Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) has died at age 88. The longest-serving member of the 117th Congress, who held the job for 48 years, had a reputation for being colorful, confrontational and often unpredictable.
Young often said he would stay in office until the Alaska voters or God decided otherwise, reported Alaska Public Media station KTOO.
Lobbyist Jack Ferguson, who was Young’s friend and his first chief of staff, confirmed the news Friday afternoon.
Ferguson said he was told by a representative of Alaska Airlines that Young died in an airport, but there were no other immediate details, according to KTOO.
“I just got a call from Alaska Airlines,” Ferguson said. “They told me that Don died in Concourse B. I was so shocked I didn’t even ask if that was here in Anchorage or in Seattle,” he added.
Young’s office issued a statement late Friday about the death.
“It is with heavy heart that we announce Congressman Don Young, the Dean of the House and revered champion for Alaska, passed away today while traveling to Alaska to be with the state and people that he loved. His beloved wife, Anne, was at his side,” it noted.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a statement Friday that she was “saddened beyond belief about the loss of my friend. We have lost a giant who we loved dearly and who held Alaska in his heart — always.” She added: “Don was coming home to the place that he loved, and to the people that loved him best.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) said Young was a “great friend” who “in many ways formed Alaska into the great state it is today.”
Young was born in Meridien, California, and grew up on a farm there. He moved to Alaska in 1959, the year it became a state — lured there by Jack London stories his dad once read to him, he later recounted.
He was a teacher, trapper and riverboat captain in the small community of Fort Yukon, where he became mayor in 1964. He was first elected to Alaska’s sole House seat in 1973 and had won reelection in 2020 to his 25th term.
He had been seeking reelection this year for a 26th term.
Young, a conservative, counted among his biggest wins the passage of legislation his first year in office allowing for construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline system, according to The Associated Press. He often railed against “extreme environmentalists” and a federal bureaucracy that he complained blocked use of Alaska’s mineral, timber and petroleum resources.
Young was proud of his brash, larger-than-life style, CQ Roll Call reported in a 2014 profile.
He sometimes flouted ethics rules. He even reportedly seemed to threaten a life — telling a onetime Democratic challenger that the last person to touch him “ended up on the ground dead,” Roll Call reported. It was an accusation with “some truth” to it, he told the publication.
He complained to Roll Call that most other lawmakers on Capitol Hill were “cookie cutters.” He boasted that had always been himself while many of his colleagues simply played up to the TV cameras.
Young also once told Roll Call that he was really just a “big Teddy bear” — unless he was crossed.
In one of the wildest stories about Young, former Republican House Speaker John Boehner told Politico in 2017 that the lawmaker once pinned him against a wall during an argument over one of Young’s pricey pet projects in Alaska — and held a 10-inch knife to his throat. Boehner claimed he stared Young in the eyes and responded: “Fuck you.”
Young later told Politico that the story was “mostly true” but added that the two later became good friends and that the Ohioan was the best man at his wedding.