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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Don Young, Alaska congressman who was dean of the House, dies at 88

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) stands outside his campaign headquarters in Anchorage, Sept. 11, 2020.

By Robert D. McFadden

Don Young, the Alaska congressman who secured pork-barrel billions for his state over nearly a half-century and became the longest-serving Republican in the House of Representatives and the oldest current member of both the House and Senate, died Friday. He was 88.

Young died while traveling home to Alaska, his office said. His wife, Anne, was with him.

In a state whose small population allows for two senators but only one representative, Young, who cultivated the image of a rugged frontiersman with outsize clout in Washington, was sometimes called Alaska’s “third senator.” To this day, most Alaskans have had no congressman in their lifetimes but Young, who was first elected in 1973, during the Nixon administration.

Early in his 24th term in 2019, he became the longest-serving Republican in House history, surpassing the tenure of former Speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon of Illinois, who as a teenager had followed the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates and went on to serve 23 House terms in three discontinuous segments between 1873 and 1923. At his death Young was in his 25th term and 49th year in Congress. (John Dingell, a Democratic House member from Michigan for 59 years, was the longest-serving member of Congress.)

When asked in 2020 how long he planned to serve, Young told The New York Times, “God will decide that, or the voters.”

Young dated from an era when power in Congress was measured partly by securing of “earmarks,” discretionary spending allocations that lawmakers in both parties use for pet projects in their home districts and states, often by circumventing merit-based or competitive-bidding processes. Known as “pork barrel” legislation, it was often reformed over the years, and banned for more than a decade, before lawmakers agreed to revive the practice with strict guardrails last year.

In the government funding bill that President Joe Biden signed into law Tuesday, Young managed to secure more than $23 million for projects in his state. Among them were the replacement of a fire station in Kodiak that was built in the 1940s and the replacement of an old clinic.

“We have lost a giant who we loved dearly and who held Alaska in his heart — always,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a statement. “Don was coming home to the place that he loved and to the people that loved him best.”

Gruff and irascible, Young, who survived occasional allegations of shady ethics, was a staunch opponent of environmental causes and a tough defender of Alaska’s oil, mineral and logging industries. He used his powerful leadership positions on the House Natural Resources Committee and on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to fund highways, bridges, pipelines and many other projects. (As chair, he dropped “Natural” from the committee’s name, renaming it the Committee on Resources, but Democrats changed it back later.)

Young was perhaps best known for trying to fund what critics called the two Bridges to Nowhere, at costs estimated in 2004 at $2.2 billion. One would have replaced a ferry linking the town of Ketchikan in southeastern Alaska with an island a mile offshore that had 50 residents and a small airport. The other, 2 miles long, would have connected Anchorage to a small peninsular port that had one commercial tenant. The proposals lingered on the books for years, but the bridges were never built.

Often working with Alaska’s two Republican senators, Ted Stevens on the Appropriations Committee and Frank H. Murkowski (Lisa Murkowski’s father) on Natural Resources, Young pushed legislation and policies that built roads and pipelines across national parks, restricted purchases of conservation lands and limited the reach of rules protecting endangered species.

Popular with conservative constituents, Young opposed abortion except to save a woman’s life; called climate change a “scam”; voted for tax cuts, gun rights and bills to create jobs, but against protections for gay and lesbian people in the workplace; supported the legalization of marijuana; favored repealing the Affordable Care Act; and hailed former President Donald Trump’s executive orders rolling back restrictions on Arctic oil drilling.

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2007 that Young was under federal investigation on suspicion of taking bribes, illegal gratuities and unreported gifts from Anchorage-based VECO oil services company, whose two top executives had already pleaded guilty to bribing Alaska state legislators. The Journal said Young had received $157,000 over 10 years from VECO executives and political action committees. But no formal charges were brought against him in the matter.

In 2014, the House Ethics Committee fined Young $60,000 for using campaign funds to pay personal expenses and for inappropriately accepting 15 junkets. He was also accused of failing to report inherited property assets for 25 years. He apologized for what he called “oversights.” Again, no criminal charges were brought.

Young opposed Trump’s run for the presidency in 2016, but after Trump’s election, Young became more supportive, voting against both impeachments of the president. But after Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, however, Young was one of the first Republicans to congratulate the new president-elect.

Even under the Biden administration, Young showed a willingness to work across the aisle on behalf of his state, becoming one of just 13 Republicans to support a substantial $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Young also notably introduced Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve in the role, at her confirmation hearing last year in the Senate, calling her a friend and emphasizing his own supportive relationships with Alaska Natives and tribal governments.

In a statement Saturday, Biden said of Young, “He was larger than life but always focused on Alaskans’ everyday lives,” adding, “Don’s legacy lives on in the infrastructure projects he delighted in steering across Alaska” and in “the enhanced protections for Native tribes he championed.”

Young could be crude in public. In a 1994 House debate on the right of Native Alaskans to sell sex organs of endangered animals as aphrodisiacs, he waved an 18-inch walrus penile bone at the face of the fish and wildlife commissioner. In a radio interview in 2013, he referred to Latino migrant workers with an ethnic slur. And in 2017, former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told Politico that Young had once pinned him against a wall in the House and held a 10-inch knife to his throat.

His lapses rarely hurt him at the polls. He was elected to 25 consecutive terms, usually facing moderate to light opposition and winning more than 70% of the vote five times. In 2020, he turned back a strong challenge from Alyse Galvin, a politically independent community organizer, who campaigned on discontent with the state’s economy during the coronavirus crisis.

After the election, Young announced that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. He was hospitalized for three days in Anchorage and isolated at home. He said that he regretted dismissing the seriousness of the pandemic and that he supported the use of masks.

As news broke of Young’s death Friday evening, lawmakers and aides related stories about him, some noting that he had often sat in the back aisle of the House chamber and heckled his colleagues, particularly when a vote had dragged on for too long.

“His absence will leave Congress less colorful and certainly less punctual,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the minority leader, said in a statement. “But his decades of service have filled every room and touched every member.”

Donald Edwin Young was born in Meridian, California, on June 9, 1933, the youngest of three children of James and Nora (Bucy) Young. He had two sisters, Beatty and Jane. His father was a Sutter County rancher. Young graduated from Sutter Union High School in 1950 and earned an associate degree in education from Yuba Community College in 1952 and a bachelor’s degree in teaching from Chico State College (now University) in 1958. From 1955 to 1957, he was in the Army and served in a tank battalion.

At 26, Young moved to Alaska soon after it attained statehood in 1959. He admitted being drawn by Jack London’s 1903 novel “The Call of the Wild,” about a powerful, 140-pound dog named Buck, a St. Bernard-Scotch collie who is stolen from a ranch in the Santa Clara Valley and sold as a sled dog in the Yukon.

Young settled in Fort Yukon, a town of 700 just above the Arctic Circle. He tried fishing, trapping and panning for gold, as if resurrecting London’s Klondike wilderness life of 1897. In town, he taught elementary school classes and coached high school basketball and track teams for several years at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school, where wood-burning stoves warmed the students through freezing winter days. With the breakup of the Yukon River ice in spring, he piloted his own tug and barge, carrying supplies to villages along the river.

In 1963, Young married a Native Alaskan bookkeeper, Lula Fredson, an Indigenous Gwich’in, who became his political adviser and office manager. They had two daughters. Lula Young died in 2009. In 2015, Young married Anne Garland Walton, a Fairbanks flight nurse, who had two children and six grandchildren by a previous marriage.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughters, Joni Nelson and Dawn Vallely; his wife’s children; 14 grandchildren; and six step-grandchildren.

In 1964, Young was elected mayor of Fort Yukon, serving three years in his first public office. As he became more widely known, he won a seat in the Alaska House of Representatives in Juneau and served two terms, from 1966 to 1970. He then won a seat in Alaska’s Senate. In 1972, halfway through his four-year term, he ran for Alaska’s at-large seat in Congress.

The incumbent was Nick Begich, a freshman Democrat seeking reelection. Three weeks before the election, Begich and the House majority leader, Rep. Hale Boggs, a Louisiana Democrat on a fundraising trip to Alaska, boarded a small plane for a flight from Anchorage to Juneau. The plane vanished, and its passengers were never seen again, despite wide searches of the state’s rugged southern coast and the Gulf of Alaska.

The missing Begich outpolled Young on Election Day but was declared legally dead a month later. Young then won a special election to fill the vacancy and took Alaska’s congressional seat in March 1973, starting his long political life in Washington.

On April 28, 2021, Young announced plans to run for a 26th term in 2022.

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