In a fiery debut, a young Democratic challenger to U.S. Rep. Don Young asked voters at a fisheries debate in Kodiak to oust the congressman from his long-held seat, saying Young has lost his clout because of a past ethical violation and is no longer effective.
Young, 81 and the longest-serving Republican in the House, held his own against Forrest Dunbar, calling him immature and naive. He said Dunbar lied and that nothing in the rules says a person can't chair a full committee because of ethical issues.
The often heated debate, hosted by the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce, was the first between Young and Dunbar, 30. The two agreed on several points, including protecting the state's fisheries against fish farming and that the state's fisheries are well-managed.
Dunbar tried drawing a clear difference with Young on the Pebble mine prospect -- a project many fishermen fear will destroy the valuable wild salmon fishery in Bristol Bay. Dunbar said he opposes the mine and that Young has supported it.
Young said no one has heard him say he wants the mine built. But it's important to respect the state's permitting process and to protect Alaska against an increasingly intrusive federal government that seeks to limit the state's power. If the Environmental Protection Agency can preemptively stop the project, Alaska might as well go back to being a territory, Young said.
"If you're happy with the federal government raise your hands," Young said to the audience. "We got one."
During back-and-forth questioning, Dunbar went on the attack with tough questions, including whether Young considered the numerous donations he took from ExxonMobil to be dirty money, as Alaska fishermen fought for years for a fair settlement following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
"No, no and no," Young said.
Young said he worked hard for a fair settlement, and for Dunbar to insinuate that taking money from an industry is wrong is naive and immature. He added that he has concerns about candidates who would pit one industry against another, and that both the oil and fishing industries are large in Alaska.
Dunbar acknowledged that Young had proposed a solution, but he said fishermen in Cordova, where he's from, and elsewhere in Prince William Sound don't feel like they got a good deal.
Young said he came with no serious questions for Dunbar. But with prompting, Young had one later, asking Dunbar, "God help us, if you got elected," what committee he would serve on.
Dunbar said he would try to get on a committee addressing veterans affairs. "I serve in the Alaska National Guard and I care very deeply about those issues," he said.
Young jumped on that point, asking Dunbar how, if he were serving on a veterans affairs committee, he would stop the federal government if it tried to turn fishing areas in Alaska into a sanctuary.
Dunbar said he is opposed to "ocean zoning" and would work with the administration to stop it. He wouldn't yell and berate colleagues and officials on TV as Young has done.
That may have worked in the past when Young chaired powerful committees, but it's no longer effective because people know Young is "speaking loudly and carrying a small stick."
Young said that was important for the audience in the fishing-dependent community to remember. Dunbar won't be on a committee that affects your lives, Young said. "That's something you might want to think about."
At times, Young offered the upstart advice. The congressman said he was young and ambitious once, too. He said his job involves the ability to compromise and listening to people and representing all Alaskans, something he's done successfully for decades.
"You may not agree with me, but there's not a day I don't go into work to fight for you. And there isn't anyone in that Congress who doesn't respect me," Young said.
Later, Dunbar said Young makes headlines for the wrong reason. He pointed out Young's twisting the arm of a congressional staffer and his face-making on the House floor during a speech by a colleague honoring a fallen Marine. The incidents got a lot of bad press and drew apologies from Young's office.
Fishermen have told Dunbar such behavior makes it hard for them to be taken seriously when they're fighting federal overreach, Dunbar said. He asked if Young agrees.
"Do I agree?" said Young, laughing. "I don't think so. You know, I am who I am. Always have been, always will be."
In the case of "taking the poor little staffer's arm," Young said he's a military veteran who has been trained. "Don't touch me unexpectedly. Don't do that. He did. He won't again."
The antics on the floor were not antics, Young said. A good friend was in the chair, and he was trying to get him to lighten up about an issue unrelated to the tribute.
"I'm not ashamed, I've done what I had to do," Young said. "I'm going to continue to do it. I am going to be your congressman."
Dunbar replied it was interesting Young said he wasn't embarrassed, and added, "Apparently, those apologies were insincere."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing