When news surfaced last year that Alaska congressman Don Young was facing a federal investigation for possible corruption, it was hardly what Republicans wanted to hear: yet another member of their party under an ethical cloud, following an election in which questions about ethics had cost them dearly.
So far, Young hasn’t been charged with anything, though he has spent some $850,000 on legal fees. Still, something appears to be rotten in the state of Alaska. Earlier this month, James Clark, the chief of staff to former Republican governor Frank Murkowski, pleaded guilty to felony fraud charges involving campaign contributions from VECO, an engineering company. Last year, several Republican legislators and VECO executives were convicted of bribery. GOP senator Ted Stevens is also the subject of a probe.
Young has longstanding ties to VECO. For years, former CEO Bill Allen sponsored an annual fundraiser for the congressman. They called it the “Pig Roast” and they couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate name: Young is one of Washington’s most shameless pork-barrelers. He’s best known for the “Bridge to Nowhere,” a $223-million earmark for a span that would have serviced an island with a population of about 50 people. In the same highway bill, he tried to secure a similar amount for another bridge near Anchorage that would have carried his name: Don Young’s Way. After Hurricane Katrina struck, several members of Congress, including Sen. John McCain, suggested diverting the cash for these projects to the reconstruction of New Orleans. Young’s responded with typical bluster: “That is the dumbest thing I ever heard.”
Revelations about such misbegotten priorities and monuments to ego would have embarrassed many lawmakers. They certainly hurt the image of congressional Republicans in what became a fateful election year. But the 74-year-old Young, who was first elected in 1973, appears not to have learned any lessons from the grim experience of 2006. The GOP’s loss of majority status certainly doesn’t seem to have bothered him. “I served 22 years in the minority and was very successful,” he told the Anchorage Daily News shortly after the Republican rout. Last year, when GOP congressman Scott Garrett of New Jersey tried to reduce the cost of an education bill, Young threw a hissy fit on the House floor: “You want my money, my money!”
By now, it has become clear that no matter what federal investigators learn about the congressman’s links to VECO, Don Young’s Way is the wrong way for Republicans. The problem goes even deeper than concerns about ethics and the addiction to handouts. Young is simply too liberal for his conservative state. In its most recent congressional scorecard, the American Conservative Union gave him a rating of 72 — a poor record that puts him to the left of most of his GOP colleagues in the House. He supports one of Big Labor’s top legislative priorities, a bill that would eliminate secret ballots in union elections. On free trade, he is a reliable protectionist who has opposed Trade Promotion Authority for the president, trade agreements with Chile and Singapore, and a NAFTA provision that would permit Mexican drivers to travel on U.S. interstates. He has also voted against the reauthorization of the Patriot Act.
A recent poll found that 55 percent of likely voters have an unfavorable view of Young — a number that should concern Republicans who hope Alaska’s only House seat stays in GOP hands. The good news is that there’s now a viable Republican alternative. On March 14, Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell announced a primary challenge to Young. Two years ago, Parnell’s gubernatorial ticket-mate, Sarah Palin, swiped the GOP nomination from the unpopular Murkowsi. She and Parnell went on to win the general election and now Palin is even discussed, in some circles, as a possible vice-presidential candidate.
The National Republican Congressional Committee may feel compelled to prop up Young, much as the National Republican Senatorial Committee tried to do two years ago with Rhode Island senator Lincoln Chafee, a man who ultimately survived his primary, then lost his seat and thanked the GOP by quitting it. Throwing resources behind Young would be another big mistake. Parnell, in fact, has the opportunity to do his party a favor, by forcing the retirement of an incumbent who is a walking argument for term limits and making sure his red-state seat doesn’t defect to the Democrats. He has the endorsement of Palin, and he should enjoy the strong support of conservatives.