Young Fights Alaska’s Thirst for Change

Posted August 22, 2008 at 5:50pm

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — In her 17th-floor office downtown — the state government has the second-tallest building in the largest city in the state — Gov. Sarah Palin (R) has a sprawling view of the city’s tallest, owned by the energy giant ConocoPhillips.

“When I look every day, the big oil company’s building is right out there next to me, and it’s quite a reminder that we should have mutually beneficial relationships with the oil industry,” Palin said during an interview last week.

But it is that close relationship between the industry and the state that is imperiling the future of Republicans in Alaska. And after 35 years in the House of Representatives, Rep. Don Young is one of those Republicans whose career is in jeopardy.

Young has been in office long enough to see Alaska transition from federal government dependency to a state that relies heavily on the oil industry — with the potential to resolve the nation’s energy crisis.

Now, however, he could be in a particularly painful political jam, with Palin’s deputy, Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, and state Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux challenging Young in Tuesday’s Republican primary. Polls have shown a close race between Parnell and Young, but the incumbent is unfazed.

“I’ve lived through this a long time and I’ve watched, you know, everybody’s got these buzzwords about ‘change.’ My argument about change is, to what?” Young said. “When people talk about change, I’d like to see what they’re changing it to. But nobody wants to talk about that.”

As Alaska celebrates its 50th anniversary of statehood, “change” could indeed be on the horizon. For the longtime Republican stronghold, that change could even mean a change in political direction. Sen. Ted Stevens (R), the state’s most powerful politician, is under federal indictment and trails his challenger, Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D), by double digits in recent polls.

As for Young, even if he survives Tuesday’s primary, he trails the likely Democratic nominee, former state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, in recent surveys. (Berkowitz roughly polls evenly with Parnell.)

But in a state where seniority — and by association, federal dollars — means so much to its residents, change could be overrated.

From his single-level midtown Anchorage office, Young berated the current state of primary politics and how some candidates, including Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), misuse the idea of change. Less than 100 feet away in a strip mall is Obama’s main campaign office — one of five the campaign has opened in the state — and a first for a Democratic presidential campaign.

“This race has never been about Don Young,” Young said. “This race has been about who can do the best for the state. … They need somebody who knows how to do the job back there, and I know how to do the job.”

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As Palin sits in her office — completed by a bear fur draped on top of a plush sofa — she does not remember the last time she spoke with Young. She said she last saw him in a Fairbanks restaurant when a delegation of Congressional Republicans, including House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), visited Alaska last month to see the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“Don Young walked into the restaurant,” Palin recalled, “and walked right past us and didn’t say hello. His wife did come over and speak with us, which was very nice and cordial, but he did not. It kind of took me aback because these are his colleagues in Congress, and they’re all the way up here in Alaska.”

A Republican aide who was in the Fairbanks restaurant disputed that account, saying that Young stopped by the table briefly to say hello, while some of the visiting Members greeted the Alaska Congressman at his table.

Nonetheless, Parnell and his most famous backer, Palin, both argue that Young’s brash and combative attitude for bringing federal funds home has damaged his relationships with his Congressional colleagues.

“Clearly Young has alienated his colleagues and isolated himself over the years,” Parnell said. “What I think that means for Alaska is that we are not well-represented.”

In fact, Young’s most recent campaign finance report showed he has received only $17,000 from his Congressional colleagues since February. It’s money that he needs, given his campaign has spent $1.3 million on legal fees this election cycle while his office is being investigated for inserting at the last minute a $10 million earmark in Florida that would have benefited a campaign donor.

The Club for Growth, an adversary of Young’s because of his penchant for bringing home federal dollars for Alaska projects, has endorsed Parnell, run $350,000 in ads on his behalf and bundled $419,000 in donations for his campaign, according to the conservative anti-pork organization.

Parnell said the Ketchikan bridge project, otherwise known as the “Bridge to Nowhere,” symbolizes Young’s isolation in the House.

“When that becomes the national symbol of excess and greed and gets hung around the neck running for re-elections in districts outside of Alaska, they’re not going to be willing to help Alaskans get the infrastructure that we need to develop here,” Parnell said.

Young is a stalwart for the right for Members to bring federal funds back home. He has vehemently defended these earmarks on the House floor, often to the point of verbally affronting his colleagues. Young said these days, Members of Congress don’t debate or vote their conscience.

“I bet you a thousand dollars to one that if you shut a vote down halfway through and say, ‘All right, everybody tell me what you voted on,’ you might have the sponsor of the bill … tell you what they were voting on,” he said.

‘An Empty Suit’

With Young under investigation, there’s reasonable doubt among Republicans whether Parnell has the campaign operation or the drive to defeat the incumbent. His debate performances, according to Democrats and Republicans in the state, have been lackluster.

On a weekday afternoon, Parnell’s sparse downtown office has three people working quietly — including Parnell, who sits alone in a conference room next to phone and a plate of leftover cookies. Palin’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign office was housed in the same, visible plot — the heart of downtown’s tourist district.

