Don Young doesn’t hold back. At 81, he still thunders his opposition to the federal government when he gets worked up about it. A speech last month to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce had the ring of a call to arms. He said the feds have been increasing their chokehold on freedom since the enactment of Social Security in 1935.
“Do you believe you’re in the Last Frontier when you see the Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife, the Forest Service …. walking around with flak jackets and M16 rifles and 9mm Glocks on their hip?” Young asked. “They are supposed to be working for you! And yet they appear as the enemy.”
Young has been a Congressman for more than 41 years, spending much of each year in Washington D.C., and he’s not always the firebrand. In an interview in his congressional office, where the walls are crowded with animal heads and hides, he says a lot of his work is helping individual Alaskans solve their difficulties with federal offices.
“It’s amazing what happens when you pick up the phone and say ‘why isn’t this occurring?’ and then all of a sudden it happens,” Young says. “Makes you feel very good.”
But in a hearing, when it’s Young’s turn to question an Interior Department or Forest Service official, it often becomes a browbeating.
“Who brought up this harebrained idea? Whose idea was it?” he bellowed one Interior Department witness earlier this year.
He may come across as a charging bear, but former Alaska Teamster leader Jerry Hood, says Young is more Teddy bear than grizzly.
“I think Don’s the kind of a guy that he probably cares more about the result than he does the way he gets there. May be people take offense to that from time to time. But he gets the job done,” says Hood, who has worked with Young since the 1970s, and worked for him, as his state director. Now, he’s managing Young’s campaign.
Of the events that have put Young in the national news, some of the most memorable involve props. Like the time Young stuck his hand in a leg-hold trap, or the time he waved an oosik in a committee hearing. Hood says people misinterpret Young in these moments and don’t realize that he’s drawing national attention to issues of great importance to Alaska.
“There was an episode with a beanie hat in committee,” Hood recalls. “He made the point that a propeller on a hat is not an energy policy. It was very accurate and it got people talking about the lack of a national energy policy in this country.”
Hood points out that some of the most powerful Democrats Young has worked with on committees, like Congressman George Miller of California and the late Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, have attested to Young’s willingness to work across the aisle, to hear people out and to seek opposing views, at least behind the scenes.
“He’ll tell you — and I agree because I’ve watched him work for all these years — if you ask any member of Congress whose the congressman from Alaska, they’re going to know his name,” Hood says. “They may not like him, but honest to God when it comes to the bottom line, they respect him because they know how effective he is.”
But Forrest Dunbar, the 30-year-old Democrat running against Young, recounts other episodes of Young’s that he says are an embarrassment: Last year, when Young used a derogatory term for Latinos. This June, when he caught on C-SPAN with his thumbs in his ears, making faces on the floor of the House. This July, when Young announced his disgust that a Maryland Congresswoman supported the EPA in a bill related to the Pebble mine.
“I’ll be damned if I’m going to watch somebody from Maryland or any other state, start telling me or anybody in Alaska how we should be running our state!” Young shouted during a committee meeting.
Dunbar says that style doesn’t work now that Young is no longer a powerful chairman of a congressional committee, as he was for a dozen years, ending in 2007.
“He was effective once,” Dunbar says. “Now, not only is he not powerful, but he’s also counterproductive, because he still has that same style, so when he’s getting up there and yelling at people and he’s belittling people, they know that he’s speaking loudly and carrying a small stick, and that’s not effective.”
Dunbar also says Young has lost clout because of an ethics case that hung over his head for years. What began as a Justice Department investigation fizzled down this summer to a House Ethics Committee letter of reproval. It says Young accepted improper gifts, including hunting trips, and misused campaign funds. To make it right, Young had to repay less than $60,000, half to his own campaign.
It was Republican-imposed term limits, though, that forced Young to step down as chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, and then the Transportation Committee. He’s now chairman of the subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, and Young says that’s more than Dunbar would be if he were elected.
“Can I be a chairman of a full committee? Probably not,” Young says. “It’s not an impossibility. But that does not make me ineffective. I’m very effective in what I do. I probably get more done than, very frankly, anybody else in the delegation.”
In fact, so far in this two-year Congress, three bills Young sponsored became law. In a Congress that passes very few bills, only one member has done better. The non-partisan website GovTrack gave Young high marks for bipartisanship last year, and says he was one of the best at getting bills through committee.
Young has, on occasion, apologized for things he’s said or done. At the Anchorage Chamber luncheon, he said those who say he’s obnoxious and a bit of a bully are right, but Young says he’s doing it for the good of the state.
“You don’t need somebody who is timid,” he told his constituents. “You don’t need somebody who’s slick. You don’t need somebody that’s going to do everything to make people happy. You need somebody who is going to fight for you and I’ve been able to do that.”