Don Young: the Kodiak Bear of Capitol Hill (Video)
He’s flouted ethics rules. Twisted a staffer’s arm. Even allegedly threatened a life, telling his Democratic challenger this fall that the last person to touch him “ended up on the ground dead” — a fact he told CQ Roll Call there was “some truth” to.
And yet, for 20 elections now, voters in Alaska have sent him back to Washington, D.C.
Rep. Don Young, the House’s longest-serving Republican, has survived more than four decades in Congress despite a reputation for being ornery, aggressive — and maybe even a little unstable.
In many ways, his confrontational style fits the personality of his far-flung state. Young’s press secretary, Matt Shuckerow, said Alaskans face some of the most severe difficulties in the country, and they count on Young to be a “loud voice.”
But at what point does the “Last Frontier” mentality become too much — even for the Last Frontier?
Young isn’t shy about his abrasive style. He told CQ Roll Call last week that most other folks on Capitol Hill are “cookie cutters.” He said while he’s always been himself, it’s rare his colleagues actually believe in their actions. “It’s all done for that TV camera,” he said.
As for himself, he’s “a big teddy bear” — up to a point.
“As long as you don’t cross that line,” he said. “If you cross the line, I’m not a teddy bear.”
He’s more like a grizzly.
Or the 1995 high school auditorium incident in which Young, also a former teacher, expressed outrage over the homoerotic art of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. After students expressed confusion over what Young found so “offensive,” he ditched his veiled language for a more blunt assessment.
“Butt-fucking,” he said. “You think that’s art?”
But Alaska voters put up with Young’s idiosyncrasies because he has been, for decades, an effective lawmaker. Hanging on the walls of his Capitol Hill office, along with the roughly 15 heads of animals that Young himself killed, are pictures of presidents signing his bills into law — bills that benefited Alaska. Before the ban on earmarks in 2011, he was prolific at wrangling federal dollars.
He may have even been too good. Some suggest it was the much-maligned “Bridge to Nowhere” — a roughly $400 million project to connect Ketchikan, Alaska, with Gravina Island and its roughly 50 residents — that turned public opinion against earmarks.
Either way, Young was a Washington power player. He served stints as the leading Republican on both the Natural Resources Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure panel, and he has long shown a knack for getting his bills passed.
But it’s been years since Young held the top spot on a full committee. In 2008, he relinquished his ranking member position on Natural Resources amid an ethics scandal and a Justice Department probe into “Coconut Road ” — a $10 million earmark that mysteriously appeared in a 2006 transportation bill that Young named after his now-deceased wife, Lu.
Just before that earmark surfaced, a Florida real estate developer standing to benefit from the funding helped Young rake in $40,000 in campaign contributions. Federal investigators never issued charges.
The Ethics Committee, meanwhile, finally concluded in June that Young had violated chamber rules for at least 12 years by accepting improper gifts totaling more than $59,000. He was ordered to repay the money to his campaign and donors.
The past year has been rough on Young’s public image. Right before the August recess, upon being told he had to go through another door to join a meeting already in progress, Young was caught on camera clenching the wrist of a congressional aide, who winced in pain once Young released his grip.
A similar incident happened in July when Capitol Police tried to stop Young from entering an area that was closed due to potential asbestos contamination . According to multiple sources, Young cursed at an officer and barged through the barricade, potentially dragging asbestos into other areas of the Capitol. He allegedly told the officer he didn’t care.
Most recently, before an October debate with his Democratic challenger, Forrest Dunbar, Young had a bizarre backstage exchange with his opponent. When Dunbar touched the congressman’s arm, Young allegedly told him, “The last guy who touched me ended up on the ground dead.”
CQ Roll Call asked Young about that comment — whether the last person to touch him really did end up dead. The congressman’s response: “There’s some truth to that.”
It’s unclear if he was suggesting there was some truth to what Dunbar said, or, more hair-raisingly, if there was some truth to someone ending up dead. Young didn’t elaborate, and his press secretary instructed CQ Roll Call to move on.
While Young’s antics have become the stuff of legend on Capitol Hill, Alaskan political operatives dismiss the controversies as business-as-usual.
“He’s been doing that for 40 years!” said Marc Hellenthal, Young’s pollster since 1985. “The press has kind of evolved, where maybe 40 years ago, 30 years ago, that kind of thing didn’t make it in.”
That is, opposition trackers weren’t at every campaign stop; Capitol reporters weren’t posting Vines of violent hallway incidents; Alaska columnists weren’t writing about Young making faces while House colleagues spoke of soldiers dying in Afghanistan; no one cared about Young flubbing a witness’ name — calling him “Dr. Rice,” the name of the university where he teaches — and, after being corrected, howling that he’d call the professor “anything I want.”
“You just be quiet!” Young said. “You be quiet!”
Those incidents get little traction in Alaska, Hellenthal said.
“Alaskans don’t know,” he said. “We in Alaska don’t have any idea what our senators and representatives are up to.”
Sure, but consider a recent Alaska Dispatch column pleading with Alaska voters to look themselves in the mirror and be better than Don Young. Or a local piece proclaiming Young should never again be able to issue a press release on veterans after the aforementioned incident where he made the “neener-neener” motion — tongue out, thumbs to ears, fingers waggling — as Rep. Mark Meadows paid tribute to a dead soldier on the House floor.
But Young has pressed on, and despite his setbacks, he remains one of the loudest voices in the chamber, whether he’s just yelling “no” during a vote or whether he’s fighting for Alaska.
Former colleagues and aides have colorful stories, no doubt, but dismiss his record of transgressions and fondly call him “a great human,” “warm-hearted” and “a big personality.”
The congressman, who travels the state frequently and tries to meet with any Alaskan who shows up at the Capitol after a 4,000-mile journey, is in a re-election contest the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rates as a Safe Republican .
“How many other people have put their hand in a trap and gotten away with it?” Young asked CQ Roll Call, seemingly referring to an instance when he stuck his hand in a leg-hold trap during a committee hearing.
Perhaps, though, he was referring to something more.
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