Politics

Inside the final days of Don Young’s D.C. office

Don Young Office

WASHINGTON — The walls of U.S. Rep. Don Young’s office were once famously jam-packed with a vast assortment of relics that spoke to his long tenure representing Alaska, including animal trophies and pelts, rifles and Alaska Native artwork, along with pictures with 10 presidents.

Over his 49 years in the House of Representatives, he and his team of staff operated a busy office where the phones often rang off the hook and staffers worked on more than 1,100 pieces of Young-sponsored legislation.

Don Young, office, Washington

Then everything came to a grinding halt when Young died on a plane during a trip home to Alaska on March 18.

Lately, the phones have quieted and the office’s legislative work has ceased entirely. The once-cluttered walls are now nearly vacant.

Young’s death left a team of 14 staffers and a few interns to adjust to their more limited roles working for Alaska at-large — the official designation given to Young’s former seat — and pack up the memorabilia collected over his 25 terms in Congress, all while grieving the loss of their boss.

“Beyond the congressman, Alaska lost a whole team,” legislative assistant Kellie Chong said, “a team that was just so ready, and pumped, and energized to work on policy that worked for Alaska and to help Alaskans.”

What’s happening this summer reflects the quiet dismantling of a congressional office without a congressional representative. But it won’t be that way for much longer.

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The shift to Alaska at-large

Young’s death stopped his D.C. staff’s typical operations.

The office fell under the supervision of Clerk of the House Cheryl Johnson. Congressional rules stipulated that staff could not advocate on issues, introduce or co-sponsor bills, or support any legislation Young introduced before his death. Zack Brown, the former at-large communications director, said he asked the clerk’s office if he could make public service announcements on Young’s social media, but he wasn’t allowed to do so.

Among the first orders of business for the at-large office was arranging memorial services. Alex Ortiz — Young’s former chief of staff who works in the same role for Alaska at-large — said the office is still hoping to arrange a service at Arlington National Cemetery but has hit some snags because Young was cremated.

Anchorage Baptist Temple, Don Young, Mike Dunleavy, funeral
Anchorage Baptist Temple, Don Young, funeral

The office has also focused on constituent services. Before his death, Brown said, Young’s office prided itself on its work with constituents.

“Not to brag, but it was kind of the gold standard,” he said.

[Gruff, warm, combustible, shrewd: For 49 years, Don Young’s ideology was ‘Alaska’]

The at-large staff can still answer constituent questions and help with requests related to federal agencies, such as assistance getting passports, Social Security benefits and Veterans Affairs benefits. The office also still helps with tours of the Capitol.

After a few weeks of callers offering their condolences to staff, the phones have grown fairly quiet. However, Brown said the office would occasionally receive a call from an Alaskan who did not know Young had died.

People reaching out to speak with Young has become a pattern since his death. Chong said she has received emails from other congressional offices for meeting requests and co-sponsorships with Young. Brown had also gotten media inquiries requesting interviews with the late congressman, including from “Meet the Press.”

When asked if the dress code had changed, Brown — who was wearing shorts and a pink top with flamingos in the office earlier this month, while he was still with the office — said not really. “I’ve taken many liberties.”

Lauren Noland, a legislative correspondent, said she wore Xtratuf boots with puffins on them to the office when Congress was in session.

“Congressman Young would smile at me and tell me how much he loved my puffin boots,” Noland said. “Anywhere else, I would probably be talked to about my dress style.”

‘A natural history museum’

A team of archivists is now dismantling Young’s office.

Once chock-full of hundreds of objects, the walls are primarily decorated with old nails now. Earlier this month, furniture was piled outside the office door next to a black and white poster memorializing the congressman. Boxes and carefully wrapped memorabilia littered the floor. A large wolf hide was draped over a couch.

Don Young Office

Noland compared the office to a “natural history museum.”

Some of Young’s personal items seemed untouched on a visit to the office two weeks ago. There were still pens, papers and plants on his desk alongside an emptied Corona bottle with a small American flag sticking out of it. The 900-pound totem pole, gifted to Young by Alaska’s late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, is still in the corner of the office. Ortiz said the goal is to move it to another Alaskan’s office — Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s — but the plans for how to do so had not yet crystallized.

