Today is Congressman Don Young's 80th birthday. He has been a member of the House of Representatives half his life.
His 40-year tenure in the House is one of the 25 longest in American history. Almost 60 percent of Alaskans living today were born after Don entered Congress in 1973.
The former Fort Yukon school teacher was never a star during six years in the Alaska Legislature. Nobody working in the Capitol in the late sixties and early seventies -- and that includes me -- imagined Don would command the public stage into the twenty-first century.
Even Democrats who have never voted for Don -- and never will -- must concede his political longevity is remarkable. How did he do it?
THE ROAD TO CONGRESS, EARLY CAREER
Those who dislike him say he was lucky. Certainly fortune played a role early in his career. During Don's first bid for Congress in 1972, incumbent Democratic Congressman Nick Begich disappeared while on an October campaign flight. Still missing on election day despite an intense search involving the Air Force, Coast Guard, Civil Air Patrol and commercial fishermen, Begich received more than 56 percent of the vote. A special election was called for March 6, 1973, with Don the Republican nominee. The Democrats, meeting in a divisive Anchorage convention, chose Democratic Party Chairman and former President of the Alaska Federation of Natives Emil Notti over state Sen. Chancy Croft of Anchorage, a proven vote getter in Alaska's largest city, and Pegge Begich, widow of the popular Congressman. Come election day, Don beat Notti by less than three percent of the 68,000 votes cast.
Fortune has played a role in Don's career in another respect. He is one of the few modern Congressmen with lengthy service whose Congressional district has never been reapportioned. Since statehood, Alaska has had only one House district.
As a first-term Congressman, Don was a greenhorn Republican minority member barely visible to the Democratic majority about to investigate President Richard Nixon's Watergate crimes. He would have received little attention from House colleagues of either party or the media if the battle over legislation authorizing construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline had not become front-page news.
The legislation, pushed forward relentlessly by oil industry lobbyists, cleared the House of Representatives in November 1973 under Democratic leadership. Nevertheless, Don, Alaska's spokesman in the House, boldly took credit for the bill's passage. In 1974, the self-proclaimed father of the pipeline defeated Democratic state Sen.Willie Hensley 53 percent to 46 percent. It would be 16 years before another challenger captured as much as 46 percent against Don.
'ALASKAN LIKE YOU'
In the late Seventies, Maryland political consultant Robert Goodman created the TV and radio spot "Don Young Alaskan Like You," which aired repeatedly throughout the Last Frontier. Goodman, who visited Alaska before entering his studio, captured perfectly the image Don aspired to project as a Congressman, and the relationship he sought to maintain with his constituents.
"Don Young, Alaskan like you,
Fighting for you to stay free
Don Young, we're asking of you,
Stand by our side in DC."
Goodman's Don Young was the defender of Alaskans' liberty, and as Goodman told me in a telephone interview, a hearty frontiersman -- a man in the Davy Crockett tradition.
Alaska's Davy Crockett was not as smooth as a Goodman ad.
During his first 21 years in the House, Don was a member of the Republican minority. In those years of modest power, he carved out an identity long-time Alaskans know well: The fuming objector.
His high-decibel objections left many people asking "This guy was a teacher?" Verbal attacks on President Jimmy Carter, environmentalists, bureaucrats and "Outsiders" became a common feature of his appearances, at times accompanied by theatrics that drew scornful laughter. On one occasion, he delivered an impassioned defense of fur trapping to a House subcommittee after putting his right hand in the jaws of a leg-hold trap to demonstrate trapping is not inhumane. After 20 minutes, his fingers turned blue. Washington learned Don was not bluffing when he described himself as not one of those "namby-pamby politicians."
Unimpaired by either namby or pamby, Don made abuse of the English language his calling card. He confused dog-mushing legend George Attla with Attila the Hun ("Attla the Hun". ) Spliced together the Russian behavioral scientist Pavlov's drooling dog and islands off the western Alaska coast ("Pribilof's dog".) Described an opponent's argument as "bladderdash." And, disgusted by criticism directed his way, belittled "negatism."
In Alaska, Don's bellowing was received by many constituents with "Oh that's just Don Young," as if he were the weather, a brief earthquake, or a smoldering volcano -- a condition of nature in the 49th State. Their indifference left the impression their Congressman's behavior was unimportant to them. Yet even those who yawned at Don's verbal excess were shocked when he used the crudest possible description of homosexual acts to denounce the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe at a Fairbanks high school.
It's unclear how the former state legislator whom Juneau colleague Mike Bradner called a "likeable farm-boy type" became a braying Congressman who thrived on verbal combat. No doubt the seeds always were there. But it is also possible the isolation accompanying the role of lone Alaska representative in the House affected Don's behavior. He was an army of one with a single weapon -- his voice.
DEVELOPING STRENGTHS, FACING CHALLENGES
It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss him as a clown who somehow fooled the voters into re-electing him. Don, a big man with a broad smile, enjoys campaigning and can be a hand-shaking, back-slapping charmer at election events. After defeating Notti, he cultivated leaders of the oil, fishing and timber industries as well as labor bosses and Alaska Natives whom he repeatedly reminded of his ties to the Alaska Bush, especially through his Athabascan wife Lu (who died in 2009). He also became a determined fundraiser who enjoyed the financial tribute of corporate executives appearing before his committees and the largesse of lobbyists, several of whom are among his closest friends. While his rhetoric was ragged, he had a gift for reading voters, and as the Alaska electorate grew more conservative under the tutelage of the oil industry, his pro-development, anti-government, anti-taxation message fell on an increasingly receptive audience. And, when provided the opportunity, he delivered federal dollars to Alaskans.
