Rep. Don Young (R)
Elected: Mar. 1973, 18th full term.
Born: June 9, 1933, Meridian, CA .
Home: Fort Yukon.
Education: Yuba Jr. Col., A.A. 1952, Chico St. Col., B.A. 1958.
Family: Widowed; 2 children.
Military career: Army, 1955–57.
Elected office: Fort Yukon City Cncl., 1960–64; Fort Yukon mayor, 1964–68; AK House of Reps., 1966–70; AK Senate, 1970–73.
Professional Career: School teacher, Fort Yukon, 1960-68; Riverboat captain, 1960-68.
Don Young has been Alaska’s congressman-at-large since 1973 and is now the second-most-senior Republican in the House, after Bill Young of Florida. But his long political career was nearly destroyed by a recent influence-peddling scandal involving Young’s legislative favors for a political fundraiser. He only narrowly survived challenges in the Republican primary and the general election of 2008.
|Don Young (R)||158,939||(50%)||($3,213,537)|
|Ethan Berkowitz (D)||142,560||(45%)||($1,634,984)|
|Don Wright (Ind)||14,274||(5%)|
|Don Young (R)||48,195||(45%)|
|Sean Parnell (R)||47,891||(45%)|
|Gabrielle Ledoux (R)||9,901||(9%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (57%), 2004 (71%), 2002 (75%), 2000 (70%), 1998 (63%), 1996 (59%), 1994 (57%), 1992 (47%), 1990 (52%), 1988 (63%), 1986 (57%), 1984 (55%), 1982 (71%), 1980 (74%), 1978 (55%), 1976 (71%), 1974 (54%), 1973 (51%)
Young grew up on his family’s farm in the Sacramento Valley of California, served in the Army, and graduated from college. He had a thirst for adventure and the rugged outdoors—he remembers that The Call of the Wild by Jack London was a favorite book growing up. He moved to Alaska in 1959, the year that the vast, untamed U.S. territory became a state. Young worked in construction, fishing, trapping, and gold prospecting. He taught elementary school to indigenous Alaskan children in Fort Yukon, pop. 700. After spring thaws, he worked as a tugboat captain on the Yukon. He is the only licensed mariner in Congress and, in his words, is definitely “not one of these smooth, namby-pamby politicians.” He is temperamental and salty-tongued, given to tough talk; to critics who once proposed shifting money for Alaska bridges to Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, he said, “They can kiss my ear.” Young was elected mayor of Fort Yukon in 1964, to the state House in 1966, and to the state Senate in 1970. He ran for Congress in 1972. His opponent, incumbent Democrat Nick Begich, was killed in a plane crash in October and was re-elected posthumously. Young won the March 1973 special election to succeed him. Young is not a free-market conservative and has recently voted with liberals on some cultural issues. But he is a consistent, fierce advocate for Alaska’s interests.
Soon after taking his seat in the House, Young voted for building the Alaska pipeline. But he often found that his aggressive pursuit of economic development for his state conflicted with the environmental lobby and its interest in preserving wildlife. On what was then the Interior Committee, he called his critics a “self-centered bunch, the waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating, intellectual idiots.” During the 12 years of Republican control of Congress, Young occupied power positions that allowed him to work around his adversaries. He led the Resources Committee from 1995 to 2001 and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2001 to 2007. He steered to passage in the House bills allowing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1995, 2001, and 2006, only to see them defeated or bottled up in the Senate. His attempts to roll back some environmental rulings, such as allowing logging in the Tongass National Forest, were frustrated in the 1990s by Democratic President Clinton, or by adverse votes cast by Republicans from the Northeast, Arizona, and Florida. In May 2006, the House voted 237-181 to prohibit road-building in the forest, virtually wiping out the logging business there. But on both committees, Young also proved capable of forging bipartisan consensus. In 2000, he got the House to pass the Conservation and Reinvestment Act to dedicate royalties from offshore oil and gas wells to state purchases of land. A scaled-down version passed the Senate.
