In partisan times, is Alaska’s outspoken congressman a voice of reason?
Don Young has no intention of slowing down.
After tearing through a rapid-fire speech at the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce last week, the nation’s longest-serving congressman shook a dozen hands or more before barreling out of the Matanuska Brewing Company before a staffer could even finish collecting business cards.
“I wouldn’t run if I didn’t like it,” Young said a few minutes later after hopping in a car and driving to Jitters Coffee House for his next appointment.
For going on 24 terms in Congress, the Fort Yukon Republican has been an energetic and enthusiastic Alaska backer, even as critics have blasted him for his sometimes caustic comments and borderline boorish behavior during his decades in Washington D.C.
Young admits he’s a bit rough around the edges — he claims no one will dare sit in “his” chair in the House — but says he sees his job as a literal definition of the word representative.
“I am a spokesman for you, and that’s what I do,” said Young during an interview in the back room of the popular Eagle River coffee shop following a speech to the chamber where he extolled Alaska’s resource development potential and said he’s frustrated with congressional partisanship and gridlock.
Though he’s frequently bombastic (Young recently made news after butting a reporter’s camera with his head), the Dean of the House (the title given the longest-serving member of Congress) often bemoans the fact Republicans and Democrats no longer cross party lines to get bills passed.
He told the chamber he blames the leadership of Republican Newt Gingrich, who ushered in an era when committee chairs had less power relative to the Speaker of the House. That tradition has continued, meaning whichever party is in power essentially holds all the cards in the House and cooperation is nil.
That’s not how things were when he first went to Washington in the 1970s.
“It wasn’t about Republican or Democrat, it was about solving a problem,” he said.
Young would like to see earmarks returned to budget bills, which he said allowed for more negotiation between people on both sides of the aisle. Often derided as “pork,” the practice actually helped legislators make break gridlock.
“Why would you ever vote for a bill if it doesn’t include something for yourself?” asked Young.
Young thinks a return to a system that gives more power to committee chairs would help reduce partisan bickering. He also wishes there were less rancor in modern politics overall.
“It’s just not good for the country,” he said.
He says he disagrees with President Trump’s use of Twitter and finds Trump’s name-calling distasteful.
“I meet with him quite a bit and I told him, ‘Don’t do that,’” Young said. “But he said, ‘You know Don, I’ve got 75 million people watching and it’s my way of getting news out on my side.’”
He’s even introspective, saying his choice to call Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell — his opponent in the 2008 Republican primary — “Captain Zero” in a 2008 interview is something he now regrets.
“I do,” Young said. “And he happens to be a good friend of mind, but I said it. He wasn’t making an impression, but you don’t have to do that.”
Young said he has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. He estimates he’s logged 3 million airline miles over the years — one of the few things he doesn’t like about the job he’s held since he was first elected in 1973. Young doesn’t mind the small “puddle jumpers” in Alaska, but said the vibration of jet engines takes a toll on his body.
“It wears your muscles out,” he said.
But he’s not taking his head out of the clouds anytime soon. In fact, Young thinks his old school vision of cooperation through compromise will again return to favor in Washington D.C. Just wait, he says.
“I just think I’m a little bit ahead of time.”
Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call 257-4274