3 Reasons Why Don Young Is Alaska’s Political Teflon

Young has come under scrutiny for a controversial phrase he used in an interview. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Young has come under scrutiny for a controversial phrase he used in an interview. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted March 29, 2013 at 2:25pm

Longtime Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, drew anger from colleagues and voters when he referred to Hispanic farm workers as “wetbacks” this week. Young tried to explain the slur as outdated terminology from his youth, even as Speaker John A. Boehner demanded he apologize.

But Young, a 40-year House veteran, is probably not going anywhere anytime soon. He plans to seek a 21st term, saying recently he will keep running for Alaska’s sole House seat “until the day I can’t physically do it.”

In fact, Young has proved himself to be political Teflon in the Last Frontier. Here are three reasons why:

1. After 40 years in Congress, Young has seen — and said — it all. He’s survived multiple investigations by both the Justice Department and the House Ethics Committee (he was never charged). Earlier this month, the House Ethics Committee announced it is formally investigating him again, prompting this comment to the Alaska Dispatch:

“I’ve been under a cloud all my life,” Young said this week before his “wetbacks” comment aired. “It’s sort of like living in Juneau — it rains on you all the time and you don’t even notice it.”

Throughout his career, Young spouted off to his colleagues, most often about fighting for federal funds for Alaska. In 2005, for example, Young was asked to forgo some federal transportation projects for Alaska to help Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.

“They can kiss my ear!” Young told a The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter. “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

2. Young has survived tough races — the rare times he’s had them. His greatest electoral scare in the past two decades came in 2008, when federal investigators were probing Young. He made CQ Roll Call’s list of the Top 10 most vulnerable members a few times that cycle.

In 2008, then-Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell came within a few hundred votes of defeating Young in the GOP primary. Parnell boasted backing from then-Gov. Sarah Palin, who was at the time both the state’s most popular elected official and a Young foe.

Democrats targeted Young in the general election that year with one of their top recruits, state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz. Polls showed Young trailing Berkowitz that fall, but the congressman prevailed by a 5-point margin.

3. Local knowledge. Young’s word choice is offensive to Hispanics, but back in Alaska, the congressman keeps a close relationship with the state’s relatively large minority population. Native Alaskan and American Indians make up about 15 percent of the state and are pivotal in statewide elections.

Historically, Young has worked with this population, delivering federal funding for projects in the far reaches of the state where many Native Alaskans live. His late wife of nearly 40 years, Lu Young, was Native Alaskan and a mainstay on the campaign trail with him until her death in 2009.