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Young got breaks, but tenacity can't be ignored

  • Author: Michael Carey
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published November 8, 2008

Don Young's political career continues. The 35-year veteran of the House of Representatives appeared headed for certain defeat, but it's now clear Democrat Ethan Berkowitz will not catch him.

Don has been part of Alaska public life for so long many Alaskans have forgotten -- or never knew -- the path he followed to Congress. Here's the story.

Don came to Alaska from California in the summer of 1959. He was 26, an Army veteran with a degree in education who had taught and coached basketball in northern California the two previous years. He spent the summer of '59 in Anchorage where, he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in 1967, he "fought forest fires and worked construction." In Anchorage, he met the Fort Yukon superintendent of schools, who hired him to teach seventh grade and physical education.

Teachers come and go in Bush Alaska, but Don quickly put down roots and stayed. He became involved in civic life, first as a member of the Fort Yukon City Council, then as mayor, and married a local Athabascan woman, Lu Fredson, in 1963. In 1964, he ran for the state House, he told the News-Miner, because he believed Gov. Bill Egan's reapportionment of the Legislature had been unfair to Fort Yukon. (Later, he said he was unhappy with trapline regulations proposed by the Egan administration).

Don had an interest in politics, he told the News-Miner, since "California days" when he belonged to the Young Republicans.

HARD WORK

Democratic President Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory over Barry Goldwater doomed many Republicans in 1964. Don was one of them. But the GOP rebounded in 1966, and Don joined Ted Stevens and 24 other Republicans in the House. Wally Hickel became governor in the same election.

Don served two terms in the House. As a freshman, he was chairman of the Commerce Committee where he left little imprint. In his second term, he was a back-bencher in a Democratic-Republican coalition.

Don's ascension to the state Senate is instructive. Hard work and favorable circumstances brought him

victory. In the primary, Don, 37, defeated incumbent Paul "Doc" Haggland, a former Fairbanks mayor long popular among old-timers, and defeated him soundly after vigorously working the large Interior Senate district. Haggland was 70 years old, ambivalent about running -- he announced his retirement, then filed -- and according to Don, poor on television. Furthermore, Haggland, firmly anchored in Fairbanks' past, was little known among newcomers who made up an increasing part of the city's population as the '70s began.

The primary victory in August set up Don for a November victory over a better funded but lackluster Democrat. On election night Don told the News-Miner his victory proved "the good guys still have a chance in spite of the money expended."

LONG SHOT

By his own account, Don wasn't happy in the Senate, where the Republicans had a bare majority, and was looking to escape when he filed against incumbent Congressman Nick Begich in 1972.

Don has offered several versions of his decision to run against Begich, who had routed Republican Frank Murkowski in 1970. In one, Sen. Ted Stevens convinced him. In another, he and Lu initiated the move themselves. No matter how the story is told, his decision must have been informed by his lack of standing in the 20-member Senate. He was not a committee chairman, not on the influential Finance Committee, not an imposing figure in debate. Lawmakers did not ask "What does Don Young think?" before taking a position on a bill.

I worked for the Alaska Legislature in 1971. I can tell you nobody would have predicted Don Young would enjoy the longest political career among those assembled.

STUDY IN CONTRAST

Don's successful congressional campaign brings to mind the old nursery rhyme "For Want of a Nail." Don Young gained Alaska's U.S. House seat when a series of events improbably broke for him in '72 and '73. This has led Democrats to believe Don was merely lucky. He was lucky. But he was also unafraid to take a career-changing risk, the only Republican legislator willing to challenge Begich.

Furthermore, he was a big, good-humored guy with a quip and a ready smile -- in the words of former Democratic colleague Mike Bradner a "likeable farm-boy type." Lu's ties to the Native community in Fort Yukon also were an asset, one that would grow over the years. And hard as it may be to believe, given his well-earned reputation for bluster and bombast, Don was sometimes described by the newspapers of yesteryear as gentle and shy.

Don Young and Nick Begich came to Alaska as school teachers. That's where their similarity ends. Nick was a high-energy policy wonk who devoted himself to the details of complex legislation, especially those involving education. Don Young has been called many things: Policy wonk is not among them. Lawmakers in Juneau and Washington learned to check (or ignore) Don's statistics once they discovered he manufactured them on the fly. When Nick spoke, lawmakers of both parties listened. Through his energy and initiative, he made himself a dominant player in the Alaska Legislature and was on his way to replicating that success in Congress.

SPECIAL ELECTION

Nick Begich's chartered flight from Fairbanks to Juneau disappeared on Oct. 16, 1972. Despite a search unprecedented in Alaska history, the airplane was never found. In November, shocked Alaskans re-elected the missing Begich anyway, some 53,000 to 41,000. Don Young's percentage of the vote was lower than Frank Murkowski's in 1970 and lower than that of losers of the House race in '68, '66 and '64.

When a member of Congress dies, the governor calls a special election to fill the vacancy. In early December, the Alaska Republican Central Committee unanimously selected Don Young as the GOP candidate for the election. The Democrats, meanwhile, named Emil Notti, 39, at a January nominating convention in Anchorage Like Don Young, Emil Notti is still in public life. He's a member of Gov. Sarah Palin's cabinet. In the early '70s, Notti was best known as the first president of the Alaska Federation of Natives and as a deputy commissioner under Bill Egan. He had won elective office once -- to the Anchorage School Board. In 1970, he ran for lieutenant governor and was defeated in the primary by Fairbanks mayor H.A. "Red" Boucher.

Notti was a legitimate candidate, given his high-profile ties to Native organizations and the Democratic Party. According to the newspapers, he raised more money than Don for the special election ($70,000 to $65,000). Yet in nominating him, the Democratic convention passed over state Sen. Chancy Croft of Anchorage, a young lawyer from Texas who in '72 received 7,000 more votes in Anchorage than Notti obtained statewide in '70. When Don's enemies grumble about his luck, this is another example they cite -- drawing Notti, not the more polished Croft, highest vote getter in Alaska's largest, most Republican city.

On March 6, 1973, Don Young defeated Emil Notti by about 2,000 votes, some 35,000 to 33,000, with turnout down almost 30 percent from the November election. Don won Anchorage by more than 4,000 votes.

The Associated Press election roundup noted that when Don Young filed against Nick Begich he was an "apparent token candidate."

Michael Carey is a former editorial page editor of the Daily News. E-mail, mcarey@adn.com.

By MICHAEL CAREY

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