The combative fisheries debate in Kodiak Wednesday night between U.S. Rep Don Young and his Democratic opponent offered plenty of fireworks, but there was a bristling prelude to the onstage tussle that came before the longest-serving Republican in the House publicly called his young Democratic challenger immature, childish and naive.
Forrest Dunbar alluded to that backstage moment in an onstage remark: "Immaturity was the thing you said behind the curtain there, Congressman Young."
"Tell me what I said," challenged Young, 81.
"Very nice," replied Dunbar, 30, before turning the discussion back to the issues.
So what happened before the debate?
Dunbar, reached Friday and pressed about the encounter, said the two were walking near each other backstage when Young said angrily, "You're not from Cordova any more than I'm from Fort Yukon. I had you looked into."
Dunbar, raised in that Southcentral Alaska town after his family moved there from Eagle in the Interior when he was a child, said he tried politely responding to Young. Young grew up in California and moved to Alaska as a young man, not long after serving in the U.S. Army in the mid-1950s.
Dunbar, who now lives in Anchorage, said he was puzzled and in a friendly gesture touched Young on his arm lightly and asked: "What are you talking about?" Then:
"He freaked out," said Dunbar. "There is no other way to describe it.
"He kind of snarled at me and said, 'Don't you ever touch me. Don't ever touch me. The last guy who touched me ended up on the ground dead,'" said Dunbar.
Before walking away from the congressman, Dunbar said he waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, saying, "Whatever, man."
Young replied, according to Dunbar, with a taunting, swishing motion of his own hand: "Oh, you got a sweet swing. You got a sweet swing."
Dunbar said in an interview on Friday he felt Young was trying to rattle him before the debate. "He was blustering," said Dunbar. "I was never seriously threatened, just amazed that anyone would talk that way. I never thought he would actually harm me. He's all bark."
Did Dunbar think Young -- who famously dubbed now-Gov. Sean Parnell "Captain Zero" in a past race -- was itching for a real fight?
"I don't think so. It would be really foolish of him to do that," said the stocky Dunbar, a member of the Alaska National Guard.
Unlike past infamous outbursts from Young, there were apparently no cameras rolling. But there was one witness.
Pam Foreman, a development director for Kodiak radio station KMXT, which broadcast the debate, said on Friday she was accompanying the candidates offstage. Her mind was on other things and she did not hear the first part about Cordova and Fort Yukon.
But she confirmed that she saw and heard the rest, including Dunbar's friendly touch near the elbow and Young's final statements about a "sweet swing."
Foreman said she couldn't remember Young's exact quote after he pulled his arm away from Dunbar. But it was not a nice response. "It was something about the last guy who touched me, blah, blah," she said.
Other infamous Don Young moments have been recorded and generated headlines, giving him a folk hero status in a state that recoils at Outside intervention, but angering some Alaskans who disagree with his abrasive approach. Those moments include the time Young laid into Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, made funny faces during a serious tribute on the House floor, called California farm workers "wetbacks," and attacked a professor from Rice University.
During the debate, Young explained his reaction in another infamous incident, when a congressional staffer touched him unexpectedly this summer, and Young twisted his arm.
Young told the Kodiak audience he is a military veteran who has been trained. "Don't touch me unexpectedly. Don't do that. He did. He won't again," said Young of the staffer.
Efforts to speak with Young and ask whether he could confirm the incidents that Dunbar described were unsuccessful.
Campaign spokesman Matt Shuckerow replied in a written statement: "I can't speak to what transpired, as I was not there. However, this appears to be nothing more than our opponent's continuing campaign strategy, which is to distract the Alaskan voters from the vital issues that confront them."
Later, over the phone, Shuckerow was asked whether Young, who did not come to the debate prepared with serious questions for Dunbar, was the one who was avoiding important issues.
No, Shuckerow said. Young made an important point in the debate: That he has the position on the House Natural Resources Committee to address critical fisheries issues, such as the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, last authorized in 2007. Meanwhile, Dunbar said in the debate he would like to first serve on a committee addressing veterans affairs.
It would not be good if Alaskans get "the short end of that stick," the reauthorization that will affect the lives of numerous Alaskans for six years, said Shuckerow. Young will play a key role in that discussion, in part because he is part of the House majority, Shuckerow said.
Dunbar, who aggressively questioned Young during the debate, has said Young is no longer effective and after ethical violations has lost the clout he enjoyed years ago.
Dunbar said Friday: "I've said this many times, but that kind of intimidation doesn't work on me. That belittling style worked well for Young when he was powerful, but those days are gone, and it's counterproductive and hurts our ability to get things done in D.C."
He said when issues were discussed during the debate, important differences were highlighted. Future debates should stick to the issues, not personal disputes. "He comes across better when he speaks to policy and leaves the personal stuff out of it," Dunbar said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing