Young Fights Alaska’s Thirst for Change
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 citys tallest, owned by the energy giant ConocoPhillips.
When I look every day, the big oil companys building is right out there next to me, and its 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 nations energy crisis.
Now, however, he could be in a particularly painful political jam, with Palins deputy, Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, and state Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux challenging Young in Tuesdays Republican primary. Polls have shown a close race between Parnell and Young, but the incumbent is unfazed.
Ive lived through this a long time and Ive watched, you know, everybodys got these buzzwords about change. My argument about change is, to what? Young said. When people talk about change, Id like to see what theyre 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 states 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 Tuesdays 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 Obamas 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.
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 didnt 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 theyre 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 Youngs 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, Youngs most recent campaign finance report showed he has received only $17,000 from his Congressional colleagues since February. Its 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 Youngs 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 Youngs 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, theyre 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 dont 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, theres 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, Parnells 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. Palins 2006 gubernatorial campaign office was housed in the same, visible plot the heart of downtowns tourist district.
Its never easy to beat a 35-year incumbent, Parnell said. Hes 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 states 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 hasnt 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.
LeDoux, Youngs 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 cant say that I dislike the guy, she said. Hes 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 hell 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.
Thats 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 wasnt 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 Youngs 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, theres a lot to be said about seniority, but when its not coupled with the respect of your colleagues, the seniority doesnt mean that much, LeDoux said. And when your colleagues are asking the Justice Department to investigate you, thats 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.
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 Committees favored candidate in Tuesdays 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 campaigns 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 wed been on television and before his recent slide, tells me Im 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 its time for a change. Im in the minority of Alaskans who like Don Young personally, and Id like to keep it that way on both fronts, he said. Hes 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, hell be a very good challenge, Young said. Hes very qualified for the job. … I just think hes 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 states adult population, half of which he said turns over every seven to 10 years. There is a new generation of Alaskans, he said, who dont want to be embarrassed anymore by political scandals.
As Ive said time and time again, this election isnt about where weve been, but where were going, Berkowitz said. And its not just about seniority, but its about longevity. … By that measure, I think Im a better choice for Alaska than he is.
A Story to Tell
Although lagging behind in the polls to Berkowitz, Bensons 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. Bensons 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 dont understand veterans struggles.
Shes family, she understands us, King said. Thats 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 dont.
Despite her underdog status, Benson expressed optimism. If every person who supports me votes, I win.