If you don’t make your living on a boat, you’ve probably never heard of the Kodiak fisheries debate. Most election years, the traditional face-off between Alaska’s congressional and gubernatorial candidates doesn’t draw attention far below the Arctic Circle. Earlier this month, though, the Kodiak confabulation improbably made national headlines — all thanks to the state’s resident rabble-rouser, Rep. Don Young, whose personal lapses in judgment may cost him the Congressional seat he’s held since the Nixon Administration.
It wasn’t anything the 81-year-old Young said onstage in Kodiak that got him in trouble; rather, it was his comportment behind the curtain. When 30-year-old Democratic challenger Forrest Dunbar patted Young’s arm during a tête-à-tête before the debate, the Republican incumbent reportedly grew enraged. Recalled Dunbar to the Alaska Dispatch News: “He kind of snarled at me and said, ‘Don’t you ever touch me… The last guy who touched me ended up on the ground dead.’”
Was Young’s barking merely an intimidation tactic? Probably. Still, the chance, however remote, that a U.S. congressman had killed a man for touching him understandably drew some media attention.
Most statesmen would have swiftly fallen back on a classic stratagem: Deny, deny, deny. But Young, who last year infamously referred to Latinos using a racial slur, has never chosen his words with tact. So when Capitol Hill news website Roll Call asked him about the incident, the congressman replied simply, “There’s some truth to that,” before an alert press secretary whisked the conversation along.
Here at High Country News, we’ve been covering threats to public officials; we’re less accustomed to threats by public officials. But Don Young, who has brandished both knives and walrus penises at his political foes, has a knack for redefining what’s plausible. Within the last few months, he’s made clown faces on the House floor as a colleague talked about a slain Marine, twisted the arm of a staffer, and berated students while discussing their friend’s suicide. As one columnist recently put it, “He has been obnoxious for years; now maybe he is crazy.”
Often subsumed by Young’s outsize personality are his politics, which, as you might expect from someone who’s blamed Alaska’s high suicides rates on the federal government, veer rightward. A stroll through the HCN archives reveals a consistently pro-states-rights, pro-development record: 11 attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling; efforts to clear-cut old growth stands in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest; and choice statements like, “I don't see any justification for the federal government owning land."
Young, who has held office since 1973, hasn’t lately mellowed in his bashing of the feds. This summer, he called the Environmental Protection Agency’s new power plant regulations “an economy killer,” and termed the agency’s attempt to redefine navigable waterways under the Clean Water Act “federal overreach.”
While Young often criticizes largesse, he’s drawn fire himself for grabbing pork. Remember the “Bridge to Nowhere,” the $400 million connection to southeast Alaska’s Gravina Island (pop. 50) that earned Young the 2004 Golden Fleece Award? Or how about Coconut Road, a $10 million earmark that would have upgraded pavement near golf clubs in Florida — clubs owned by a real estate developer who’d organized a fundraiser for, yes, Don Young?
One watchdog group recently named him one of 2013’s most corrupt members of Congress — his fifth time on the list.
Despite his many imbroglios, Young has a reputation as an unusually effective deal-broker, which is perhaps why Alaskans have elected him 21 times. For a while, this year was shaping up to be more of the same. Young led Dunbar — a cleancut National Guardsman and Yale Law graduate with a passion for ‘80s music — by 15 points as recently as September. Focus was trained exclusively on Alaska’s crucial U.S. Senate race, where Democratic incumbent Mark Begich finds himself locked in battle with Republican Dan Sullivan.
But then Young spent the month of October violating every nonpartisan standard of decent behavior. (He even found time to compare same-sex marriage to bull sex.) Suddenly, statewide media was flooded with calls for his ousting, and an election that was once a fait accompli now seems up for grabs. In fact, a poll released earlier this week suggested that Dunbar had seized a slim lead. “That’s what happens when you really tick people off two weeks before an election,” said local pollster Ivan Moore. (For its part, Roll Call still deems Alaska’s House seat “Safe Republican.”)
Those polls should be taken with a hefty dose of salt: Forecasting elections is notoriously difficult in Alaska. But if Dunbar does somehow manage to unseat the incumbent, a word of advice for the new congressman: Be careful shaking Don Young’s hand during the transfer of power. Apparently he doesn’t like to be touched.
Ben Goldfarb is a Seattle-based correspondent at High Country News. Follow @ben_a_goldfarb