Forrest Dunbar: The Millennial Who Aims to Unseat Don Young

Forrest Dunbar is barely out of his 20s. He’s never run for elected office before. And yet he’s running for Congress, against 21-term incumbent Don Young. You might think Dunbar isn’t a serious candidate. Until you meet him. Dunbar is earnest. Focused. He speaks at warp speed. He turned 30 just this month and he’s well prepared for questions about his relative youth.

Listen now:

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Democratic challenger Forrest Dunbar is running against 21-term House Rep. Don Young in the November election.

“So Aaron Schock was elected at 26, Paul Ryan was elected at 28,” he says, from memory. “Joe Biden was first elected to the U.S. Senate at 29, then he turned 30 before the swearing in — under the Constitution you have to be 30 — and I’m going to be older than all those people.”

Dunbar’s early life is … well, if Hollywood were writing a screenplay about an Alaskan Congressman, they might choose Dunbar’s bio. (Actually, a TV producer wanted to make a reality TV show of his campaign but he rejected the idea.) He spent his pre-school years in the Yukon River town of Eagle, cutting his teeth on caribou while his father worked as a Fish and Game biologist.  After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the family moved to Cordova, where Dunbar says they had running water for the first time.

Zachariah Kopchak, a former Marine now living in Anchorage, has been Dunbar’s friend since they were in elementary school in Cordova. As a kid, Dunbar was “a fun-loving little nerd,” Kopchak says. “We all were.”

They shared an interest in video games and “Star Wars,” but Kopchak says Dunbar was more athletic.

He was actually willing to go and play basketball and be physical and hang out with all the jocks and stuff. He was really kind of comfortable doing anything and being with any crowd, it seemed,” Kopchak recalls.

Dunbar spent summers working on a commercial fishing boat and was an exchange student in Japan. A high school teacher, Tim Walters, remembers him as determined.

“Forrest was intense. And he was serious,” Walters says.

He says it was obvious, even then, that Dunbar was going places.

“In a teacher’s career, there’s usually a handful of students that really kind of stand out, that ‘Some day,’ you say to yourself, ‘they’re going to be on the cover of Time magazine.’ And Forrest was one of those kids,” Walters says.

Dunbar went on to an East Coast education:  Undergrad at American University in Washington. Harvard for a Master’s in public policy, Yale for law school. He fought wildfires out of Fairbanks for a summer and served in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan. He was an intern for then-Sen. Frank Murkowski in Washington. He worked for Guam’s delegate to Congress. He worked in the Alaska Office of Public Advocacy. Last year, he joined the Alaska National Guard, as an officer and an attorney — a JAG.

But a first-time candidate challenging Don Young? Congressman Young has vanquished far more experienced candidates, some with piles of money, starting a decade before Dunbar was born.  Dunbar, though, alleges Young is past his prime.

“So it’s true that there was a time when he was very powerful and effective. He chaired the Transportation Committee, chaired the Natural Resources Committee. But he was stripped of his ability to do so in 2008. And that power is never coming back. He’s no longer influential for the state,” Dunbar says.

Young had to give up his committee gavels because of Republican term limits for chairmen. Young points out that he still is a chairman – not of a full committee but of the subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. Young says Dunbar, as a freshman Democrat, wouldn’t be chairman of anything.

Among his priorities, Dunbar lists gay marriage equality, reducing the cost of college and resource development.

“I disagree with the National Democratic Party on a lot of things, but when it comes to some big issues like Medicare, like Social Security, like women’s rights, I’m more aligned with them than I am with the National Republican Party,” he says

Like the current Alaska delegation, Dunbar supports oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and favors a road for King Cove. He also says the Alaska exception to the Violence Against Women Act should be removed to empower tribes and combat abuse.

Ethan Berkowitz, a Democrat who lost to Young in 2008, has known Dunbar since he volunteered on that congressional campaign. He describes Dunbar as highly intelligent with an ability to distill complicated information to a perfect nugget. But Berkowitz says Young is formidable opponent.

“There will come a time where he’s just not the answer for Alaska’s representative in Washington, D.C.,” Berkowitz says.  “For someone like Forrest,  the more he can make his case, whether it happens this cycle or the next election cycle or the one after that, I think it’s an important stage for Forrest to be on.”

Rep. Young has raised more than $600,000. When the current reporting period started in August, Dunbar hadn’t yet reached $100,000. He says he won’t have enough for TV spots but is making the most of online ads and social media.