“It’s never easy to beat a 35-year incumbent,” Parnell said. “He’s done some good across the years and people have remembered that. People tend to be a little more forgiving and sometimes forgetful.”

With Young serving Alaska for most of the state’s history, operatives are hard-pressed to find a voter whose life has not been influenced by a project that Young helped fund.

On the other hand, Ivan Moore, an Alaska pollster, said he keeps hearing from voters that Parnell is “an empty suit.”

“I think he has failed in telling people who he is,” Moore said. “The thing that I hear from people about Sean is, ‘Where is he? Who is he?’ … He just hasn’t made that emotional connection with people. And Don, for all his warts and all his faults, makes an emotional connection with people.”

Moore even describes a “Don Factor” in his polling: Even though respondents express negative feelings toward Young, he still gets their vote.

Bad Timing

LeDoux, Young’s other primary opponent, does not succumb to the “Don Factor.” Unlike Parnell, she said she found herself enjoying her interactions with the Congressman over the past year of the campaign.

“I can’t say that I dislike the guy,” she said. “He’s got a sort of a very rough sort of a charm. But do I think that if we send him back to Congress right now that he’ll be effective? And my answer is no.”

Six months before Parnell announced his bid, LeDoux was in the race. But with two statewide officials running in the primary, public polling has shown LeDoux in single digits behind Young and Parnell.

That’s not a lot of movement, considering she has spent more than $250,000 of her own money on her bid.

“Let me put it his way: If nobody else had gotten into the campaign and if he would have been indicted after the filing, then yeah, it certainly would have made it easier for me, if I was running as the only person running against an indicted incumbent,” LeDoux said. “But I certainly wasn’t counting on that. You never know when the Justice Department is going to indict.”

The timing of the indictment against Stevens, and the fact that the investigation of Young is apparently still under way, could also work in Young’s favor. While Stevens’ trial is set to begin in Washington, D.C., in late September, Young can be thousands of miles away, working to save his political career.

“You know, there’s a lot to be said about seniority, but when it’s not coupled with the respect of your colleagues, the seniority doesn’t mean that much,” LeDoux said. “And when your colleagues are asking the Justice Department to investigate you, that’s not a really good sign.”

LeDoux said the aura of corruption in Alaska GOP circles is still a dominant theme in her campaign.

LeDoux claims her fellow state House members asker her to go along with the oil company bribery scheme that has led to indictments of a half-dozen state Senators so far. In an interview in her bustling campaign office, she said she refused to go along — and made a campaign advertisement about it.

Democratic Hopes

Fresh off a fundraising trip to Seattle with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Berkowitz makes fundraising calls from his campaign office. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s favored candidate in Tuesday’s primary against 2006 nominee Diane Benson, Berkowitz is also familiar with Parnell: He ran against him for lieutenant governor in 2006.

A compactly built Berkowitz sits by the window in his campaign’s rented office space, one leg crossed over his knee, with a stack of fundraising solicitation letters in front of him.

He points to an Ivan Moore poll released that week that showed him leading Young in a hypothetical matchup, but trailing Parnell by about 5 points.

“That fact that we were within striking distance of Parnell before we’d been on television and before his recent slide, tells me I’m in great shape against him,” he said. “And Don Young is Don Young.”

But like LeDoux, Berkowitz does not have a personal problem with Young — he just thinks it’s time for a change. “I’m in the minority of Alaskans who like Don Young personally, and I’d like to keep it that way on both fronts,” he said. “He’s a character.”

The feeling is mutual.

“If I win this primary, when I win this primary and he is my opponent, which is not a given, he’ll be a very good challenge,” Young said. “He’s very qualified for the job. … I just think he’s got more on the ball. Not as much as I, but more than anybody else running.”

Berkowitz bases his optimism on the transient nature of the state’s adult population, half of which he said turns over every seven to 10 years. There is a new generation of Alaskans, he said, who “don’t want to be embarrassed anymore” by political scandals.

“As I’ve said time and time again, this election isn’t about where we’ve been, but where we’re going,” Berkowitz said. “And it’s not just about seniority, but it’s about longevity. … By that measure, I think I’m a better choice for Alaska than he is.”

A Story to Tell

Although lagging behind in the polls to Berkowitz, Benson’s personal story has garnered some national attention.

On a weekday evening last week, Benson makes her pitch to members of a disabled veterans’ sports league, who are meeting in a strip-mall bar. Benson’s son is rehabilitating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center after being seriously injured while serving in Iraq.

Walter King, the vice president of the league, said his group unofficially supports Benson because many Members of Congress don’t understand veterans’ struggles.

“She’s family, she understands us,” King said. “That’s really important. We have a lot of people right now out there on the Hill who claim they understand us but in reality, I think” many don’t.

Despite her underdog status, Benson expressed optimism. “If every person who supports me votes, I win.”