Congressional leaders on Tuesday hailed the late Republican Rep. Don Young, the only congressman Alaska has known for nearly the last half-century, as a gruff but pragmatic lawmaker who got things done for his constituents.
Young, the longest-serving Republican in the history of the House, lay in state at the Capitol on Tuesday, one of a select few chosen for the honor. Young died on a flight to Alaska earlier this month. He was 88.
“His absence will leave Congress less colorful and certainly less punctual but his legacy will live on," said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who credited Young with sponsoring 123 bills that became law.
Young was first elected to the House in 1973. That year, he helped secure the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which transports crude oil from the North Slope of Alaska to the state's southern coast and provides a critical source of funding for the state's government and its residents. He also played a leading role in protecting Alaska's fisheries from unregulated foreign fleets, dramatically extending U.S. jurisdiction to 200 nautical miles.
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While his legislative accomplishments were significant, he is also remembered for a personality that could be as rough as the Alaska wilderness that helped shape his political views.
McCarthy said he once made the mistake of sitting in the chair assigned to Young in the House.
“The lesson I learned that day? It's true, he does have a knife," McCarthy said.
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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described Young as an institution who was a “dogged, determined champion for Alaska in the House." She said that despite their political differences, many Democrats enjoyed a close friendship with Young.
“He was always willing to reach across the aisle if it meant delivering for Alaska," she said. “Indeed, he took great pride in the photographs of him with 10 presidents of both parties who signed his bills into law."
Attendance to the ceremony was limited to provide for social distancing. But colleagues and congressional aides lined up in the hours afterward to pay their respects one-by-one, pausing briefly to face the flag-draped coffin and reflect. President Joe Biden did so as well in the early afternoon. He gently placed his hands on the casket for a moment before providing a crisp salute.
Both Alaska senators spoke at the memorial service. Sen. Lisa Murkowski described Young as “colorful as they came. He was tough, but he was loyal." Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan described him as authentic.
“In an age of overcoached politicians, he was a throwback, a throwback to a time and place where people were respected, not so much for how they talked or how they looked, but for what they could do," Sullivan said.
Young had some close races, but many were landslides. He won his latest reelection bid with 54.4% of the vote and was intent on winning reelection this November to a 26th term.
“Alaskans have been generous with their support for me because they know I get the job done,” he said in 2016. “I’ll defend my state to the dying breath, and I will always do that and they know that.”
On the legislative front, Young was adamant about developing more of Alaska's natural resources, such as oil, gas and timber, and he was often at odds with conservationists and environmental groups concerned about the harm such development could do to the environment.
He also worked to steer as many federal dollars as he could to the state. On that front, he was one of the few Republicans in the House to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure plan last year that called for $550 billion in new spending on roads, bridges, airports and rail over five years.
Young's work included advocating for what some derided as the “bridge to nowhere," a project that became a national symbol of federal pork-barrel spending. The funding for the project was later rescinded and the project was eventually scrapped. But the controversy over the project helped fuel a decade-long ban on congressional earmarks.
Young's rough edges could lead him into trouble. He once waved a walrus penis bone at the new female leader of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service during a committee hearing. He was forced to apologize to Fairbanks high school students for his use of vulgarity in describing a sex act, and when he used a racial slur to refer to Hispanic migrant workers in a radio interview.
The House Ethics Committee rebuked Young in 2014 for improperly converting campaign funds for personal use and for accepting impermissible gifts.
When Young became the longest-serving member of the House, in late 2017, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner remembered many of his steps and missteps in an editorial, “What to make of Rep. Young’s career."
“Rep. Young’s brash language has landed him in hot water on multiple occasions as well. Even so, there is no denying Rep. Young has done great things for Alaska," the paper concluded. “Whether he retires next year or in five years, his decades-long career gives us plenty to chew on when we think of his time in office."