Don Young, the seemingly indestructible politician who was Alaska’s sole congressman for more than three-fourths of his state’s existence, died Friday.
His wife, Anne, was by his side, his office said in statement.
“It’s with heavy hearts and deep sadness that we announce Congressman Don Young, the Dean of the House and revered champion for Alaska, passed away today while traveling home to Alaska to be with the state and people that he loved,” the statement said.
Young, a Republican and the longest-serving member of Congress, lost consciousness on a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle and couldn’t be resuscitated, said Jack Ferguson, a lobbyist who once served as Young’s chief of staff.
“Everyone’s learning about it right at the moment. The phone’s ringing off the hook,” Ferguson said in a phone interview Friday evening. “I’m sad to lose such a good friend, and a person that I’ve known all his political career.”
Young served in Congress since 1973. He was sworn in after winning a special election to replace Democrat Nick Begich, who disappeared on a campaign flight.
In his 49 years in office, Young built up a singular political brand, with brashness and verbal gaffes belying a wisdom about the internal workings of Congress and an uncommon reputation for bipartisanship.
Young introduced Deb Haaland, a former Democratic Congresswoman, when President Joe Biden nominated her as Interior Secretary last year, and he asked Democratic U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi to meet him for a drink when he swore her in as House Speaker.
John Boehner, a Republican former House speaker, once said Young held a knife to his throat — “mostly true,” Young acknowledged — but then Boehner agreed to be the best man at Young’s wedding.
Through decades of those inflammatory comments, and an ethics scandal, Alaskans continued returning Young to Washington, D.C. And it rarely was close.
“The only time I’ll retire is when people want to retire me,” Young said in a 2014 interview with the Daily News. “The people decide I can’t serve them any more, they’ll get rid of me. It’s that simple.”
After nearly 25 terms, Young was running for a 26th; he had fundraisers scheduled in Juneau and Anchorage next week. His leading Republican opponent was one of Begich’s grandsons, Nick Begich III.
Ferguson, the lobbyist, said Young was eager to serve two more years in a U.S. House that he expected would be flipped from Democratic to Republican control.
“That was his goal, and he felt he could best help the state in the position he’s held all these years,” Ferguson said. “He was vibrant, he had a lot of energy, he’s very clear of mind, spoke clearly about what he wanted to accomplish, set goals that he wanted to make happen, and was happy to be running.”
Tributes quickly poured in after Young’s office announced his death, even though the news broke late on the East Coast. Haaland, the interior secretary, said she was “terribly sad” to hear of her “dear friend Congressman Don Young’s passing.”
“As dean of the House, Mr. Young taught all of us how to love the people and the states that we represent,” Haaland said. “Everything he did, every day, was for Alaska and its people, whom he loved dearly. He leaves us a tremendous legacy of bipartisanship in service of the greater good.”
Alaska GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy described Young as a “Congressman whom Alaska will remember forever.” U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said “we have lost a giant.” Wasilla GOP Rep. Cathy Tilton, the leader of the Alaska House Republican minority, called Young “a towering figure in Alaska for more than half a century.”
The statement from Dillingham independent Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a former state House speaker, voiced a reaction quietly held by more than one Alaskan: that it seemed Young might live forever.
“I can’t imagine Congress without Don Young fighting for Alaska,” Edgmon said.
State law requires GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy to call a special election to fill Young’s seat within three months, and no sooner than two months from the date of his death.
In 2020, Alaska voters approved a citizens initiative overhauling the state’s election system, with new top-four in primary elections and ranked choice voting in general elections. But state election officials have not yet confirmed that those systems will be used to replace Young.
“Our initial review of statute is not clear,” Tiffany Montemayor, a state elections division spokeswoman, said in an email. “We are working with the Department of Law so we can provide the governor, Legislature, and Alaska voters with the clearest possible answer.”
Rep. Don Young gathers with supporters along Seward Highway at Northern Lights Boulevard on November 2, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)