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Long shots face long odds in quest to unseat Alaska Congressman Don Young

Jill Burke
RepDonYoung via YouTube

A weathered and perennial politician, Don Young is a decades-long fixture in Alaska's congressional delegation. His service dates back to before the oil boom days. He's the senior member of the trio, and has survived criminal investigations with hardly a nick. He's gritty. Outspoken. Tough skinned. Ornery. And, he loves his job in Washington, D.C. as "Congressman for all Alaska" where he has continuously served as Alaska's sole U.S. representative since 1973 -- or 39 years.

Young has said that when he steps down, a Native woman from rural Alaska should be his heir apparent. At 79, and with more than $580,000 on hand to fight for the hearts of Alaska voters, he's ready for a 21st term in D.C. Would-be successors may face a long wait. Young says he has no intention of abandoning his post.

"I'll still outwork anybody who runs against me and they all know it," Young said in his plain-talking style, which he calls forthright even as others call it arrogant.

Six dozen failed challengers

Since 1974, when Young started running for re-election, more than six dozen challengers have tried – and failed – to end Young's career. Some wonder: Can Young ever be dislodged? After all, this is the same man who days ago was honored for securing nearly $1 billion for Alaska's transportation needs, including $31 million in Federal Transit Authority money for the Alaska Railroad. The same man who, after his 1973 debut in the House fought for the trans-Alaska pipeline and won? 

Eight comparatively poorly funded challengers are trying.

"I respect their ability to run. I just don't think they can do a better job," Young said in an interview Monday as he waited at the airport for a flight to Valdez, a planned stop along the campaign trail.  

What makes a nurse, a state lawmaker, a self-described political prisoner, an electrician, a geologist and business owner, and a business professor with no collective financial oomph believe they can topple the seemingly timeless congressman? 

"It's time for Don to retire," said John Cox, a proud Tea Party Republican from the Kenai Peninsula who has already suffered one crushing defeat to Young in the 2010 primary.  "Don Young is the king of pork. To me that is financial irresponsibility."

Cox isn’t Young’s only critic.

"The representative needs to be someone who really does understand the entire state and not just special interests. We need someone who can actually stand up for Alaska instead of throw fits," said Debra Chesnut, a Democratic newcomer on the ballot from Fairbanks.

Money and the race to the top

The Aug. 28 primary pits three Republicans and four Democrats against each other. Only one candidate is running unopposed, Libertarian Jim McDermott of Fairbanks.

Young, Cox, and newcomer Terre Gales are in the Republican camp. Alaska Rep. Sharon Cissna, repeat candidate Frank Vondersaar of Homer, and newcomers Chesnut, Matt Moore and Doug Urquidi round out the field of Democrats.

Campaign reports show the group collectively has only about $8,000 on hand. Only one of the candidates' campaigns is debt-free. Democrat Debra Chesnut of Fairbanks still has a measly $1,620 to spend.  By comparison, Young has more than $580,000.

Most of the other candidates, however, are in debt.

Four who came close

It's one thing to win the primary and quite another to repeat that in the general election. Democrats have tried unsuccessfully for nearly four decades to seize Alaska's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, with Emil Notti coming closest in 1973, the year Young was first elected. Seventeen years later in 1990, former Valdez Mayor John Devens landed about 48 percent of the vote. Four years ago, veteran state representative Ethan Berkowitz won 45 percent of the vote, the third-best effort by a Democratic challenger.

Berkowitz raised more that $700,000 by the time that year's primary rolled around, and when the election was over, he had pulled in $1.6 million, out-earning Young by more than $200,000. Young raked in $834,000 for the primary, and by November his war chest had grown to $1.3 million, ultimately topping $1.4 million by the end of the year.

That same year Republican Sean Parnell, rising to power under the wing of then-Gov. Sarah Palin, went after Young in the August primary and nearly won. Young’s initial reaction: “I beat your dad (Kevin “Pat” Parnell), and I’ll beat you, too.”  He barely did.

When the counting was done, Young had a sliver of a lead, just 304 votes more than Parnell, who at the time was Alaska's lieutenant governor. Despite being within a half a percentage point of winning and therefore eligible for a state-funded recount, Parnell chose not to call for one.

"While a recount could change the outcome of this exceedingly close election -- normal human error being what it is -- such a result is unlikely. As such, I do not believe it justifies an expenditure of taxpayer funds," Parnell said in a prepared statement about why he was giving up the fight.

Parnell had nearly toppled Young, despite raising less money than the congressman, just $604,000. Remember, though, the drama played out during an already-tumultuous campaign season. Young was under investigation for corruption related to earmarks he put in a transportation bill, and for his connections to an Alaska oil contractor, VECO. In the same election, a just-indicted U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens was targeted by Anchorage Democrat Mark Begich. Meanwhile, Gov. Sarah Palin had made it her mission to clean house and rid the state of the old guard.

None of these pressures are nipping at the Republican powerhouse this year.  The investigations led nowhere, serious Republican challengers few and far between, and the Democrats have been unable to put little more than a dent in most of his re-election bids.

The only Democrat to beat Young is, sadly and ironically, the same one Young to whom Young owes his career. In 1972, Nick Begich, father of Sen. Mark Begich, handily beat Young in the November general election. On the day voters headed to the polls, Begich was a missing man. He disappeared in a presumed plane crash weeks earlier in October. By December he was declared dead, a heartbreaking outcome that created a void in Congress and a need for a special election, the very election in which Young first boot-strapped his way to Washington, D.C.

