Don Young: 46 years in an office he never expected to win

Rep. Young at his swearing-in ceremony, March 14, 1973. Speaker of the House Carl Albert, D-Okla., administers the oath, with House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, R-Mich. (Photo: Office of Don Young)

Congressman Don Young has hit a milestone: He is now the longest-serving Republican member of Congress in history.

On Wednesday, Young surpassed the previous record held by Rep. Joseph Cannon, R-Ill, whose tenure began in 1873.

Young has served since 1973. Of all the work he’s done in his 46 years in office, the bill he considers the most significant was the one allowing for the trans-Alaska pipeline.

“There’s no Alaskan right now that isn’t somehow touched by what I’ve been able to do in Congress. And people say, ‘That’s kind of presumptuous.’ But you think, everyone gets a Permanent (Fund) Dividend check. That was my bill,” he said, referring to the pipeline legislation. “And people forget that. But I’m going to remind them again.”

Rep. Young’s Washington office has trophies and mementos on just about every surface. Photo: Liz Ruskin.

When Young makes national headlines, though, it’s usually for more colorful episodes, and they are recounted over and over, in every profile. The time he uttered a crude sexual term when addressing high school students. The time he had to apologize for using a derogatory word for Latino migrants. Or the time C-SPAN cameras caught him making faces on the House floor as a colleague was speaking about a marine killed in action.

Young says he is who he is, and he doesn’t mind the stories.

“In some cases I may have outlived the so-called politically correct term. But it’s still me,” he said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office, which is crowded with hunting trophies, photos and memorabilia.

ln fact, Young said he’s likely to create some more colorful moments in the years to come.

“Because I don’t like, very frankly, the wishy-washy, mamby-pamby-type people we’ve elected to Congress,” he said. “And if there’s a point to be made, I’ll make it.”

When he took the oath of office in 1973, he never imagined he’d still be a congressman 46 years later. Young said he never expected to be in Congress at all.

He was a state House member and got elected to the state Senate in 1970. As he tells it, he didn’t like the Senate, for the same reason he’s never wanted to be in the U.S. Senate.

“I don’t like the way they conduct themselves. It’s not, I think, a real active body,” Young said. “That’s national and in the state Legislative body.”

His wife at the time, Lu, talked him into running for Congress, as a way to quit politics: They figured the incumbent, Nick Begich, would win and Young could go back to Fort Yukon and captain tugboats again.

“Well, I ran for Congress and (as) everyone knows, Nick took off Oct. 16 and never was found, and he still beat me,” Young said.

Congressman Begich’s chartered plane disappeared three weeks before Election Day in 1972. That November, Young took just 44 percent of the vote.

That’s another one of those stories people tell about Young, how “he lost to a dead man.” Did it bother him?

“Oh, I joke about it. A little bit,” he said. “I sort felt like the Pony Express rider that gets his horse shot out from underneath him and he finds a swayback, wall-eyed horse, but other than to ride that horse he’ll get killed.”

Young won a special election in 1973 to take the seat. And he kept winning, every two years. He’s 85, the oldest member now in Congress. Young said he plans to serve as long as he remains in good health and the voters of Alaska decide to keep him.

And by the way, Young is the longest serving Republican member of Congress, House or Senate. He would have to serve 13 more years to beat the record held by Rep. John Dingell,D-Mich., who died last month.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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