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In Young/Dunbar race, questions of clout and character

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 29, 2014

Rep. Don Young and his Democratic opponent, Forrest Dunbar, a first lieutenant in the Army National Guard, agree that Young has accomplished a lot for Alaska during his decades in D.C.

But while the 81-year-old Young says he remains effective and deserves a 22nd term, his 30-year-old challenger argues that Young's influence is a thing of the past.

The half-century between them suggests a chasm between the two men on style and substance.

Young, who has been in Congress since 1973, is a curmudgeonly figure given to bolo ties whose name has been on the statewide ballot more often than anyone in Alaska history. He takes pride in telling people he is not a lawyer or a banker and he doesn't sell insurance or preach the Gospel.

What he does, he said, is represent.

"I still got the fire in the belly. Sometimes it burns a little too bright. But that's because I'm passionate about what I do," he said. "Every time I wake up, every morning I say what can I do to Alaskans when they ask me to do it."

"I'm a riverboat captain. I'm a trapper. I'm a hunter and I speak my mind. I've done that all my career," he said Tuesday in a debate at the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce.

He said he may not utter "the choicest words in the world. But it's me. Don Young, the congressman for all of Alaska."

The candidates appear in a final debate on statewide public television and radio Thursday night at 7 p.m.

Young's last close call

Dunbar, the man who hopes to make Young the ex-congressman for all of Alaska, grew up in Eagle and Cordova, worked on fishing boats in Prince William Sound, fought wildfires and worked at Fred Meyer in Fairbanks.

Dunbar served in the Peace Corps for two years in Kazakhstan, worked his way through college as a staffer in the U.S. Congress and is now a lawyer with the Army National Guard in Anchorage.

He has a law degree from Yale and a master's from Harvard. His campaign slogan may be "Run Forrest, Run," but he's no Gump-like character.

He said he knows "respect is earned, not given" and he thinks he's made great strides in getting his message to people across the state.

"We've raised more than $200,000, which is not nothing," he said. "We've got a lot of momentum and I'm happy with how far we've come."

Young has spent about three to four times as much as Dunbar and has supporters who are accustomed to voting for him every two years. Young is a household name in a state where the Republican label is an advantage among the older voters who made up their minds about him long ago.

The election Tuesday will determine whether Dunbar will pull off an upset or join the long line of Democrats who have failed to topple Young from his perch.

In recent years, Democratic nominees have usually captured from 30 percent to about 45 percent of the vote.

The closest call Young has had in recent years came in 2008 in the primary, when then-Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell came within 300 votes of capturing the GOP nomination.

In that race, as in all others, Young emphasized that he may be rough around the edges, but people in Congress know him and respect him.

He ran a primary ad in 2008 in which the narrator asked, "When we need a strong voice to boom out in Congress for Alaska issues, ask yourself, who would you rather have, Don Young or Sean Who?"

That November, State Rep. Ethan Berkowitz polled 45 percent of the vote against Young. Since then Democratic challengers have garnered about 30 percent.

'Media sniping'

Dunbar hopes to do better, saying that Young's habit of belittling people in hearings and insulting them may have worked when he was a chairman of a committee, but now it is counterproductive. Plus, Young's actions, ranging from twisting the arm of a young staffer to making faces on C-SPAN, have harmed the state.

Young denies that he has done anything to embarrass the state, referring to these instances as "media sniping."

He said he is a veteran and is trained so that people don't touch him unexpectedly. He said that when he touched the "poor little staffer's arm," an incident captured on video, it was only after the staffer touched him when Young didn't expect it. "He won't again," Young said.

As for making faces on the floor of the House and sticking out his tongue, while the dedication of a post office to a soldier who died in Afghanistan was under discussion, Young said he was simply trying to get a friend of his in the chair at that moment to lighten up and it had nothing to do with the bill under discussion.

He said it is strange that Dunbar would highlight those cases instead of all the things that Young has accomplished for Alaska.

"It's called media sniping," Young said at a contentious debate Oct. 1 in Kodiak.

"If I embarrassed you, I apologize. I don't think I embarrassed anybody in this room. If I did, that's the way it is. I have my way of doing things and people respect it," he said. "They've always respected me."

Dunbar said that Young apologized for those actions, so the apologies must have been insincere. The truth is, Dunbar said, Young "speaks loudly and carries a small stick."

"Since 2008, with ethics violations, he is no longer able to chair committees, he no longer holds leadership positions, he is no longer the force he once was," Dunbar said during that key encounter with Young.

