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Don Young continues to misbehave because we continue to elect him

Mike Dingman

“Don’t you know who I am?”

There is no evidence that Rep. Don Young actually said that. However, the sentiment was written all over his eyes as he glared down at David Smentek, the congressional staffer who was simply doing his job by blocking the side entrance to a GOP meeting. Don Young grabbed and twisted Smentek’s wrist, stared him down and then entered the meeting through the wrong door.

Reports that the Seattle Seahawks were so impressed with Young’s “holding” skills that they have invited him for a tryout as a defensive back are, as of yet, unconfirmed.

House rules state that members of Congress can exit through the side door, but are not supposed to reenter through that door while the meeting is in session.

If for some reason you think this is an isolated showing of Young’s lack of respect for other people, you must have been living under a rock.

Roll Call reported in July that Young “allegedly barged through the police line established to prevent members of Congress and staff from entering the Capitol” after an asbestos attack.

Young is also known for treating those testifying in front of Congress rudely. In 2011, while Dr. Douglas Brinkley was testifying on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Young incorrectly referred to him as “Dr. Rice.” When Brinkley corrected him, Young said “I’ll call you Dr. Rice; I’ll call you anything I want to call you when you sit in that chair. You can just be quiet, you be quiet!”

Last year Young, talking about his father’s farm in Southern California said, “We used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes.”

To be fair to the congressman, this isn’t entirely a "Don Young" problem. We all share responsibility for this entitled and arrogant attitude among our elected officials. While Young is one of the extremes, this attitude is shared by many of his colleagues.

We could spend hours discussing the stories of politicians acting poorly. Books have been written on the topic, there are websites dedicated to it and Keith Olbermann used to highlight these “leaders” in a segment he called “Worst Person in the World.”

As voters and constituents, we have a bad habit of giving lifetime jobs to our elected leaders -- particularly those representing us in Washington, D.C. We also almost always reelect them. Young has been in Congress since 1973.

Nationwide, simply being a member of Congress almost guarantees your job as well. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (via Open Secrets), the re-election rate to the U.S. House of Representatives since 1965 has ranged from 85-98 percent.

For some reason, as an electorate we reward inappropriate behavior with re-election. Alaskans do even more; we defend our lone congressman regardless of what he does.

Even in Young’s apology the day after his confrontation with Smentek, his arrogance shone through. Young said, “While returning to the GOP conference meeting to discuss the ongoing situation on our southern border, I was caught off guard by an unidentified individual who was physically blocking me from reentering the room. Regardless, my reaction was wrong, and I should have never placed my hands on the young man.”

He implies that Smentek (not an “unidentified individual”) was doing something wrong and fails to acknowledge that Smentek was a congressional staffer doing his job.

Our founding fathers did not envision this type of idolization when they created our system of government. Their concept was that of “citizen legislators” who would live in their communities, know their neighbors, their needs and desires and then serve in Congress as a representation of those views -- particularly in the House, the “people’s house.”

Federalist Paper No. 52 outlines the role and qualifications for members of the House. It proposes that elections be held every other year so that members of the House can gain experience but not spend too much time in office.

We have failed to follow the founders’ intent.

Members of Congress are human. We shouldn’t expect them to be perfect. Along with being imperfect, they are also constantly under surveillance. They are televised,  photographed, and recorded in video and audio wherever they go. When they mess up, it is obvious to everybody. There’s no question that under similar scrutiny we would all have some very embarrassing moments made public.

However, Young has shown a consistent and blatant disregard for others in his actions. At some point, apologies should fall on deaf ears tired of hearing the excuses for why he’s acted poorly. Our founding fathers expected citizen legislators to represent their neighbors in Congress, not to warp into loudmouth wannabe dictators shouting down or physically restraining their subjects.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late 90s.  

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.