Many challenging for Young's seat

Some see unusual opportunities against longtime incumbent

Posted: Monday, June 05, 2006

Actress and activist Diane Benson is one of five Democrats, as well as two Libertarians and one Green Party candidate, challenging U.S. Rep. Don Young for the congressional seat that he has enjoyed for 33 years.

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The field is one of the deepest Alaska has seen in recent years. Young typically attracts few opponents as he dominates the polls.

Given his popularity and seniority, Young typically earns at least 70 percent of the statewide vote every two years.

This year's challengers say it's time for a new face.

"It's not a lifetime appointment to be a representative," Benson said while campaigning in Juneau during Celebration last week. "People have allowed him to reign and I think (it's) primarily because nobody steps forward."

Benson, mother of an Iraq War veteran who was injured and is now in a wheelchair, said she was inspired by her son and other soldiers to run for office.

"We got ourselves in a quandary there and we either need to fully support the troops or get them out," she said.

There are almost 75,000 veterans in Alaska, Benson said, and their treatment leaves something to be desired. She said she would like to see money for Alaska veterans' hospitals or adequate veteran health care.

"Many of them have to fly out of the state," she said. "I think we have short-changed our veterans and I think that's shameful."

Kay Brown, spokesman for the Alaska Democratic Party, said veterans' issues will be one of the main topics Democrats will discuss on the campaign trail.

Playing the role of Native leader Elizabeth Peratrovich, Benson recently starred in a Public Broadcasting System documentary made about the civil rights struggle in Alaska. Benson also performed in Juneau a one-woman play based on the same character.

"She's put a lot of time into understanding our history," said Ed Thomas, president of the Tlingit-Haida Central Council. Thomas and the members of the council are not allowed to endorse candidates, but he said he's known Benson personally for several years and wishes her luck.

Thomas said Alaska Natives have benefited from having Young in office.

"We have been very lucky to have Don Young," he said, adding Young is like a "bulldog" when it comes to going after problems that concern the Native community.

If elected, Benson, a Tlingit, would be the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress. She was raised in Sitka and Ketchikan, and also lived in Juneau, on Prince of Wales Island and in Fairbanks.

In 2002, Benson ran for governor on the Green Party's ticket, but is now running as a Democrat.

"Smaller parties can sometimes make a point," Brown said. "But if you want to get someone elected, you need to run in a major party. So I'm not surprised to see people moving to the Democratic Party"

Ray Metcalfe, chairman of the Republican Monderate Party, is also running for Congress as a Democrat, mostly because he thinks he has a better chance of winning that way.

Metcalfe said he jumped into the race because of rumors that Young would either not file for election or would withdraw after the August primary so that, if appointed by the Republican Party, Senate President Ben Stevens could take his place.

Young's campaign manager, Steven Dougherty, said the rumor is wrong.

"There's no way he's going to withdraw," said Dougherty.

Dougherty said the rumor may be the reason Young has more opponents this year.

Brown said she also heard Young may drop out of the race, and said it could have been a factor in candidates' decisions. But more significant, she said: Young's alleged connections to Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff may make him an easier target.

"I think the fact that Don Young seems to be in trouble probably is what has drawn so many contenders into the race," she said.

Abramoff in January pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officers.

Young reportedly used a skybox owned by Abramoff at the MCI Center in Washington for two fundraisers, which were not reported to the Federal Election Commission until after the Abramoff scandal broke.

Young's spokesman earlier this year said the congressman never sought the help of Abramoff and that other connections uncovered by Capitol Hill watchdog Roll Call were coincidences.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at andrew.petty@juneauempire.com.



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