"Every year he's in office, we delay the time we can get a new representative who can start to accumulate that influence, and start to make Alaska a force in Washington D.C., in the Congress again," Dunbar said. "And when I'm in Congress I will fight for veterans, I will fight for the fisheries, I will fight for every Alaskan."

Young told the Kodiak crowd that he had tried to keep the exchange positive. "I have not really said anything negative about Mr. Dunbar. He has said a lot," said Young.

Dunbar said it was "selective memory" on Young's part about negative remarks. Earlier in the debate, Young referred to Dunbar as childish, immature, naïve and uninformed about the legislative process.

Ethics findings

And before the debate, in an exchange that did not become public knowledge until later, Dunbar said that Young "freaked out" backstage and made a comment about how the last person who had touched him was on the ground dead.

On the stage during that contentious evening, Young rejected Dunbar's assertion that House rules regarding ethics violations have kept him from becoming a chairman of a committee.

In June, the House Ethics Committee said Young had improperly accepted nearly $60,000 worth of free or reduced price hunting trips, rides on private planes and other benefits, including a pair of $434 boots. Young paid back the money and apologized.

At the Kodiak encounter with Dunbar, Young accused Dunbar of lying.

"You're a lawyer. What is perjury? Perjury means you're lying under oath. You're lying when you take and say something repeatedly demeaning a gentleman's character. There's nothing in those rules says I cannot -- read those rules, you've been saying it all the time -- those rules say I cannot be a chairman again for my ethics. Nothing," Young said.

"That's demeaning," he said.

"The idea you have to attack the congressman that's served this state for 42 years and has the fire and the capability, the connections, is wrong."

He said Dunbar's statements "demean the office" and you "ought to be ashamed of yourself."

"Speaking of negative notes," Dunbar responded.

Young argues that internal Republican Party practices, not ethics rules, have prevented him from becoming the chairman of a full committee again.

Dunbar said he doesn't dispute Young's interpretation of the GOP rules, but he believes that because of the ethics violations, the party won't change those rules and allow him to be a chairman.

In the debate Tuesday in Fairbanks, Young was asked if he remains eligible to become a chairman. He said he is a chairman.

"I was the only living congressman who chaired two full committees that did benefit Alaska tremendously and I still chair one of the most important committees," he said.

He is not a committee chairman, however. He is chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, one of five subcommittees under the Natural Resources Committee.

He also said he is in line to lead a transportation subcommittee.

Young told APRN recently that he would "probably not" become chairman of a full committee, but "it's not an impossibility."

Writing in Roll Call, columnist David Hawkings notes that in 2010, when the GOP regained control of the House from the Democrats, its "term limit rules effectively prevented any resurgence for the committee system. Eighteen of the 20 panels ended up in the hands of neophyte chairmen."

Dunbar argues that Young's inability to chair a committee eliminates the value of his seniority.

"What matters is his permanent loss of stature within Congress," he wrote in June.

Young rejects any claim that his seniority has been devalued and contends that Dunbar's support for term limits is a mistake.

"If you're for term limits, you shouldn't even run for Congress," Young said. He said he still has influence because of his experience and reputation.

"I still have that input with the other chairmen as we go through this process. I've been respected, older yes, mature Republican congressman for All Alaska. And I'll continue to do that job as long as you want me to do so," he said in Fairbanks.

An apology

The question of Young's clout remains a point of contention. Kay Brown, executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party, said many Alaskans see that Young's effectiveness is "diminishing rapidly, both because of his increasingly erratic behavior and because of House GOP rules that reduce the benefits of seniority."

Countering that argument in a TV ad, Sen. Lisa Murkowski said, "Anyone who thinks that Don Young has lost his clout in Congress should think again."

That was before Murkowski called upon Young to apologize for remarks he made last week at Wasilla High School and the Palmer Senior Center, arguing about suicide and claiming it was the result of government "largesse."

A week ago, in a speech to the Alaska Federation of Natives, he was "profoundly sorry for those that took offense at what I tried to say because they did not and will not take time to understand we have to stop" suicides.

Dunbar said Alaska needs a congressman who spends more time on policies than apologies.

"There's doesn't seem to be any indication that he will change," said Dunbar.

In the final days of the campaign, the challenge for Young is to demonstrate to voters that his multiple missteps of recent months are not indicative of what lies ahead and that he still has influence in Washington, D. C.

The challenge for Dunbar is whether he can introduce himself to Alaska voters as a credible alternative.

One of the other questions is how well Libertarian Jim McDermott will do. In 2012, he received about 5 percent of the vote. If he improves on that showing, the race will be tighter.