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The Softer Side of Don Young: A Counterpoint

Young shows off his softer side while working with Cao in 2010. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Young shows off his softer side while working with Cao in 2010. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Adjectives such as “kind,” “caring,” “fatherly” and “honest” wouldn’t prompt most people to conjure up an image of Rep. Don Young.  

Indeed, anyone familiar with Capitol Hill lore connects the Alaska Republican with tales of bad behavior — pulling a knife on a colleague, tracking asbestos through the halls of Congress and allegedly violating House rules for 12 years.  

But Young has a softer side, according to a former colleague, two ex-aides and even a one-time political adversary who talked with CQ Roll Call as we profiled the ornery congressman .  

Ex-Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, a Louisiana Republican ousted after just one term in Congress, spent nearly every vote series seated beside Young on the chamber floor. “I found him to be a very warm-hearted individual, a very straightforward individual and an outspoken individual,” Cao said about Young.  

Cao said he never heard one complaint “about Young from any of his colleagues” — except, he conceded, for the story “about how he maybe pulled a knife, something along those lines.”  

Mostly, Cao remembers trying to cheer Young up after the death of his wife, even inviting him over for dinner in Northern Virginia in an attempt to “hook him up with a Vietnamese woman.”  

(Young is now engaged to another woman, so Cao admits he was “not a successful matchmaker.”)  

Richard Agnew, a legislative counsel for Young in the 1990s who is now the chairman of Van Ness Feldman LLP, said he had trouble reconciling the damning media reports about Young’s behavior with the man he came to know so well.  

“I guess I have a hard time accepting them because of all the time I worked with him — and I’ve been around him some since that time — I never saw a problem with staff. He would bark once in a while about something, but he would almost always find a way to say to the person, ‘Don’t worry about it,'” Agnew said.  

“He comes off as gruff or bombastic, but he’s passionate about Alaska,” said another former aide who declined to be identified. “We’d have hearings and stuff, and people would say, ‘Don Young’s yelling at everybody again,’ but he was just passionate about Alaska.”  

The aide said he never felt threatened or on-edge around his boss. “I wouldn’t work for a bully,” the former aide said. “You don’t want to work for a guy who’s beating people up.”  

And then there’s Ethan Berkowitz, a senior vice president in the Alaska office of Strategies 360. He ran against Young in one of the only competitive races of the veteran lawmaker’s 40-year congressional career.  

Berkowitz told CQ Roll Call he considers himself someone who would have been “a far more effective voice for Alaska.” But, he said of Young, “Personally, I like him.”  


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