Alaska Congressman Don Young has died

A man speaks at a podium
Representative Don Young at the August 26, 2020, opening ceremony for the Operation Lady Justice Task Force Cold Case Office in Anchorage. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska Congressman Don Young, the most senior member of the U.S. House, has died. He was 88.

Lobbyist Jack Ferguson, who was Young’s friend and his first chief of staff, confirmed the news Friday afternoon.

He said he heard from Alaska Airlines that the congressman died in Concourse B. And he was so stunned he didn’t ask which airport.

“I’m shocked. I’m sad. I got a pit in my stomach,” Ferguson said. “I just so wanted him to serve out those last years, you know? When the Republicans (would be) in the majority and he could… help the state in one last real strong move.”

Young’s office issued a statement saying the congressman died while returning to Alaska. His wife, Anne, who is a flight nurse, was by his side.

Young, a former teacher, trapper and riverboat captain from Fort Yukon, Alaska, was first elected to Alaska’s sole U.S. House seat in 1973 and has held it ever since. He often said he would stay in office until the Alaska voters or God decided otherwise. He was actively seeking re-election this year.

Young served in Congress for 49 years.

On the House Resources Committee he was known for verbal dust-ups with environmentalists. It often infuriated him when someone from the Lower 48 testified in favor of preserving Alaska resources he wanted to see developed. He disputed the greenhouse gas theory of global warming for decades. He gradually shifted toward saying climate change was real but didn’t embrace the scientific consensus that it’s fundamentally human-caused.

He was legendary for behavior perhaps more suitable for an Alaska roadhouse than the U.S. House of Representatives. The time he put his hand in a leghold trap in an attempt to show the traps weren’t painful. The time he waved an oosik — the penis bone of a walrus —  at the first woman named to lead U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“How I think I’ll be remembered? Hopefully, it’d be as a guy that did the job,” he said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office in 2019. “Half the people of Alaska love me and the other half don’t. But I want them to remember one thing: I gave it my all. And I will continue to do that as long as I’m physically able to do it.”

Young had trouble walking in recent months and often relied on a wheelchair to get from his office to votes in the House chamber. He suffered from back pain that he was hoping to fix through surgery.

Young was a fierce champion for development of Alaska’s resources and prided himself as an advocate for Alaska Native people.

“I don’t brag about it much, but there’s … no Alaskan right now who isn’t somehow touched by what I’ve been able to do in Congress,” he said two years ago, marking his anniversary in office.

Young shepherded the Trans-Alaska Pipeline bill through the House. That ushered in an era of growth and wealth for Alaska and led the state to create the Permanent Fund.

“Now everybody gets a Permanent Fund dividend check from that pipeline. And so I take a little pride in that,” he said. “It’s probably the most major piece of legislation has ever passed the Congress for state of Alaska.”

The House Ethics Committee found in 2014 that he had made personal use of campaign funds, accepted improper gifts and travel, and failed to make required financial disclosures. He was ordered to return $59,000.

Donald Edwin Young was born June 9, 1933 in Sutter County, California, about 50 miles north of Sacramento. His family had a ranch.

“I told my father if I didn’t get part of the action I was leaving, and he said, ‘When?'” Young recalled years ago. “I was 18 years old and I went up to Alaska.”

He later returned to California to go to college. He served in the Army from 1955 to 1957, in a tank unit. He used to say he was trained to kill a man with his bare hands. He didn’t provide details but it was an interesting rhetorical device he pulled out to argue against gun bans.

Following state law, Gov. Mike Dunleavy must call a special primary to fill the vacancy in May or June of this year. A special general election for the seat could be held Aug. 16, the date of Alaska’s regular primary.

Just two days before he died, Young participated in a Q-and-A on Facebook with his spokesman, Zack Brown, posing questions from Alaskans.

“We’re doing pretty well in in Congress right now. We hope we continue that … . So thank you, Zack,” he said, signing off. “Thank you, Alaskans for watching this short show, and we’ll see you again next week.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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

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