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.