The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was a crisis for Alaska and for Don, whose apparent indifference to the spill -- he didn't return promptly to visit the damage -- cost him support. When I quizzed him about his failure to join those mourning the disaster, he rasped into the telephone "I was visiting my mother. What's the matter -- don't you have a mother?"
The 1990 election saw him trailing Democratic challenger John Devens, the mayor of Valdez, until the final days. His victory margin, the result of a fund-raising advantage and tireless campaigning, was less than 8,000 votes out of 190,000 cast. Ted Stevens, approaching the zenith of his popularity in Alaska, played a role in Don's comeback by intervening to emphasize his importance to Alaska's Republican team in Washington. (Don was the ideal Congressman for Ted in one respect -- he habitually deferred to Alaska's senior senator.)
In 1994, Newt Gingrich's blunderbuss attacks on the entrenched House Democratic leadership finally brought the Republicans to power, and Don's seniority allowed him to become chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. He held the gavel six years.
As chairman, Don enjoyed qualified success while feuding with old enemies. He passed bills to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refugee to oil drilling but the measures never became law. He battled with the Clinton administration over logging in the Tongass National Forest, again without the decisive victory he sought. He also did his best to accommodate Alaska Native groups that had land and resource management issues before the federal government.
House rules forced Don to relinquish his Resources chairmanship in 2001, but he had enough seniority to assume chairmanship of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Transportation is legendary as the home of pork, and Don helped himself -- and provided for his friends. By 2005, he had made himself Mr. Earmark, dispenser of hundreds of millions of dollars for roads and other infrastructure all over the United States. As the man behind the Bridge to Nowhere -- the most infamous earmark in Congressional history -- Don became subject to widespread criticism, especially after an artistic rendering of the proposed many-million dollar bridge connecting Ketchikan and Gravina Island appeared on the cover of Parade Magazine.
Don's intervention in funding a $10 million Florida construction project -- Coconut Road -- eventually provoked an investigation by the House leadership. His ties to Bill Allen of the oil-field service company VECO and Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, both convicted of political corruption, drew government scrutiny and pushed Don to spend more than a million dollars of campaign contributions on lawyers to defend himself. He also started a special legal defense fund. Charges were never filed.
CAPTAIN ZERO AND BEYOND
In 2008, Don survived his most difficult electoral challenge -- from Sean Parnell, then lieutenant governor. Don won the primary by slightly more than 300 votes. Parnell was adequately financed but lacked the stomach for electoral warfare with Don who, in an inspired bit of wordsmithing, characterized his mild mannered opponent as "Captain Zero." In Don's most recent bid to retain his seat in 2012, he defeated state representative Sharon Cissna, a weak, underfunded Democrat, almost without effort. She received less than 29 percent of the vote.
Repeated electoral victory has not mellowed him. He has never learned to control his temper and continues to respond viscerally to anyone who challenges him. Late in his career, Don is still howling at habitual adversaries, including environmentalists whom he calls a "self-centered bunch, the waffle-stomping, Harvard graduating, intellectual idiots." A debate with Don Young is not a battle of ideas; it is a contest of wills in which Don treats facts as irrelevant.
Today, Don's seniority does not translate into significant influence. He chairs no full House committee. He no longer has unfettered access to the federal treasury through earmarks, which the House banned in 2010. He is not a leader in the House Republican Conference. It's hard to imagine Speaker John Boehner telling himself as he ponders a national problem, "I better call Don Young." He is conservative but given his taste for pork not conservative enough for the Tea Party zealots elected since 2010 who set most of the House agenda. His "wetback" comment, which drew national fire and the rebuke of his party, reinforced his image as a loose cannon -- and the House Ethics Committee, picking up where federal prosecutors left off, is looking into potential ethics violations, including using campaign contributions for personal purposes and failing to report gifts. The investigation forced Don to replenish his legal defense fund, now bankrolled by a Louisiana oil-field service company. And he recently generated yet more unfavorable press at home when, while on Safari in Africa, he missed a House hearing on his bill promoting oil leasing on federal lands in Alaska.
The California kid who dreamed of mushing dogs and panning gold has come a long way since turning north after completing college and a hitch in the army. But Don Young's best days are behind him. Why doesn't he retire? Don says he will continue as long as he can serve his constituents. But at this point, is he serving his constituents or himself? He has been a House member so long membership is part of his identity. What would he do if he left the House? Take up wood working or painting? Doze in the sun on a Florida beach? Go on permanent safari with aging cronies? Forget it. Don Young's bucket list has one word on it: Congressman.
Congress is Don Young's home, and he will not leave home voluntarily no matter what his colleagues, the media, or unhappy constituents say or tweet about him. He has survived their carping and complaining half his life. He has survived ethics investigations too and knows that New York Rep. Charles Rangel, who has served 42 years, was re-elected in 2012 despite a humiliating House censure for ethics violations in 2010. Don Young, aging, battered and scarred, intends to remain Alaska's Congressman. After 40 years in Washington, he cannot imagine anything else.
Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.
By MICHAEL CAREY
Alaska Dispatch Publishing