Don Young: A conservative who believed in the House

Greg Nash

Don Young, the Alaska congressman who died on March 18 at 88 and who is lying in state today, was a hard-nosed, in-your-face, unapologetic, old-line conservative. An ardent hunter and gun advocate, the walls of his legendary Rayburn building office looked like the workplace of an over-active taxidermist: covered in heads, hides and horns of the creatures that had the misfortune to cross paths with this former teacher, trapper and river boat captain. A descendent of the early conservationist movement that preserved open lands and wildlife so he could drill and graze on the former and shoot the latter, he had no patience with public land purists who demanded minimal human intrusions on the natural ecosystem. It is fair to say he was much more Safari Club than Sierra Club.

Don was not a subtle personality, as many discovered throughout his career. If he was unhappy with your criticisms or bored with your speechifying, he might pull out his hunting knife and hold it to your throat or jam it into the dais next to you at a hearing. The chief proponent of logging old forests and drilling the fragile coast, he was a hero to his Alaska constituents who sent him to Congress longer than any other sitting member, but a desecrating exploiter of the public’s resources to environmentalists, especially those in the other 49 states. 

But if Don was a throwback to an earlier age of gruff, sharp-elbow politics, he also retained that era’s deep love for the House in which he spent the bulk of his life, where he chaired two committees and served as Dean — and where it was not considered an act of treachery or political suicide to reach across the aisle.

There is often a tendency when someone dies to sand off the hard edges and portray the recently departed as something of a saint. Don would be the first to acknowledge he was no saint, and he’d be furious with anyone who tried to sand off his rough edges. He would bellow like a wounded grizzly when he made concessions on the Tongass forest or the Alaska Lands law, but once the deal was struck in the negotiations, he would go out on the floor and defend the work product of his committee.

Even so, Don remained a pariah to most national environmental activists for promoting projects like the Trans-Alaska pipeline or drilling in the Arctic Wilderness (both issues on which we strongly disagreed with him), and many of his own colleagues were angry with him for pushing through  the $400-million Gravina Island “bridge to nowhere” that became a paradigm of congressional pork and provoked Congress to ban earmarks. But the people who worked on those projects and would have driven on that bridge (it was cancelled in 2005) were Don Young’s constituents, and he was doing what congresspeople have done since time immemorial: taking care of the district. And it’s worth noting that the House, after a decade of prohibition, has resurrected — with greater transparency — earmarks as a crucial way of securing the votes to pass legislation.

Because he was very much his own man and did not suffer fools (or anyone else, for that matter) lightly, Don was skeptical of the new breed of hyper-partisans who emerged halfway through his long tenure in the House. Back in 1994, he was one of just a handful of Republicans who refused to embrace Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America,” a collection of half-baked, rhetorical broadsides against the Democratic majority under which he had always served. Asked why he declined to embrace the campaign document, he matter-of-factly declared, “Because it’s a crock of shit.”

Later in the decade, Don unexpectedly joined with leading environmentalists to support the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA) that offered up vast lands for both hunting and backpacking but also included greater protections for landowners and restrained federal land acquisitions. Down at the White House, plying the bill’s key sponsors with Diet Cokes as they happily missed floor votes, Bill Clinton professed his commitment to the bill to a delegation that included Republicans like Young who had just voted to impeach him. When Young left the West Wing after a couple of hours, he marveled, “No president has spent that much time with me since Nixon” three decades earlier.

Don helped build a stunning bipartisan coalition for CARA that passed the House with over 300 votes but stalled in the Senate. When asked why he could not get the bill past the upper house, he blamed “those crazy, god-damned right-wing bastards.” When he was reminded “Don, you’re a crazy right-wing bastard, you know,” he answered, “That’s true, but know how to cut a deal.”

The House Don Young leaves behind is one where knowing how to cut a bipartisan deal is a much more difficult challenge than in his glory days, wielding the gavel at the Resources and Transportation committees. His departure marks one more loss of the kind of people who were willing to take tough stands and live with the fallout, good or bad, because it was vastly better than gridlock and cheap shot sniping.

Saying you’ll miss Don Young doesn’t mean he was right all the time or that he was invariably wrong; it means the House is diminished by his loss. He was a great congressman and a great friend; Alaska was fortunate to have him.

George Miller represented California in the House for 40 years before retiring in 2014. He served as chairman and ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, on which John A. Lawrence served as Democratic staff director. Lawrence also served as chief of staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and is the author of “The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship” and the forthcoming “Arc of Power: Politics and Policy in the Pelosi Era 2005-2010.” Follow him on Twittter @JohnALawrenceDC. He blogs as DOMEocracy.

Tags Alaska Bill Clinton bipartisan conservationist Conservative Don Young Earmark environmental policy George Miller lying in state Nancy Pelosi Newt Gingrich old school Personality Trans-Alaska Pipeline System U.S. House Of Representatives

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