File photo by Mark Thiessen/AP
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Don Young, an outspoken Republican and longest serving member of Alaska’s congressional delegation, has died. He was 88 years old.
His office announced Young’s death in a statement Friday evening.
“It is with heavy hearts and deep sadness that we announce that Congressman Don Young (R-AK), the Dean of the House and revered Alaskan Champion, passed away today while he was returning home to Alaska to be with the state and the people he loved. His beloved wife Anne was by his side,” the statement from his spokesman, Zach Brown, said.
Young, who was first elected to the United States House in 1973, was known for his blunt style. During his final years in office, his offbeat comments and blunders sometimes overshadowed his work. During his re-election bid in 2014, he described himself as intense and less than perfect, but said he would not stop fighting for Alaska.
Born June 9, 1933 in Meridian, California, Young grew up on a family farm. He received a bachelor’s degree in education from Chico State College, now known as California State University, Chico, in 1958. He also served in the United States military, according to his official biography.
Young came to Alaska in 1959, the same year Alaska became a state, and credited Jack London’s “Call of the Wild,” which his father used to read to him, with drawing him to the North.
“I can’t stand the heat, and I worked on a ranch, and I dreamed of a cold place with no snakes or poison oak trees,” Young told The Associated Press in 2016. After leaving the military and after the death of his dead father, he told his mother that he was leaving for Alaska. She questioned her decision.
“I said, ‘I ride (to) drive dogs, catch fur and I want to mine gold. And I did,” he said. In Alaska, he met his first wife, Lu, who convinced him to enter politics, which he said was unfortunate in a way – it sent him to Washington, D.C., “a place that’s hotter than hell in the summer. And there’s a lot of snakes here, two-legged snakes.”
In Alaska, Young settled in Fort Yukon, a small community accessible mostly by air at the confluence of the Yukon and Porcupine rivers in the state’s rugged and harsh interior. He held jobs in areas such as construction, trapping and commercial fishing. He was a tugboat and barge operator who delivered supplies to villages along the Yukon River and taught fifth grade at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school, according to his biography. With Lu he had two daughters, Joni and Dawn.
He was elected mayor of Fort Yukon in 1964 and elected to the State House two years later. He served two terms before winning election to the state Senate, where, he said, he was miserable. Lu said he had to quit his job, which he resisted, saying he would not quit. He recalled that she encouraged him to run for US House instead, saying he would never win.
In 1972, Young was the Republican challenger to Democratic U.S. Representative Nick Begich. Three weeks before the election, Begich’s plane disappeared on a flight from Anchorage to Juneau. The Alaskans still re-elected Begich.
Begich was pronounced dead in December 1972, and Young won a close special election in March 1973. He held the seat until 2022 and was running for re-election in November.
In 2013, Young became the longest-serving member of Alaska’s congressional delegation, surpassing the late U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, who served for 40 years. That year, he also became the longest serving Republican in the United States House.
In 2015, nearly six years after Lu Young’s death and on his 82nd birthday, Young married Anne Garland Walton in a private ceremony in the United States Capitol Chapel.
“Everyone knows Don Young,” he told the AP in 2016. “They might not like Don Young, they might like Don Young. But they all know Don Young.”
Young said he wanted his legacy to be one of working for the people. Among the highlights of his career was the passage of legislation his first year in office that enabled the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which became the state’s economic lifeline. With that successful pipeline fight, “I’ve found a niche in my life where I love working for Alaskans and this nation — primarily Alaskans,” Young said in 2016, adding more later: “I like the house.”
During his career, he has unabashedly supported postings as a way to bring home projects and build infrastructure in a geographically huge state where communities range from big cities to small towns; critics viewed the assignments as pork.
Young called himself a conservative and won voter support for his positions on gun and hunting rights and a strong military. He made a career out of railing against “extreme environmentalists” and a federal bureaucracy he saw as locking in Alaska’s mineral, forestry and oil resources. He said his word was a “golden obligation”.
He said he was happy whenever he could help a voter. “And I try to do that every day, and I’m very good at it,” he told AP in 2016. At that time, he said he had passed 190 of his projects. bills in the House and that 77 of them had been signed by a president.
His career has been marred by inquiries and criticism over his improvisational and often abrasive style.
In 2008, Congress asked the Justice Department to investigate Young’s role in securing a $10 million appropriation to widen a Florida freeway; the case was dropped in 2010 and Young denied any wrongdoing.
In December 2011, the U.S. House Ethics Committee said it was revising its rules to impose new contribution limits on owners who run multiple businesses following issues raised by the nonpartisan Office of congressional ethics regarding donations to Young.
In 2014, the ethics committee found that Young had broken house rules by using campaign funds for personal travel and accepting inappropriate gifts. Young was told to reimburse the value of trips and gifts, totaling about $59,000, and to amend financial disclosure statements to include gifts he had not reported. The committee also issued a “letter of reprobation”, or reprimand. Young said he regretted the “oversights” and apologized for not exercising “due diligence” in complying with the House’s code of conduct.
Fresh out of re-election in 2020, Young announced he had tested positive for COVID-19, months after calling the coronavirus the “beer bug” in front of an audience that included older Alaskans and said that the media had contributed to the hysteria over COVID -19.
He then called COVID-19, for which he had been hospitalized, serious and encouraged Alaskans to follow guidelines meant to guard against the disease.
Despite the controversies, voters continued to send him back to Washington, something Young said he didn’t take for granted.
“Alaskans have generously supported me because they know I’m doing the job,” he said in 2016. “I will defend my state to the last breath, and I always will and they know it. “