Alaska News

In Washington, Don Young's crusade against federal government continues

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Twenty-one-term U.S. Rep. Don Young sat in his congressional office Thursday, holding forth on some of the secrets to his longevity.

"I feel pretty good for an 81-year-old man, and I base a lot of it from activity. And I've eaten healthy," Young said, addressing Linda Cornish, the director of a seafood advocacy organization who was seated across from him. "I eat a lot of fish -- I could eat more. But, you know, I've got pretty strict consumption, what I consume, and that makes me stay in pretty good shape.

"It gets a little more difficult -- keep that in mind," he said. "And you, too," he added, turning to his other guest, retired basketball star turned seafood evangelist Detlef Schrempf.

"Oh, every day it's a struggle," answered Schrempf. "You're used to fighting for it -- it's a lot easier, you crawl down and you have that first cup of coffee, that second one tastes pretty good, and all of a sudden you're not working out, right?"

But even after four decades in Congress, Young won't acknowledge the same fears of complacency as the 51-year-old, 6'9" former NBA forward sitting in the same room.

After winning re-election against his Democratic opponent in November, he's back in Washington for another term in his $174,000-a-year job, ensconced in an office decorated with more than two dozen animal artifacts, among them a walrus skull and a full wolf skin, head still attached and jaws wide open. And now, Young says he'll run again in 2016.

"The only time I'll retire is when people want to retire me," Young said in an interview after his guests had left. "The people decide I can't serve them any more, they'll get rid of me. It's that simple."

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Long known as a blunt speaker and cantankerous presence in Congress, Young had several altercations this year that raised eyebrows for some and outraged others -- including an allegation from his opponent, Forrest Dunbar, that Young had 'freaked out' and threatened him before a debate.

Two weeks before Election Day, at Wasilla High School, Young referred to bull sex when asked about same-sex marriage, and made provocative remarks about suicide, for which he later apologized.

And in June, the House Ethics Committee told Young to pay a $60,000 fine for campaign finance misconduct.

While some critics viewed those controversies as signs Young was ready for retirement, most voters still didn't, and he was re-elected comfortably -- drawing the most votes of any statewide candidate.

In his third-floor office in the Capitol complex Thursday, Young appeared comfortable and composed, if still possessing ample amounts of the coarseness for which he's become famous -- one of the qualities that led his own campaign to characterize him as a cranky relative in a radio ad.

He greeted a reporter by asking, amiably: "What the hell are you doing here?" And in his meeting with Schrempf and Cornish, he gave a rambling, nostalgic monologue in the midst of points about obesity and exercise.

"No one walks to school any more, because it's unsafe. They sit in front of the TV and play games all day, or, this thing -- iPhone," Young complained. "When I used to think of the amount of food I consumed -- breakfast was big breakfast. I mean, hotcakes, fried potatoes, meat, eggs, gravy. That's breakfast, at five o'clock at the morning.

"But we worked all day long. We burned it up -- we were thin as rails. My father was the same way because we were workin'. Now, they're driving machines and the kids are standing in front of the TV," Young said. "It's terrible."

While Young was quick to point out a host of societal and governmental problems in his meeting and subsequent interview, he also acknowledged that in the next two years, "the world's problems aren't going to be all solved."

"But we keep plugging away," he added. Asked about the specific legislation he'll push for during his next term, Young was generally vague, mentioning "subsistence issues," highway and transportation measures, and Arctic policy -- though he also spoke at length about an idea that involves the federal government purchasing oil while prices are low, and holding it in reserve in the event of a future spike.

A lot of the policy work, Young said, was "repetitive." His real enthusiasm, he added, is not for legislation but is instead for "helping people that have problems" -- serving, essentially, as the conduit for his Alaska constituents' numerous frustrations with the federal government.

"It is what I enjoy the most. And I'm very good at that," Young said, giving, as an example, a recent case in which his office intervened on behalf of a veteran who couldn't get the federal government to pay for hospice care. "There is a tendency, in a lot of government agencies, of disrespecting the people they serve, and not doing the job. And there's a lot of good ones, don't get me wrong. But one or two bad ones makes it tough."

The question of when, exactly, Young will give up his decades-long fight against those agencies remains unanswered, for now. As a live feed from the House floor ticked down the minutes remaining until a vote, Young said he'd leave office if he became physically impaired. But anointing an "heir apparent," he said, would be "presumptuous."

Young won 51 percent of the vote in November, to his Democratic opponent's 41 percent. But in spite of a three-to-one spending advantage, that was actually the lowest proportion he'd drawn since 2008.

In a phone interview, Dunbar maintained Young could be vulnerable in 2016, particularly against a well-funded opponent -- and if Young ends up embroiled in similar controversies to the ones he created this year.

But Dunbar added that while he knew some people who were upset with the election results, he wasn't as concerned himself, and described how he thought Young put his "best foot forward" in the final weeks of the campaign.

The Congressman, Dunbar said, was more positive during that period -- and has outlined what Dunbar described as some "progressive" and "pragmatic" positions on legislation affecting fisheries, Alaska Natives, and immigration.

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"If Alaska gets that version of Don Young for the next two years, I think we'll be fairly well-served," said Dunbar. He also noted that Young, in the final days of the congressional session this week, managed to get a bill through the House that Alaska Native groups viewed as a crucial measure -- in spite of some objections from Republican party leaders.

If Young ever does lose an election, he said he has some fallback plans. "I may buy a plane," he said. As for his health, he added: "I hope, if I become impaired, it happens immediately. I don't want it to be prolonged, dragged out."

Young's wife of 46 years, Lu, died in 2009. In August, he announced he was engaged to Anne Garland Walton, a flight nurse who sat in on his meetings Thursday morning.

As the clock counted down the last few seconds until the House vote, Young got up and headed for the door, kissing his fiancée on his way out. "The people decide. Again, if I can't serve them, I can't do it any more," he said, "and I have got to get going. See ya later."

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist and a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media, and has written for FasterSkier.com, The Washington Post and others. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com

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