Alaska Congressman Don Young angered many of his constituents this week with remarks about suicide at Wasilla High that he later acknowledged were insensitive. Today, Young made the apology the focus of his annual speech to AFN.
“Because I did say what I said, I am profoundly and genuinely sorry for the pain it may have caused people, genuinely sorry for the pain of the individual, as I have experienced it,” he said.
On Tuesday at a Wasilla school assembly, Young seemed to blame suicide on the lack of support of family and friends. Principal Amy Spargo said it offended her and some of the students, especially because Young had just been informed that a student at the school recently took his own life.
At the AFN convention, Young said he knows the tragedy of suicide.
“Because I have been touched by this issue,” he said from the podium of the convention hall. “It’s very personal to me. It may have caused me to mangle some of my statements and comments that’s caused this uproar, but I will tell you how many times I’ve asked myself, did I do enough? Did I take a (nephew) away from an abusive father? Did I love him enough? Did I do enough? And apparently I did not,” he said.
He says his record shows he understands that suicide stems from mental illness and said he voted for federal funds to train teachers and others to combat it. He also reiterated the importance of support. He said Kotzebue has not had a youth suicide in five years, which he attributed to good support.
“And that’s what we have to do around this state – a support group,” he said.
Young then reminded his audience what he’s done for Alaska Natives over the years, with land claims, business advantages for Native corporations, subsistence bills and fishing quotas. He told them he’s working to advance a co-management plan to give Native communities the ability to manage fish and wildlife on their own lands.
“Now I look out in this room and I would suggest respectfully I have been your congressman, and I want to continue to be that congressman,” he said.
His speech was repeatedly punctuated with applause and Young received a standing ovation. His Democratic opponent, Forrest Dunbar, listened from the back of the room. Dunbar noted that Young sounded less than sorry on Wednesday when asked about his Wasilla remarks, but Dunbar said he thought Young’s AFN apology was genuine.
“I think, given the huge importance of this speech I doubt he would rescind or further clarify any of it in a private setting. Hopefully he won’t because I do believe he was being sincere,” Dunbar said.
Young was warmly embraced when he stepped down from the stage. But not everyone in the room was impressed with him. Anchorage resident Gloria Poullard, originally from St. Mary’s, says she had a relative commit suicide this summer. Poullard thinks there’s nothing Young could say that would erase his hurtful statements from Tuesday.
“He’s a leader for Alaskans,” she said. “Why’d he even mention stuff like this?”
Joe Nelson, a Juneau resident from Yakutat, says he would have liked to see the congressman focus his speech more on subsistence.
“I guess he’s trying to make up for a little misstep that happened up in Wasilla in the school there, but I don’t know if he’s really connecting with the younger generations, and that’s where we really need to be connecting,” Nelson said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who has endorsed Young, was among those on Thursday who called for Young to apologize. An online petition calling for her to withdraw her endorsement has attracted more than 300 signatures.