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Don Young, dean of the House of Representatives, dies at 88

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), then-chairman of the House Transportation Committee, speaks at a 2001 news conference. He is flanked by the chief executives of Continental and Southwest airlines. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Don Young, a gruff Alaskan who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1973, became its longest-serving active member and brought an outpouring of federal dollars to the country’s most sparsely populated state, died March 18 in Seattle while traveling home to Alaska. He was 88 and the House’s oldest member.

His chief of staff, Alex Ortiz, confirmed the death but did not have further details.

Rep. Young, Alaska’s sole House member, was reelected to a 25th term in November with about 55 percent of the vote. Known for his salty language and frontiersman’s demeanor, he decorated his office with a 900-pound totem pole and a collection of hunting trophies, including the pelt of a bear he claimed to have strangled himself.

A former chairman of the House Natural Resources and Transportation committees, Rep. Young helped direct billions of dollars in federal funding in an era before House members instituted a ban on earmarks.

But he lost much of his political clout in 2008, amid clashes with top Republicans over a long-running corruption probe into his links to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and an oil-field services and construction company. He also had a narrow escape at the polls that year, winning a GOP primary by only 304 votes over a lieutenant governor he scorned as “Captain Zero.”

Rep. Young was investigated several times by the Justice Department, including an inquiry into a $10 million earmark that benefited a campaign contributor, but he was never charged with wrongdoing. In 2014, he was rebuked by the House Ethics Committee and ordered to pay a nearly $60,000 fine for accepting improper gifts, including hunting trips and a $434 pair of Le Chameau boots.

“I’ve been under a cloud all my life,” he told reporters in 2013, before the Ethics Committee finished its investigation. “It’s sort of like living in Juneau. It rains on you all the time. You don’t even notice it.”

Rep. Young continued to win reelection while focusing on Alaskan development and working to bring federal money to the state. The earmarks included funding for what opponents called a “bridge to nowhere” that would have connected the town of Ketchikan to an island of 50 people and an airport. As part of a sprawling transportation measure that he had stuffed “like a turkey,” as he put it, he secured $223 million for the bridge in 2005.

When critics suggested that he return the money to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, he replied that “they can kiss my ear.” The earmark became a talk-show punchline and was eventually removed amid uproar over pork-barrel projects. Rep. Young was unabashed, and joked that he wanted to send far more money to Alaska than his colleague Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). “If he’s the chief porker,” he said, “I’m upset.”

Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that Rep. Young’s decades in Congress were characterized less by any significant legislative achievements than by “a monomaniacal desire to get more for Alaska,” whether through earmarks or by loosening restrictions on logging, drilling, fishing or mining.

“What probably appealed to Alaskans as much as anything was his roughneck character,” Ornstein added in an interview.

A California native, Rep. Young moved to Alaska in 1959, shortly after it became a state. He was partly inspired by Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” and worked as a riverboat captain and a schoolteacher to Alaska Natives while dabbling in fishing, trapping and gold mining.

Rep. Young was elected mayor of Fort Yukon, a city of about 500 people just north of the Arctic Circle, and served in the state legislature before launching a long-shot bid for Congress in 1972, against Democratic incumbent Nick Begich. “I couldn’t beat him with a stick, and I know that,” Rep. Young later told The Washington Post.

Weeks before the election, Begich boarded a flight from Anchorage to Juneau while campaigning with House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-La.). The plane disappeared, spawning a search that lasted more than a month but failed to recover the aircraft. Both men were reelected in absentia, but in January 1973, the House recognized their deaths, leading to a special election that brought Rep. Young to Congress.

He cast one of the most significant votes of his tenure soon after arriving in Washington, joining with a majority of his colleagues to authorize the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Spanning 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez, the project attracted tens of thousands of workers and made the state rich. It also fueled Rep. Young’s nearly four-decade effort to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

His efforts made him a leading antagonist of environmentalists, whom he derided as a “self-centered bunch, the waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating, intellectual bunch of idiots.” Defending Alaska Natives’ exemptions from marine conservation laws, he once pounded an 18-inch-long walrus penis bone into his hand for emphasis during a congressional hearing.

The theatrics were typical of Rep. Young, who once stuck his hand in a steel-jaw leghold trap until his fingers turned blue, while arguing that such traps weren’t painful to animals. He later held a 10-inch knife to the throat of future House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) during a political dispute. (The two became friends, and Boehner served as the best man at his wedding.)

Rep. Young also acquired a reputation for incendiary remarks, including a racial slur referring to Latino ranch workers in 2013. He issued an apology but went on to make headlines for other shocking comments, as when he remarked sarcastically that if wolves were released in some parts of the country, they “wouldn’t have a homeless problem anymore.” Arguing against gun control, he suggested that Jews could have avoided being killed in the Holocaust if they had armed themselves.

“Alaskans tend to be pretty forgiving of some of his more flagrant quotes … because he’s Uncle Don,” Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz (D), who ran against Rep. Young in 2008, later told the Alaska Dispatch News. He added that “you’re not always going to agree with him, you’re not always going to like it … but he’s your uncle.”

Donald Edwin Young was born in Meridian, Calif., on June 9, 1933. His family ran a farm in the Sacramento Valley, and Rep. Young joined the Teamsters while working at a peach cannery as a teenager. He later partnered with the labor union to secure Democratic votes for Alaska drilling legislation, in exchange for jobs for union workers.

After graduating from Yuba Junior College in 1952, Rep. Young served in the Army. He received a bachelor’s degree in teaching from Chico State College (now part of the California State University System) in 1958 and launched his political career two years later when he joined the Fort Yukon city council.

In 1963, he married Lu Fredson, a bookkeeper and Alaska Native. She died in 2009, four years after Rep. Young honored her in the name of a transportation spending bill known as the SAFETEA-LU. He married Anne Garland Walton, a flight nurse, in 2015, on his 82nd birthday.

Rep. Young had two daughters from his first marriage and two stepchildren from his second. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

After Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) resigned in late 2017, Rep. Young became the House dean — the longest continuously serving member — and was charged with the ceremonial duty of swearing in the speaker of the House at the start of each term.

“Remember, that’s swearing in the speaker, not swearing at the speaker,” joked House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). Rep. Young was the first Republican dean in more than eight decades, and in 2019, he surpassed former speaker Joseph Gurney Cannon (Ill.) as the longest-serving Republican in House history.

“I will sometimes get out of line,” he said after becoming dean, “but in doing so, remember it comes from my heart, and my heart is in this House.”

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