After the 2000 election, Young took over the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, arguably the most bipartisan panel in the House because its chairmen traditionally larded their bills to make sure every cooperating committee member received plenty of highway or mass transit projects for his or her district. In 2003, Young proposed a surface transportation bill with $375 billion in spending, financed with a gas-tax increase. But the Bush administration and the House Republican leadership were stoutly opposed to any such hike. And the administration set a spending limit of $256 billion. In March 2004, the committee approved Young’s bill by voice vote. But the House approved a $275 billion bill, without Young’s gas-tax increase. A House-Senate conference committee agreed to $284 billion, a number the administration threatened to veto. The bill languished as members of the House and Senate bickered over funding formulas that granted states a certain share of gas-tax revenues. The conference deadlocked, and no bill passed when Congress adjourned in 2004. Young’s proposal for a gas-tax increase was dead.
In 2005, he tried again and got the House to pass a $284 billion bill in March. But there was mounting criticism of the bill’s earmarks—special projects for certain lawmakers—particularly of two bridges in Alaska. One was from Anchorage to the largely uninhabited land across the Knik Arm; the other was from the town of Ketchikan (pop. 14,000) to the island of Gravina (pop. 50) with its airport, which could already be reached by local ferry. They were derisively dubbed the “bridges to nowhere.” Negotiations with the Senate and the Bush administration continued, and in July, both chambers passed by near-unanimous votes a $286 billion bill with more than 6,300 earmarks. They included $230 million for the Knik Arm bridge and $220 million for the Ketchikan-Gravina bridge. All told, the bill contained about $941 million for Young’s Alaska, more than any other state except California, Illinois, and New York. Young’s reaction was serene. “It is much-needed legislation that will move our country toward a stronger economy.” As for the earmarks, he said, “If I hadn’t done fairly well for our state, I’d be ashamed of myself.”
That likely would have been the end of the earmark controversy, except that Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August. Suddenly, there were demands that money be shifted from Alaska’s “bridges to nowhere” to New Orleans and other parts of the devastated region. “That is the dumbest thing I ever heard,” Young said. But for the next year, criticism of earmarks and the bridges continued. Conservative Republicans as well as Democrats chimed in, and profligate spending, symbolized by the two spans, emerged as an issue in the 2006 election. It was among the factors that helped wipe out the Republican majorities that year.
For an incumbent who has been around as long as he has, Young has had a bumpy history with Alaska voters and drew serious challengers in 1978, 1984, 1986, 1990, and 1992. He looked safe for a period in the early 2000s, but in 2006, he again ran into trouble. His Democratic opponent, Diane Benson, a Green Party candidate for governor in 2002, attracted attention as the mother of a soldier who lost both legs in an explosion in Iraq, and she called for a graceful exit strategy from that conflict. Then, the Anchorage Daily News (the “Daily Screw,” as Young calls it) ran a story detailing Young’s receipt of $20,000 in campaign contributions from Indian tribes that were clients of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff; his use of Abramoff’s skybox at MCI Center (now Verizon Center) to hold two fundraisers; and his behind-the-scenes work pressuring a government agency to give preferential treatment to tribes on proposals to redevelop Washington’s Old Post Office. Young spent nearly $2 million on heavy advertising while avoiding joint appearances with Benson. She spent only $197,000 and did not tape her first television ad until late October. Young appeared upbeat and predicted in October that Republicans would lose no seats in the House. Ultimately, Young won but by the considerably reduced ratio of 57%-40%.
His problems had just begun. In April 2007, a former Young aide pleaded guilty to accepting cash from Abramoff in exchange for inside government information. Records released in April 2008 showed 120 contacts between Young and his staff with Abramoff and his clients. In May 2007, Rick Smith, an associate of Young’s and a former lobbyist with the oil-services firm VECO, a major Young contributor since 1989, pleaded guilty to bribing Alaska state legislators. In July, The Wall Street Journal reported that the investigation had expanded to include Young. The New York Times published a story about a Young staffer altering the 2005 transportation bill to add $10 million for an interstate interchange in Florida that would help real estate developer Daniel Aronoff, who had raised $40,000 for the lawmaker. Young dismissed the allegations, telling the Anchorage Daily News that it was just “a recycled story.” Plus, he said, Florida Gulf Coast University supported the Coconut Road interchange. In April 2008, Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered an investigation, and the Senate voted 64-28 and the House 358-51 for a U.S. Justice Department inquiry. Young used $25,000 in campaign funds to retain a Washington law firm, and he eventually spent more than $1.1 million in campaign money on legal fees.
