WASHINGTON — There he was, sitting in the House of Representatives, grinning ear to ear, attending his first State of the Union speech since 1974.
It almost didn’t happen. Laid low by the scandal of a federal criminal investigation and a near-pariah in his own Republican Party, Alaska’s Rep. Don Young has in recent years struggled to stay relevant in a political era that’s sidelined the kind of earmarking and horse-trading at which he excels.
Now, though, he’s cleared in the investigation, and Republicans are back in charge of the House. The 77-year-old congressman who brags of never using a computer but always carrying a knife? He’s back, and spoiling for another round.
Settling into his 20th term in office, Young has moved his hunting trophies into the biggest office in the House of Representatives. He’s holding sway over a new panel on Indian affairs and although it’s a subcommittee, it returns to him the title “chairman” that he cherished for so much of his time in Congress. He’s back as the Western representative on the House GOP policy committee that helps shape Republican initiatives. He’s even taking calls from the White House about spending priorities in Indian Country.
The renewed vigor comes following a stretch of challenges that his defense lawyer, John Dowd, said would be insurmountable for most people.
“Being under investigation is worse than having a gun pointed at you, particularly when you’re a public official,” Dowd said. “It’s extremely difficult.”
In August 2009, Young lost his wife of 46 years, Lu, his constant companion. If she hadn’t persuaded him to file for re-election before her death, he might not have run this fall, Young said in an interview recently.
“And it was the best thing she did to me, because if I hadn’t had the job, I would have been dead in a heartbeat,” he said. “Now I’ve got more to focus on, so it keeps me going, and I thank her for that.”
But he’s also free of the federal investigation, which looked at whether he accepted illegal campaign contributions and gifts from a now-defunct Alaska-based oilfield service company, Veco, and its convicted chairman, Bill Allen. Young was also being investigated for an earmark in a transportation bill for a Florida interchange sought by a campaign donor.
In August, Young said, the Justice Department had told Dowd that it had dropped its investigations.
Young has never fully addressed the accusations, but he spent well over $1 million on legal fees from his campaign account in fending them off. Several of his aides were snared in them. One aide from Young’s time on the Transportation Committee, Fraser Verrusio, is on trial now, accused of illegally accepting an expenses-paid trip to the 2003 World Series and lying about it on a financial disclosure form.
In granting a rare interview with McClatchy, Young would allow just one question about the federal probe. Asked whether he learned who his true friends were, it was the only time during the interview that he struggled to control his emotions.
“Let’s put it this way. I learned who was not my friend,” he said.
He continues to revel in his reputation for colorful metaphors, bluster and the possibility of fisticuffs. There’s the transportation bill he admitted was “stuffed like a turkey” with earmarks. There’s the legendary tale of him in 1994 brandishing an oosik — the penis bone of a walrus — at a female Fish and Wildlife Service chief. In 2007, he threatened on the House floor to bite a political opponent “like a mink.”
He’s also now counted among lawmakers who may or may not carry a gun — he’s not saying for sure where or when he does. But following the shooting this month of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., Young said he wouldn’t hesitate to use firepower, if necessary.
“I carry it wherever no one can see it,” he said, although he says he does not have a concealed weapons permit. “I don’t use it as a threat. My biggest fear is someone that’s a nut that might try to make a statement, and I don’t have a chance to retaliate, that’s all.”
He is, his friends say, little changed from the man who made his way to Fort Yukon to make his mark in Alaska’s interior in its first year of statehood. You may catch him cleaning his fingernails with his Bowie knife, said Dan Kish, a former aide on the Natural Resources Committee, but don’t be fooled.
“Despite the gruff exterior and the un-Washington ways, sometimes his intuitions and insights into things are extraordinary,” said Kish, who acknowledges he’s also “nearly come to blows arguing” with Young.
“But it’s born out of respect,” he said. “Washington is full of that crap, and Don’s different. It’s a different cut of cloth. He continues to have that bright-faced optimism.”