Representative Don Young
U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Brent Sheehan, the 354th Fighter Wing command chief, speaks with U.S. Representative Don Young, Oct. 17, 2017, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Alaskan community leaders visited the installation for the F-35 Community Showcase. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Isaac Johnson)

The longest-serv­ing mem­ber of the Unit­ed States House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the only per­son to have rep­re­sent­ed the State of Alas­ka in that cham­ber of Con­gress since the Water­gate era has unex­pect­ed­ly passed away.

Don Young, eighty-eight, was the dean of the House and the dean of the Alas­ka fed­er­al del­e­ga­tion, which also con­sists of Sen­a­tors Lisa Murkows­ki and Dan Sul­li­van. His ser­vice spanned that of ten pres­i­dents, from Nixon to Biden.

Young lost con­scious­ness before he was to depart on a flight head­ed to Seat­tle from Los Ange­les, the Alas­ka Dai­ly News report­ed.

“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 office said in a state­ment. “His beloved wife Anne was by his side.”

“A fierce defend­er of Alas­ka since elect­ed to Con­gress in 1973, near­ly every­thing that has advanced for Alas­ka is a result of Don Young’s tena­cious work. From the Trans-Alas­ka pipeline, to the Ketchikan Ship­yard, to the Mag­nu­son Stevens Act, which trans­formed the Amer­i­can fish­ing indus­try, to the numer­ous land exchanges he fought for, Don Young’s lega­cy can­not be overstated.”

“Don Young’s lega­cy as a fight­er for the state will live on, as will his fun­da­men­tal good­ness and his hon­or. We will miss him dear­ly. His fam­i­ly, his staff, and his many friends ask Alaskans for their prayers dur­ing this dif­fi­cult time.”

Young was reelect­ed twen­ty-four times after win­ning a spe­cial elec­tion in 1973 to replace Demo­c­ra­t­ic incum­bent Nick Begich, who dis­ap­peared Octo­ber 16th, 1972 and who was lat­er pre­sumed to have died in a plane crash. (Begich’s body was nev­er found). Young had chal­lenged Begich in the 1972 elec­tion, but lost.

In the sub­se­quent spe­cial elec­tion held in 1973, with­out Begich on the bal­lot, Young won… and then kept on win­ning for decades.

Due to Young hav­ing passed away dur­ing the mid­dle of his term, his suc­ces­sor will also end up being cho­sen in a spe­cial elec­tion, which arch­con­ser­v­a­tive Alas­ka Gov­er­nor Mike Dun­leavy has three months to fix a date for.

Young’s polit­i­cal career began all the way back in 1964 when he was cho­sen to be the may­or of Fort Yukon, a small city in one of Alaska’s north­ern bor­oughs. In 1966, he was elect­ed to the Alas­ka State House and in 1970, moved to the Alas­ka State Sen­ate. With­in two years, he had become a con­gres­sion­al can­di­date, although, as men­tioned, his ini­tial cam­paign was unsuccessful.

After hav­ing gone from small city may­or to state rep­re­sen­ta­tive to state sen­a­tor to mem­ber of Con­gress in the span of less than a decade, Young made the U.S. House his polit­i­cal home for the remain­der of his life.

“Today, Con­gress and the Coun­try join Alas­ka in mourn­ing the loss of a ded­i­cat­ed patri­ot and pub­lic ser­vant: Con­gress­man Don Young,” said Speak­er Nan­cy Pelosi.

“When he became Dean of the House in Decem­ber 2017, Don said: ‘I love this body. I believe in this body. My heart is in the House.’”

“Indeed, his rev­er­ence and devo­tion to the House shone through in every­thing that he did. For five decades, he was an insti­tu­tion in the hal­lowed halls of Con­gress: a seri­ous leg­is­la­tor always bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er to do the People’s work. The pho­tographs of him with ten pres­i­dents of both par­ties who signed his bills into law that proud­ly cov­er the walls of his Ray­burn office are a tes­ta­ment to his longevi­ty and his leg­isla­tive mastery.”

“When I became Speak­er of the House in Jan­u­ary 2019 and Jan­u­ary 2021, it was a priv­i­lege to be sworn in by Don – who, as Dean, nev­er failed to hon­or the spe­cial tra­di­tions of our trea­sured insti­tu­tion. His his­toric ser­vice brought lus­ter to the Con­gress, and his many friends in the House will strive to live up to his tow­er­ing lega­cy. May it be a com­fort to Don’s wife Anne and his chil­dren Dawn and Joni that so many mourn their loss and are pray­ing for them at this sad time.”

“Alaskans are dev­as­tat­ed by this shock­ing and sad news and I am sad­dened beyond belief about the loss of my friend,” said Sen­a­tor Lisa Murkos­ki.

“We have lost a giant who we loved dear­ly and who held Alas­ka in his heart — always. Don was com­ing home to the place that he loved, and to the peo­ple that loved him best. We love you, Don.”

Alaska’s Repub­li­can gov­er­nor Mike Dun­leavy also offered a trib­ute.

