JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska Rep. Don Young, who was the longest-serving Republican in the history of the U.S. House, has died. He was 88.
His office announced Young’s death in a statement Friday night.
“It’s with heavy hearts and deep sadness that we announce Congressman Don Young (R-AK), the Dean of the House and revered champion for Alaska, passed away today while traveling home to Alaska to be with the state and people that he loved. His beloved wife Anne was by his side,” said the statement from Young’s congressional office.
An official cause of death has not been provided. Young’s office said details about plans for a celebration of Young’s life were expected in the coming days.
Young was the first person elected to the U.S. House. He was elected in 1973. His off-color remarks and gaffes often overshadowed the work he did in his final years of office. During his 2014 reelection bid, he described himself as intense and less-than-perfect but said he wouldn’t stop fighting for Alaska. Alaska is home to one House Member.
Young was born June 9, 1933 in Meridian. He earned a bachelor’s degree in teaching at Chico State College, now known as California State University, Chico, in 1958. His official biography states that he served with the U.S. Army.
Young came to Alaska in 1959, the same year Alaska became a state, and credited Jack London’s “Call of the Wild,” which his father used to read to him, for drawing him north.
“I can’t stand heat, and I was working on a ranch and I used to dream of some place cold, and no snakes and no poison oak,” Young told The Associated Press in 2016. After leaving the military and after his father’s death, he told his mother he was going to Alaska. She questioned his decision.
“I said, ‘I’m going up (to) drive dogs, catch fur and I want to mine gold.’ And I did that,” he said. In Alaska, he met his first wife, Lu, who convinced him to enter politics, which he said was unfortunate in one sense — it sent him to Washington, D.C., “a place that’s hotter than hell in the summer. And there’s lots of snakes here, two-legged snakes.”
In Alaska, Young settled in Fort Yukon, a small community accessible primarily by air at the confluence of the Yukon and Porcupine rivers in the state’s rugged, harsh interior. His jobs included construction, trapping, and commercial fishing. His biography says that he worked as a tugboat operator and barge operator to deliver supplies to Yukon River communities. In addition, he also taught fifth grade at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school. Two daughters were born to him, Joni (with Lu) and Dawn (with Lu).
In 1964, he was elected as the mayor of Fort Yukon and two years later, he was elected to the State House. Before being elected to the State Senate, Lu served two terms. After that, he claimed that he was unhappy. Lu said he needed to get out of the job, which he resisted, saying he doesn’t quit. He recalled that she encouraged him instead to run for U.S. House, saying he’d never win.
Young faced Nick Begich, the Democratic U.S. Rep. in 1972. Three weeks before the election, Begich’s plane disappeared on a flight from Anchorage to Juneau. Alaskans did re-elect Begich.
Begich died in December 1972. Young was elected in a special election that took place in March 1973. Young held on to the seat until his death. He was running for reelection this year against a field that included one of Begich’s grandsons, Republican Nicholas Begich III.
In 2013, Young became the longest-serving member of Alaska’s congressional delegation, surpassing the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who served for 40 years.
In 2015, nearly six years after Lu Young’s death, and on his 82nd birthday, Young married Anne Garland Walton in a private ceremony in the U.S. Capitol chapel.
“Everybody knows Don Young,” he told the AP in 2016. “They may not like Don Young; they may love Don Young. But they all know Don Young.”
Young was often uncooperative but had an innate sense of humor.
As the House member with the longest service, Young swore in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, when the 117th Congress convened on Jan. 3, 2021 — three days before the attack on the Capitol by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump. Before administering the oath of office, Young expressed dismay about the period’s intense partisanship.
“When you do have a problem or if there’s something so contentious, let’s sit down and have a drink, and solve those problems,” he said, drawing laughter and applause.
Pelosi, in a statement, said Young’s “reverence and devotion to the House shone through in everything that he did.” She called him “an institution in the hallowed halls of Congress.”
She said photos of him with 10 presidents, Republicans and Democrats, signing his bills into law “are a testament to his longevity and his legislative mastery.”
Young is a long-standing leader in federal spending control for his home state. He was awarded $23.7 million to Alaska to fund water and road projects. This week’s $1.5 trillion government spending bill, which President Joe Biden signed into legislation, an analysis by The Associated Press. This is the largest amount for home-district project that any House member has ever received in legislation.
Young stated that he wants his legacy to include working for people. He counted among his career highlights passage of legislation his first year in office that allowed for construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline system, which became the state’s economic lifeline. With that successful pipeline fight, “I found a niche in my life where I enjoy working for the people of Alaska and this nation — primarily the people of Alaska,” Young said in 2016, adding later: “I like the House.”
He was a staunch supporter of earmarks in his professional career. They were a way for him to obtain projects and create infrastructure in a state that’s geographically large. The communities are small, but they can be very big. Some critics considered earmarks pork.
Young, who was self-described as a conservative, won the support of voters with his positions on hunting and gun rights and strong military. He made a career out of railing against “extreme environmentalists” and a federal bureaucracy that he saw as locking up Alaska’s mineral, timber and petroleum resources. He said his word was a “gold bond.”
He expressed his happiness at helping constituents and said that it made him happy. “And I try to do that every day, and I’m very good at that,” he told AP in 2016.
He was subject to criticism and investigations about his outlandish and sometimes abrasive manner. This ruined his career.
In 2008, Congress asked the Justice Department to investigate Young’s role in securing a $10 million earmark to widen a Florida highway; the matter was dropped in 2010, and Young denied any wrongdoing.
In December 2011, the U.S. House Ethics Committee said it was revising its rules to impose new contribution limits on owners who run multiple companies following questions raised by the nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics about donations made to Young’s legal expense fund.
The ethics committee discovered that Young violated House rules in 2014 by accepting inappropriate gifts and using campaign funds to pay for his personal travels. Young was told to repay the value of the trips and gifts, totaling about $59,000, and amend financial disclosure statements to include gifts he hadn’t reported. The committee also issued a “letter of reproval,” or rebuke. Young said he regretted the “oversights” and apologized for failing to exercise “due care” in complying with the House’s Code of Conduct.
Fresh off a reelection win in 2020, Young announced he had tested positive for COVID-19, months after he had referred to the coronavirus as the “beer virus” before an audience that included older Alaskans and said the media had contributed to hysteria over COVID-19.
COVID-19 was later called serious by him. He encouraged Alaskans not to ignore the warning signs.
Voters kept sending Young back to Washington, something Young said he didn’t take for granted.
“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.”
Washington correspondent Alan Fram, Associated Press reporter
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