The hopefuls

"I expect to do extremely well. I'm going to shock a lot of people," self-described "middle class American" John Cox, 55, of Anchor Point said in an interview last week. "We have to make a change to the way government operates."

A retired Navy veteran who fears that without drastic and swift financial changes, the country is headed for doom, Cox has said he feels duty-bound to his serve his country and believes he can do it best as Alaska's next Republican in Congress.

"The only thing I ask is that people give me a shot. That they give me a chance to do the job better than Don Young has in the past. And if they don't like it, I will leave," he said.

With him is another military veteran, Terre Gales, who is also in the Republican primary. Gales, who has never held public office, served in the U.S. Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like Cox, Gales believes Congress is headed in the wrong direction. “We’re people who are willing to literally sacrifice our lives for this nation,” Gales said. “People with that type of willingness … are the type of people we need,” he told the Eagle River Star.

At a recent candidate forum hosted by Alaska Public Television, Cox and Gales reportedly had a jovial run-in with Young, who reportedly told the men, "Better luck next time, guys."

"I always go into a race with confidence," Young said later when asked about the comment.

If elected, Libertarian Jim McDermott, a business professor from Fairbanks, has said he will strive to bring home U.S. troops fighting overseas, encourage more work-related immigration, legalize and regulate drugs, and stop sending "billions of our tax dollars to nations that hate us" and "spending billions of our tax dollars towards D.C. cronyism."

Cissna: Congress disconnected

Cissna has the most name recognition among Democrats. The cancer survivor and recipient of a life-saving mastectomy, Cissna gained national attention when she refused to endure a physical pat down by agents of the Transportation Security Administration.

She's running for Congress out of a sense of duty to the hundreds and thousands of people she said came forward to share their own stories of TSA horror with her.

"It is a very private, very troubling thing that is happening to people. Those stories are now a part of me. That puts something on my plate that I cannot walk away from. You can't just put up with things that are wrong," Cissna said in an interview Monday.

Cissna, who served in the Alaska Legislature 14 years, believes Congress has grown increasingly disconnected from the people it represents. "D.C. has become a wealthy body. And since it is only the wealthy that go, we have lost a lot of the democratic values.  I think it is horrible to have the middle class put in second class," she said.

Neither Cissna nor Debra Chesnut of Fairbanks believe the fund-raising gap between them and Young is insurmountable. For one thing, fund raising gets more aggressive and productive after the primary. And both believe the right message, more than ads, will resonate with voters.

Chesnut, 59, is a nurse and business owner who, like Young and Cissna, has traveled much of the state and believes she understands Alaskans. No matter where Alaskans live, they need jobs and affordable energy, she states in her candidate pamphlet provided by Alaska's Division of Elections.

In addition to her nursing degree, she holds degrees in psychology and Western Esoterocism, the study of spirituality and religion from ancient to modern times. Having watched politics over the years without seeing enough change, she felt moved to jump in.

"I realized that I would be a perfect representative. I know I can do the job," she said.

And, she is undeterred by the Democratic Party's long-running inability to seize Young's seat. The party, Chesnut said, has never approached campaigns well, offering pitiful advertising and what she calls the same-old tactics. She declined to elaborate, but offered to say more after the primary when there's no longer a four-way race for the Democratic nomination.

Forty-seven-year-old Doug Irquidi of Eagle River, 52-year-old Matt Moore of Anchorage, and 61-year-old Frank Vondersaar of Homer are the other Democratic challengers.

Irquidi, a construction foreman and army veteran, describes himself as an "average guy" with a grassroots campaign. If elected, he has pledged to make financial aid available to the needy, direct more federal dollars to the direct education of students, and boost support for veterans and victims of domestic violence.

Moore is a geologist, small business owner and consultant who says he would like to see "responsible Arctic development." Alaska's universities, he has said, can play a key role. He has pledged to help bring new businesses and jobs to Alaska, and to use his business experience to improve Alaska life.

Vondersaar, who considers himself a "political prisoner of the United States," is a lawyer, engineer, pilot and Air Force veteran. He describes himself as "pro-jobs, pro-choice, and anti-facist." He has pledged end government corruption, make higher or vocation education more affordable, promote energy independence, thwart terrorist threats, and restore Constitutional and civil rights "trashed" under the Bush and Reagan administrations.

Notoriously cantankerous or mellowing?

Young is currently on what he calls a "kissing babies, shaking hands" tour of Alaska. It's a gentler side of the man who can be notoriously cantankerous when irked by journalists – or anyone who doesn't see things his way.

In November of 2011, he told a man at a congressional hearing about opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, "You just be quiet!" The man, a Rice University professor and prominent author Douglas Brinkley, was testifying to keep the refuge untouched. In the heat of the same exchange, Young called Brinkley's assertions about ANWR being the heart of the state "garbage."

During the period when Young was under investigation by the Department of Justice, he told a reporter inquiring about the investigations, "I don't need to explain anything, especially to you."

The almost octogenarian is unapologetic. "I'm not a mamby pamby legislator. I never have been," Young said Monday.

Young remains unhappy about by the investigations targeting him and Sen. Stevens. He maintains they were "dead wrong" and has complimented voters on their choice to ignore the nay-saying and return him office.

As for the field of challengers coming after him this year, he says his tactic to fend them off as he seeks his 21st term in office will be the same as it was in 1973 when voters first sent him to D.C.:  "There's never been a rabbit caught yet that didn't stop. I don't stop."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com