EDITORIAL: Farewell to Don Young, Alaska’s lone congressman

It seems like no matter who you are, if you’ve been in Alaska long enough, you’ve got a story about Rep. Don Young. After the congressman’s death Friday as he was returning home to Alaska, those stories started to flow. Good stories, funny stories, sad stories, ugly stories. Like Alaskans’ opinions of Young himself, they ran the gamut.

For nearly half a century, Young was Alaska’s lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and he made no secret of his politics or his opinions. He ranks No. 9 on the longest-tenured members of Congress of all time. And for most of his 49 years and 13 days in office, Young was a notably effective legislator. He was the primary sponsor of 123 bills that were enacted into law, a phenomenal number when you consider that Alaska legislative giant Sen. Ted Stevens sponsored only half as many in his 40 years in Washington, D.C. Even Sen. Ted Kennedy, the “Lion of the Senate,” had a smaller total — 115 enacted bills in his 47 years in office.

Young’s last enacted bill was signed into law just three days before his death. Called “Bree’s Law” for domestic abuse victim Bree Moore and modeled after the state bill of the same name, it was the companion bill to one introduced in the Senate by Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan. The bill directed funds and instituted measures to help combat teen dating violence Moore and other Alaskans experienced. Originally introduced as a standalone bill, it was folded into the 2022 Consolidated Appropriations Act that also contained funding for many other priorities and aid for Ukraine. It passed the House on March 9, the Senate on March 10, and was signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 15. It was fitting that Young’s last sponsored bill dealt with an issue that has long plagued Alaska — and that, because it was more expedient to do so, the bill was folded into must-pass legislation.

In an era where our politics have become increasingly black-and-white, Young was a figure who defied easy categorization. The Don Young who browbeat Alaska Native activists who spoke against oil and gas development was the same man as the one who Alaska Federation of Natives president Julie Kitka remembered would pick up the phone and demand answers for Native leaders’ problems “right in the middle of their meetings.” The Don Young who called COVID-19 the “beer virus” in the early days of the pandemic was the same person who, when vaccines became available, became a full-throated advocate for Alaskans to get their shots.

The conventional wisdom for politicians in Washington, D.C., has often been to avoid gaffes and attack-ad fodder. For better and for worse, Young paid that no mind. He found himself simultaneously out-of-step with the times, having to apologize for insensitive remarks about suicide made to high schoolers, and ahead of the curve, favoring national marijuana decriminalization and statehood for Puerto Rico.

As humans, we like to be able to package things up into comprehensible packages. When public figures die, it’s tempting to try to reduce them to the two or three things we remember most about them. But Don Young can’t be captured by that rigid classification. In his 49 years as Alaska’s lone U.S. House member, he stood out despite being only one representative of 435. He managed to pass more bills than some of the most effective legislators of our time. He convinced Alaskans, even ones who swore they wouldn’t support him, that he was the best person to represent them in Congress, term after term after term.

For more than three-quarters of the time since Alaska became a state, Don Young has been our man in the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. He made the most of that time, and Alaskans have the stories to prove it.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the Anchorage Daily News editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.