Young consistently maintained he was innocent of any wrongdoing and said he was barred from commenting by government investigators and his own attorneys. Defenders of Wildlife, a longtime Young opponent, started running ads against him in October 2007. Former Alaska House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, a Democrat, lined up to run against him in the general election in 2008, and Republican Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell announced he would challenge Young in the primary. Parnell was endorsed by GOP Gov. Sarah Palin.
Polls in the summer of 2008 showed Young trailing both Parnell and Berkowitz, but he professed to be unfazed. “Go back to the 19 races I’ve run and just tell me how many of them were easy races…. Most of them are doggone interesting races,” Young said in the Anchorage Daily News. Later, during a debate with Parnell, he said: “I’ve been accused of being arrogant, being a bully, and sometimes I’ll plead to being both of those. Most of the time and every time I’ve done that is because I’m fighting for this state.” On Alaska Public Radio, he called Parnell “Captain Zero,” and an Alaska TV station reported that Young told Parnell during the GOP state convention: “I beat your dad, and I’m going to beat you.” Pat Parnell was the Democratic nominee against Young in 1980. Sean Parnell spent $572,000, with strong support from the anti-tax Club for Growth. “We’re tired of being the nation’s symbol of excess and greed,” Parnell said in an August debate, after the indictment of Republican Sen. Ted Stevens in an influence-peddling case. Young beat Parnell by just 304 votes, 45.47% to 45.19%. Only when the last 350 votes were counted on September 17 was it clear that Young had won.
His battle was far from over, however. Gearing up for the general election, Berkowitz was well funded, with $1.6 million, while Young’s resources were being steadily depleted by legal fees in the ongoing investigation and by the primary contest. Plus, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $1.4 million on ads charging that Young was the subject of four investigations, basing its claim on allegations by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Berkowitz and Young were not far apart on the issues. Rather than cater to hard-line anti-war Democrats on Iraq, Berkowitz told a primary-debate audience, “Our soldiers and sailors and airmen and marines have fought hard, and fought valiantly, and they’ve won a victory.” While Young had been at odds with Palin, Berkowitz noted that he had been on friendly terms with the governor and was her ally on state ethics issues.
Berkowitz framed the choice as one of style. “If you want to be persuasive, you cannot just confront people who you disagree with, you cannot bully and intimidate them into agreeing with you. You need to find common ground, you need to find consensus,” he said. He strongly backed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and said he could do more as a Democrat to promote it than Young could in the minority party. He said he would seek earmarks if communities and citizens asked for them, but not for lobbyists. Young responded during a debate, tongue in cheek, that he is “one of the nicest, kindest persons in the world.” He added, “But when you mess with the state, you’re messing with me.”
In October, polls showed Young trailing Berkowitz. But either most polls were wrong or public opinion changed in the final days. Perhaps Alaskans feared losing the clout of both Young and Stevens, who that month had been convicted on corruption charges. Young defeated Berkowitz 50% to 45%. Young ran only even in usually Republican Anchorage and carried the Fairbanks area 50%-44%, thanks largely to support from his hometown of Fort Yukon. But he held Berkowitz’s margins down in the Panhandle, carrying Ketchikan, and he won the Matanuska-Susitna area 62%-33%. Most important, he carried the Bush 49%-45%, even as Stevens was losing it to Democratic challenger Mark Begich 54%-41%. Berkowitz conceded on November 18 and noted he had received more votes running against Young than any other Democrat had.
Young returned to Washington, but he was under a cloud. In November, he lost his seat on the Republican Steering Committee to Mike Simpson of Idaho; in December, he lost the ranking minority member position on Resources, the committee on which he had served for 36 years, to Washington state Rep. Doc Hastings. Young issued a press release saying he would regain the post when “my name is cleared.” In early 2009, nearly two years into their investigation of Young’s Abramoff connections and the Coconut Road interchange, federal prosecutors had not brought an indictment.