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Biden, Congressional leaders pay tribute to Rep. Don Young of Alaska

President Biden pays his respects to Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) as his casket lays in state in Statuary Hall. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Congressional leaders paid tribute on Tuesday to Rep. Don Young, the gruff Alaskan who delivered federal largesse to the state he represented for 49 years, as he lay in state at the U.S. Capitol.

The casket of Young, the longest-serving Republican in the House, arrived at Statuary Hall for a ceremony marked by words of appreciation and a rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Young, who was Alaska’s sole House member, died March 18 in Seattle while traveling home to the state. He was 88.

President Biden made a rare trip to the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon to pay his respects. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Alaska’s two senators — Lisa Murkowski (R) and Dan Sullivan (R) — also spoke fondly of Young, a bipartisan acclamation reflecting Young’s willingness to reach across the aisle.

Murkowski praised Young as a lawmaker who cared about his constituents above all else — many of whom have never known another congressman to represent Alaska.

“Everything that he did was for the state that he loved and loved so well — and the state that loved him back equally,” she said.

Sullivan described Young as “authentic” and “tough,” but also a person “with a big heart” by noting the story of how Young once held a knife to the neck of former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) but then Boehner was best man at Young’s wedding.

“Don Young was so authentic in an age of overcoached politicians,” Sullivan said. “He was a throwback — a throwback to a time and a place where people were respected not so much for how they talked or how they looked, but for what they could do.”

Pelosi was sworn in twice by Young in his capacity as dean of the House. She recalled his reverence for the institution.

“It was always clear that he was passionate about this institution and his unique ability to make a difference for Alaskans and for Americans,” she said. “When he became dean, he said ‘I love this body. I believe in this body. My heart is in the House.’ ”

McCarthy recalled Young’s contributions to weekly Bible studies that were as memorable as the remarks he made on the House floor. “Don was strong in his faith and strong in his language,” he said. “We got to be honest: Don was as rough as the Alaskan wild, but he also was a man after God’s own heart.”

Young’s long-lasting legacy is largely viewed as a heartfelt desire to bring as many federal dollars to Alaska as possible. Shortly after arriving in Washington in 1973, Young cast one of his most impactful votes authorizing the construction of the trans-Alaska Pipeline, an 800-mile oil transportation system that brought tens of thousands of workers to the state — and made the state very rich.

After a stint in the U.S. Army, the California native first found work in Alaska the same year it became a state. He went on to serve in the Alaska House of Representatives and the Alaska Senate before launching a long-shot bid for the U.S. House in 1972 but lost to incumbent Nick Begich (D), who had disappeared weeks before the election in a crash of a light aircraft and presumed dead.

“I couldn’t beat him with a stick, and I knew that,” Young later told The Washington Post.

But he eventually won a special election the following year and went on to be reelected 24 times.

A former chairman of the House Natural Resources and Transportation committees, Young often embodied the frontier spirit that comes to mind when imagining “The Last Frontier.” His office was decorated with a collection of hunting trophies, including the pelt of a bear he claimed to have strangled himself, along with a 900-pound totem pole.

Before House members instituted a ban on earmarks, Young helped direct billions of dollars in federal funding to his state focused on development — a practice that at times attracted significant criticism. Democrats reinstituted earmarks in the most recent budget.

In 2005, he secured $223 million in earmarks for a bridge from the town of Ketchikan to an island of 50 people and an airport that his critics labeled the “bridge to nowhere.” After critics suggested that Young return the money to help the thousands suffering from the damage of Hurricane Katrina, he replied that “they can kiss my ear.” The earmark was eventually removed as frustration with pork-barrel projects became more widespread.

A $10 million earmark benefiting a campaign contributor led to a Justice Department investigation, but Young was never charged with wrongdoing. And in 2014, the House Ethics Committee rebuked the lawmaker before ordering him to pay a nearly $60,000 fine for accepting improper gifts, including hunting trips.

The Justice Department investigated Young’s political activities several other times.

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

Young spent four decades in Congress advocating the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, efforts that attracted scorn from environmentalists. Undeterred, Young dismissed his critics as a “self-centered bunch, the waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating, intellectual bunch of idiots.”

Incendiary remarks weren’t uncommon for Young, who used a racial slur referring to Latino ranch workers in 2013 for which he apologized. And while arguing against gun control, the lawmaker suggested that Jews could have avoided being murdered during the Holocaust had they been armed.

“Alaskans tend to be pretty forgiving of some of his more flagrant quotes . . . because he’s Uncle Don,” Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz (D), who was unsuccessful in his race against Young in 2008, told the Alaska Dispatch News in 2018. “You’re not always going to agree with him, you’re not always going to like it . . . but he’s your uncle.”

Former lawmakers to recently lie in state include former Senate majority leaders Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.).

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