“Con­gress­man Don Young has been a great friend and col­league of mine for many years. I am deeply sad­dened to hear of the pass­ing of this amaz­ing man who, in many ways, formed Alas­ka into the great state it is today. Hours after being sworn into the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, he was lead­ing the his­toric bat­tle for approval of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. Short­ly after, he was impres­sive­ly hon­ored in 1973 as the ‘Fresh­man Con­gress­man of the Year.’ This is the Con­gress­man whom Alas­ka will remem­ber for­ev­er. Alas­ka is a bet­ter place because of Don Young. Rose and I offer our prayers to his fam­i­ly dur­ing this dif­fi­cult time.”

Though revered by many long­time Alas­ka Repub­li­cans, Young often exhib­it­ed a short fuse and unac­cept­able per­son­al con­duct. On mul­ti­ple occa­sions, he used weapons to threat­en oth­er mem­bers of Congress.

Newsweek report­ed in 1995 that Young “bran­dished a knife on the House floor when Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Robert Mrazek offered a bill restrict­ing log­ging in the Ton­gass.” In a 2017 pro­file, for­mer Speak­er John Boehn­er told Politi­co that he too had been threat­ened by Young at knife­point, sev­er­al years later.

“Boehn­er nev­er accept­ed an ear­mark in Con­gress — and he enjoyed rail­ing against those who did. His heck­ling once pro­voked Don Young, an Alaskan him­self, to pin Boehn­er against a wall inside the House cham­ber and hold a 10-inch knife to his throat,” Politi­co’s Tim Alber­ta wrote.

(Alber­ta got Young to con­firm that this account was “most­ly true.”)

The same year that Alber­ta pro­filed Boehn­er, Young went after Wash­ing­ton’s own Prami­la Jaya­pal (D‑WA-07), now the Chair of the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus, den­i­grat­ing her as a “young lady” and snap­ping that Jaya­pal “does­n’t know a damn thing what she’s talk­ing about.” Jaya­pal immei­date­ly request­ed that Young’s remarks be with­drawn, and Young was forced to apologize.

“So often, we are dis­cred­it­ed for being brown or black, look­ing too young or too old, or hav­ing strong opin­ions,” Jaya­pal sub­se­quent­ly told CNN. “I came to Con­gress by the same means as my esteemed col­leagues, and it is dis­re­spect­ful not only to me but to those who elect­ed me to ques­tion my intel­li­gence or capacity.”

Young was­n’t just some­times nasty towards his colleagues.

In 2013, for exam­ple, he referred to immi­grants using a deroga­to­ry slur. He lat­er claimed he meant no offense, offer­ing the equiv­a­lent of a non-apology.

“The com­ments used by Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Young do noth­ing to ele­vate our par­ty, polit­i­cal dis­course or the mil­lions who come here look­ing for eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty,” Texas Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor John Cornyn said in response. (Cornyn would go on to repeat­ed­ly over­look unciv­il lan­guage used by Don­ald Trump.)

The fol­low­ing year (2014), Young was dis­ci­plined by the House Ethics Com­mit­tee for mis­us­ing cam­paign funds to go on hunt­ing trips with friends and family.

“The pan­el found that the twen­ty-one-term Alas­ka Repub­li­can broke its rules when he used cam­paign funds for per­son­al pur­pos­es and improp­er­ly accept­ed gifts for fif­teen trips between 2001–2013,” CNN report­ed.

“There were a num­ber of instances where I failed to exer­cise due care in com­ply­ing with the House’s Code of Con­duct and for that I apol­o­gize,” Young said after the Ethics Com­mit­tee con­clud­ed its investigation.

Only a few years pri­or, Young had been ensnared in the probe into Jack Abramof­f’s cor­rupt deal­ings. He nar­row­ly avoid­ed elec­toral defeat in 2008.

“Young was inves­ti­gat­ed sev­er­al times by the Jus­tice Depart­ment, includ­ing an inquiry into a $10 mil­lion ear­mark that ben­e­fit­ed a cam­paign con­trib­u­tor, but he was nev­er charged with wrong­do­ing,” The Wash­ing­ton Post recount­ed.

Lat­er in 2014, Young caused an uproar when he false­ly assert­ed that sui­cides were result­ing from a lack of sup­port from par­ents and friends and “an enti­tle­ment men­tal­i­ty” stem­ming from “fed­er­al largesse.” When a stu­dent at Wasil­la High School took issue with Young’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, Young attacked the stu­dent by call­ing them a name — an inci­dent he was also forced to apol­o­gize for.

Young was a staunch pro­po­nent of drilling and log­ging, even in sacred wild places like the Ton­gass or the Alas­ka Refuge. He often sparred with Demo­c­ra­t­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tives work­ing to pro­tect and care for the Earth, our com­mon home.

On oth­er issues, he broke with his par­ty and helped Democ­rats to pass pro­gres­sive poli­cies. For instance, Young was one of just thir­ty-three Repub­li­cans to vote to reau­tho­rize the Vio­lence Against Women Act in 2020.

And he was one of an iden­ti­cal num­ber of Repub­li­cans to back the LGBTQ Busi­ness Equal Cred­it Enforce­ment and Invest­ment Act last year.

It has been half a cen­tu­ry since any­one else rep­re­sent­ed Alas­ka in the Unit­ed States House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, so Young’s death tru­ly does mark the end of an era. Our con­do­lences to his friends, fam­i­ly, and constituents.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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