Don Young, dean of the House, dies at 88

Alaska Republican was long-time institution, known for colorful personality

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, is seen in the Capitol Visitor Center on Sept. 30, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, is seen in the Capitol Visitor Center on Sept. 30, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Jason Dick
Posted March 18, 2022 at 10:03pm

Rep. Don Young, who went from being a tugboat captain to the dean of the House, has died at the age of 88, his office confirmed Friday.

“It’s with heavy hearts and deep sadness that we announce Congressman Don Young, the Dean of the House and revered champion for Alaska, passed away today while traveling home to Alaska to be with the state and people that he loved,” his office said in a statement. “His beloved wife Anne was by his side.”

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, who served in the House with Young, was quick to issue a statement about his passing. “Some of my favorite stories as Republican Whip in the House are about Don Young. Nobody represented their state better or with more determination than Don Young represented Alaska,” Blunt said.

The Alaska Republican was known as much for his cantankerous but warm personality as he was for his fierce defense of Alaskan interests. In his spacious Rayburn House Office Building digs, he proudly displayed such Last Frontier ephemera as a wall-sized state map, a portion of the Alaska pipeline and, most notably, a gavel made from an oosik, or walrus penis.

A walrus penis gavel sits in the office of Don Young, R-Alaska, in the Rayburn House Office Building. CQ Roll Call file photo

The Alaska Republican was born in Meridian, Calif., on June 9, 1933. After serving in the U.S. Army for two years and receiving bachelor’s degree in teaching at Chico State College, Young traveled to Fort Yukon, Alaska, to teach at an Alaska Native school. 

Young was elected mayor of Fort Yukon in 1964 and went on to serve in the state Legislature and the state Senate. In 1972, Young lost a bid for Congress to Democratic incumbent Nick Begich. However, Begich’s seat was declared vacant after he and then-House Majority Leader Hale Boggs disappeared during a plane trip in Alaska. A special election was held to fill the seat, and this time Young bested his Democratic opponent. Young went on to serve the rest of that term and the succeeding 24 terms as Alaska’s only representative in the House.

While in Congress, Young focused on Alaska’s interests, though this often put him at odds with his fellow Republicans when it came to supporting federal programs. Young often said his greatest achievement in Congress was approving the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline — a battle he was thrust into when he took the oath of office in 1973. In Congress, Young served six years as the chairman of the House Resources Committee and six years as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Young’s tenure in the House was not without controversy. In 2013, Republicans and Democrats chastised him for using the term “wetback” to describe Hispanic farm workers in a radio interview.  Young also helped secure $200 million for a bridge project in Alaska that became known as the “Bridge to Nowhere,” fueling a backlash against earmarks. Most recently, the Alaska Republican was under investigation by the Ethics Committee for personal use of campaign funds.

Lu, Young’s wife of 46 years, died in 2009. He remarried in 2015, to Anne Garland Walton, who survives him.

Alaska’s primary election is relatively late in the calendar: Aug. 16. At this point, it is unclear if the governor will call a special election to fill the seat between now and then.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.