The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Don Young is the rare Republican who’s not afraid of Trump — or of saying he needs to ‘shut up’

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) on the opening day of the 117th Congress on Jan. 3. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that four House Republicans who had voted to impeach President Donald Trump were among a list of five criticized by him, along with others, in a recent statement. Only three of those five voted to impeach. Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) did not. The article has been corrected.

Rep. Don Young knew the call would not end well, as the Alaska Republican forcefully rejected Donald Trump’s plea to oppose the more than $1 trillion infrastructure legislation.

How did the former president take the news?

“Not well,” Young recalled, but there wasn’t any shouting. “No, no, no, no, no.”

Young, 88, the longest-serving member of Congress, thought about all the contradictions he saw in Trump, particularly the chaotic style that made him a politically toxic figure.

“I think his policy is just so good,” Young said during a 45-minute interview this week. “Just shut up — that’s all he has to do. He’s not going to. I know that.”

Of all the Republicans Trump has targeted in the past few months, none have quite the carefree attitude of Young. His political sin was voting Nov. 5 for the massive infrastructure package over Trump’s objection, along with his quick embrace of the 2020 election results that showed Joe Biden’s victory.

Tensions rise among Republicans over infrastructure bill and whether any agreement with Biden should be tolerated

Yet during his decades-long career, Young has already defeated the FBI, both congressional ethics committees, the coronavirus and every political challenger since his 1972 loss to a congressman who was probably dead at the time.

He has gone from being a powerful chairman of two committees to an outsider who sits — literally every day Congress is in session — on the very back bench of the House chamber.

“I know where to go to get drinks when you’re in the middle of the desert,” Young said, “and most of us, they die of thirst. So I believe I’m good at what I do.”

Now entering his 49th year in Congress, Young also does not worry about being associated with a Democratic president who lost Alaska by more than 10 percentage points. Along a wall in his office, he prominently hung a photo of Biden, pictured in the Oval Office next to Young and Alaska’s Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, for the signing ceremony of a law that helped revive Alaska’s tourism industry. The photo of Biden joins those with nine other presidents Young served with.

These actions make him an outlier in the Trump era, when most Republicans bend over backward not to anger the former president, particularly when Trump and his allies are promising to support GOP primary challengers against anyone deemed disloyal.

Trump issued a statement Saturday calling for “good and SMART America First Republican Patriots to run primary campaigns against Representatives Tom Rice, John Katko, Don Bacon, Don Young, Fred Upton” and several others.

Three of those five Republicans voted to impeach Trump after his supporters’ attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, while Bacon and Young made the list because they had the gall to be two of 13 Republicans to vote for an infrastructure bill that would send billions of dollars back to their states.

All told, Trump highlighted 11 Republicans who had taken some action of betrayal.

“If they want to campaign against me, have at it,” Young said with a laugh.

He’s a throwback who believes his job is to deliver for his constituents, lamenting today’s firebrands who refuse to do any work with the other side. Young moved from California to north of the Arctic Circle in the late 1950s, working as a tugboat captain and a fisherman before winning his first political race, for mayor of Fort Yukon, in 1964.

Trust is a key ingredient in ‘functional institutions’ — and Congress is fresh out of it

He has always been irascible. When he left the state legislature in 1973, his colleagues honored him with a resolution celebrating his “gentle to the point of shyness” demeanor — an obvious joke for a barrel-chested man who was once summoned to stop one legislator from pummeling another one.

And, yes, former House speaker John A. Boehner told the truth in his memoir, “On the House.” Young once pulled a knife on him over a dispute about pork-barrel projects.

“The blade wasn’t out. This is my knife, and I’ve used it for a weapon all my life,” Young explained, pulling out a knife he has carried for roughly 70 years. He said he can use the butt end to beat up his enemies rather than rolling out the blade to slash them.

“This part right here” he said. “If I hit you with that, I mean, you’re going down. I don’t have to cut you. That’s just like being hit with a baton.”

He chaired the House Natural Resources Committee in the late 1990s, and from 2001 through 2006 he held the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee gavel. In an example of Young’s sway, he instructed his staff to concoct an acronym for the nearly $300 billion 2005 highway bill that would be TEA-LU, naming the legislation for his then-wife, Lu Young.

He got 412 votes, with just eight opposing, for the final version of the bill.

But those big-spending days also put Young in the investigative crosshairs. Federal prosecutors brought cases against several close allies in Alaska and pored over his record of delivering projects for those that helped him politically.

The Senate Ethics Committee chairwoman in 2008 recommended that the Justice Department investigate an earmark Young placed into the 2005 bill for a Florida project. And the House Ethics Committee undertook a long probe of allegations that he misspent political funds for personal use, ending with a fine.

But Young was unbeatable.

In 2008 Alaska’s lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell, challenged Young in the primary. The incumbent narrowly won — in a much closer race than the one in 1980, when Young thumped Parnell’s father, who was a Democrat.

Last year Democrats poured millions into the race against Young, believing that he was finally vulnerable. He won by almost 10 percentage points.

One of his already-announced 2022 opponents is Nick Begich III, the Republican grandson of Nick Begich, who was a Democratic congressman in 1972 when a plane carrying him and the House majority leader went missing.

Democrats worry whether voters are getting what they wanted out of a Biden presidency

Begich, who was not officially pronounced dead for decades, defeated Young in the 1972 race, but the following year Young won the special election to succeed him.

The state’s new election system is not a clear party primary. An initial vote, with candidates from every party on the same ballot, will cull the top four vote recipients and send them to the general election in November, when voters will used ranked-choice voting. This process might help Young and Murkowski, who is also in Trump’s crosshairs, because of their decades-long tenure gives them a chance to use their broad appeal across the state.

Young is dismissive of the rabble-rousers in the GOP caucus who are talking about blocking Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from ascending to House speaker if Republicans win the majority.

“Show me anybody else can do the job better than he can,” Young said, lamenting those critics, some of whom also want to punish Young and the 12 other Republicans who voted for the infrastructure bill. “These guys shooting their mouth off are just not really thinking very well.”

In November of last year, he suffered a brutal case of covid-19, telling The Washington Post’s Libby Casey that it was worse than being shot.

But his lingering health issue now is a back problem that came from a horse accident when he was a teen, sometimes making it difficult to walk.

He talks about “God’s will and the people’s will” for next year’s campaign, when he will be 89, promising that if he loses, he’s still going to have fun.

“I’ll get an airplane. Someone can fly it for me,” Young said. “And we’ll land on lakes and catch fish and have a hell of a good time.”

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