. If he didn’t return to Congress, he said, he knew what he would do.

“I’ll get an airplane. Someone can fly it for me. And we’ll land on lakes and catch fish and have a hell of a good time.”

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