For a few months, the staff and a team of archivists from History Associates Incorporated have inventoried and packed about 1,400 memorabilia items from his D.C., Anchorage, Fairbanks and University of Alaska Fairbanks offices so far.

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Lead archivist Megan O’Hern-Crook has worked with over 40 congressional offices when their representative has lost an election, retired or died. She called Young’s office “easily the most interesting office that I’ve ever seen in my career.”

As congressional office staff and archivists have sorted through artwork on loan, Young’s personal effects and federal property such as furniture, they’ve found some hidden treasures.

Don Young Office

The staff found a folded paper place card with “George Bush” typed on the outside in a filing cabinet. On the inside, there was a handwritten note from the 41st president.

The note started: “DON HINDER!!” and continued to wish love to the Young family.

O’Hern-Crook was taken aback by a large map of Alaska, which she estimated was about 12 feet long.

The team also found a box of photographs of Young with a yellow Lab. While staffers didn’t know where the photos are from, they speculated they were once used for autographs.

Don Young Office

The office — one of the largest in the U.S. House — will go to the winner of Alaska’s Aug. 16 special election, which determines who will serve out the rest of Young’s term ending in January.

The new representative shouldn’t get too comfortable, however. If they’re reelected in November’s regular election, they’ll need to turn over the coveted office during the next session of Congress. Then, as a freshman representative, they’ll have to battle to stay out of the basement.

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Sharing stories, and grief

Telling stories about Young has become a way for the office to grieve together, Ortiz said. The nostalgia for just a few months ago is palpable.

Ortiz recounted a time when the legislative team leaned on Young to vote with Democrats. Young’s press secretary emerged from the House floor to tell Ortiz and the team that Young had instead voted with Republicans. Dismayed, staffers started strategizing — until they realized they were being recorded.

The press secretary “just starts cracking up,” Ortiz said with a smile. Young had told him to “go tell them I voted the other way and film it.”

Young had a reputation for an abrasive personality and inappropriate, sometimes offensive, comments. During his career, he invoked Holocaust victims to support gun rights and used a racial slur to describe people who worked at his family’s farm. In 2020, early in the pandemic, he called the novel coronavirus the “beer virus” and downplayed its effects.

Brown said, “the public image of Congressman Young as this brash frontiersman who just is a gaffe machine and will say what’s on his mind — I think to a degree that was true, and he would embrace that.”

For example, Brown said Young called him one Saturday night after reading a “nasty” Facebook comment about himself. Young wanted to comment back, “To hell with you.”

“I’d be like, don’t do that,” Brown said.

However, Brown added that many people didn’t get to appreciate Young’s softer side.

“I think what the public didn’t see was just the immense capacity for just caring about other people,” he said.

Noland, who is from Anchorage, remembered meeting Young in fifth grade. Later in life, Young’s office helped her sort out an issue with Veterans Affairs. She decided to apply for a job in his office with no experience in politics.

Noland started crying as she remembered Young’s kindness toward her one day after she received a difficult phone call. A caller yelled at Noland and left her distraught. She stepped out of the office to regroup when Young passed her in the hallway. Noland said he asked her, “You’re not leaving me, are ya?”

Noland said she responded, “No, sir. I’m not. I’m gonna go get a snack if that’s all right with you.”

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Young said, according to Noland: “That’s all right with me as long as you’re coming back.”

Team members now are planning their next professional endeavors. Many have already moved on to new opportunities. Some have relocated to other Alaska congressional offices and others have entered the private sector. Brown has joined Amazon’s public affairs team and Ortiz plans to work in lobbying next.

Ortiz says he won’t leave his role as Alaska at-large chief of staff until Congress in September certifies the next representative, who voters will choose in the August election.

“I feel like it’s my duty to the congressman to oversee the completion, the full completion, of the office shutdown,” Ortiz said. “I’ll be here till the very end.”

Don Young

Riley Rogerson

Riley Rogerson is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C., and is a fellow with Report for America. Contact her at rrogerson@adn.com.

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