Republican Rep. Don Young built much of his long political career on bringing federal spending to Alaska, at times bolstered by his leadership positions on influential congressional committees.
After 47 years, he’s the only congressman many Alaskans have known. But his challenger, the Democratic-nominated independent Alyse Galvin, is campaigning on a message that Young has lost his touch. He has termed out of too many leadership positions and missed too many votes, she said.
“How are we going to renew our economy?” Galvin said in a recent interview. “We have to have someone in the room over the next two years. In the room. He’s not in the room, he’s in the corner, if anywhere."
Galvin lost to Young in 2018. In her second run, much of her early campaign material was biographical. In the past month, she has increased attacks on Young, many centered around the notion he has lost his “clout.”
“She can’t even define what ‘clout’ is,” Young said in an telephone interview this week.
“I have probably more clout than most people do in Congress, period.”
House Republicans have a rule where a member can only lead a committee for six years. Young chaired the House Natural Resources Committee from 1995 to 2001, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2001 to 2007 and the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs from 2011 to 2017.
Young’s campaign manager, Truman Reed, said Young’s current position in Congress allows him to be plenty powerful.
“Alyse Galvin has also leveled the absurd accusation that he is out of favor with Leadership – wrong again!” Reed said via email. “Don Young IS Leadership. He is a voting member of the House Republican Steering Committee.”
Currently, Young serves on several committees and is in leadership as the ranking member on a House Natural Resources subcommittee.
Galvin argues that without the power that comes with steering influential committees, Young isn’t able to help Alaskans the way he once could.
Young rejected that idea, saying his seniority and relationships mean something. Following the 2017-18 Congress, Young was voted the most effective member by the Center for Effective Lawmaking. In 2019, Young’s 37 bills introduced tied for 15th most in the House. Four got out of committee.
An issue that makes it harder for Young — or anyone — to bring federal money back to Alaska is the ban of earmarking. Under earmarking, lawmakers directed money in federal spending bills to specific projects, generally in the lawmaker’s district.
In 2018, Young advocated to reinstate earmarks.
David Lublin, professor and chair of American University’s Department of Government, said earmarking was arguably more important to Alaska — home of the largest congressional district in the country —than other places.
Lublin said Alaska leaders became so good at earmarking, they became known for it, particularly with what came to be called the “bridge to nowhere." The bridge, which would have connected Ketchikan with Gravina Island, was pushed by Young and the late Sen. Ted Stevens, and became a catalyst for banning earmarks.
Lublin said earmarking in a way makes sense, especially for Alaska. There are small, rural villages that the federal government isn’t going to pay a lot of attention to, but maybe their congressional representative will, and so lawmakers can bring back funding for needed projects.
“It just became too much,” he said.
Lublin said Young has a long history fighting for Alaska’s interests.
“His real problem is both that he’s been termed out from being a committee chair, but that even if he wasn’t termed out, his party is not in the majority, and nor does anyone think it’s likely they’ll reclaim the majority in the next Congress," Lublin said, adding that he thinks in today’s political environment, Democrats are more likely to listen to someone who caucuses with them.
Galvin is running as an independent, but has secured the Democratic nomination, and on the ballot, she’s labeled as the Democratic nominee.
Galvin said she plans to caucus with Democrats if elected. She said she does not believe running as an independent would cause party leaders to disenfranchise her if elected.
Further, she said she would be “in the room.” Galvin pointed to Young’s voting record. According to GovTrack, a nonpartisan website that tracks how members of Congress vote, Young has missed 14% of roll call votes since 1973.
“I don’t know how many times you can miss days at work before it’s time to move things over, but I’m pretty sure we’ve hit that mark,” she said.
Reed, Young’s campaign manager, said Young has a prolific record of passing legislation.
“His record of effectiveness speaks for itself and he currently has a 96% attendance record,” Reed said.
Galvin, who is 55, said she knows as a freshman member of Congress, she also will not be steering committees. She said she will show up, and has room to grow. She said Alaska needs a shakeup for its only House seat.
“He’s very much a creature of that hyperpartisan, I’ll call it a ‘swamp,’ that has brought our country to a halt,” she said.
Young, 87, acknowledged that he will one day be replaced. But he said Galvin is “incompetent” and shouldn’t be the one to take the reins. Right now, he said, he’s still effective.
“I challenge you to pick up that phone and call any congressman in Congress and say ‘who’s the congressman from Alaska?'" he said. “They know Don Young.”