ANCHORAGE - When Congress voted to investigate how a national highway spending bill on the watch of U.S. Rep. Don Young came to include a Florida project that lawmakers had not voted on, critics predicted trouble at the ballot box for the 35-year Alaska congressman.
Headlines on the investigation followed stories of Young's ties to convicted influence peddlers and support for budget earmarks deemed wasteful outside the state.
The nattering has not bothered Dick Coose, one of the Alaska Republicans who will decide Young's immediate political future in the primary election Aug. 26.
Coose is the immediate past chairman of the GOP in Ketchikan at the tip of Alaska's Panhandle, a traditional stronghold for Young. Coose calls the daggers tossed at Young "politics as usual." He's not willing to trade Young's clout for the sake of change.
"I think the support is very strong, still, here," Coose said.
Eight days before the primary, the race for the Republican nomination is shaping up as tug of war between pragmatists such as Coose and conservatives fed up with Young's possible ethical lapses and his characteristic bluntness, which many perceive as arrogance.
The latter are lining up behind Young's formidable opponent in the August primary, squeaky clean Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, who has the strong endorsement of Alaska's most prominent reformer, Gov. Sarah Palin.
Alaska has not sent a Democrat to Congress since electing Democrat-turned-Libertarian Mike Gravel to the Senate in 1974. Seventeen of Alaska's 40 voting districts in 2006 backed Young by more than 1,000 votes. One was North Pole, a city sandwiched between two military bases south of Fairbanks, but GOP member Mike Prax expects that to change this year.
"I think there's a a good contingent of Alaskans who are embarrassed by the earmarks and the things that federal money is spent on," he said. "I know I certainly am."
Prax attended the Republican state convention in March, when Parnell rose from the same table as Young, took the dais and announced he would oppose the 18-term Republican in the primary.
Parnell had not tipped off Young. The congressman was fuming when he took his turn at the microphone.
"Sean, congratulations. I beat your dad and I'm going to beat you," Young said, referring to the 1980 race in which he trounced Pat Parnell, who ran as a Democrat.
Young's demeanor resonated with Prax and other party loyalists.
"He had the opportunity to be gracious, and didn't take it," Prax said. "The tone of voice, the arrogance of that speech, was just more than I could take."
Coose said many in the Alaska GOP are calling for change without considering the consequences. He too would like change - in the federal system. But he doesn't want Alaska sitting on the congressional sidelines without advocates like Young and U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in Senate history.
"Until everyone in the union says we're going to take back America from Washington, D.C., we're in the game," Coose said. "I think Don and Ted are two very strong people who know how the system works."
Ketchikan's loyalty, Coose said, transcends Young's strong support for a proposed bridge to the community's airport, lampooned as the "Bridge to Nowhere" and a symbol for pork barrel spending. Young, Coose said, is more in touch with Alaska communities than many of the federal bureaucrats overseeing traditional spending.
"Earmarks, as far as that goes, that's the way the nation is run, and I don't think Mr. Young has done anything outside the norm."
The original 2005 federal highway bill included $10 million to widen a Florida highway. The final version sent to the president, until revised, redirected money to an interchange that could have benefited a developer who conducted a fundraiser for Young. Young contends the project was supported in Florida to provide better access to shelter during hurricanes.
Young's troubles don't stop with how federal money was spent. A former aide, Mark Zachares, pleaded guilty to conspiracy for accepting $30,000 of tickets from congressional influence peddler Jack Abramoff.
Young is being investigated for connections to VECO Corp., the former oil field service company whose top two executives pleaded guilty last year to bribing Alaska state lawmakers. The company sponsored fund-raisers for Young.
Coose and others are not willing to abandon Young unless critics come up with something more substantial. As for Young's demeanor, many Alaskans accept and even respect it, said former state Sen. John Binkley of Fairbanks.
"When you are one among 435, you had better be outspoken or strong," Binkley said. "I think Alaskans understand that translates into getting Alaska's issues solved."
Binkley, who finished second to Gov. Sarah Palin in the Republican primary two years ago, said Young continues to have solid support in interior Alaska.
State Rep. John Coghill of North Pole does not agree.
"His demeanor has not been very open to his constituents," Coghill said. "I think that's going to cost him."
Coghill is backing Parnell. So is Bob Lynn, a Republican state representative from one of six south Anchorage districts where Young finished more than 1,000 votes ahead of Democrat Diane Benson two years ago.
Lynn and other Republicans are waiting for Young to explain why his campaign has spent more than $1 million in campaign donations on legal fees. Lynn said he would never dream of spending campaign contributions on legal defense costs.
"If it's not illegal, it should be," Lynn said.
Voters have ethics violations on their minds, Lynn said, with three elected officials in prison, three more under indictment and more charges expected.
"Don Young has done good things over the years but at this point I think it's time for a change," he said.
Besides Parnell, Young faces a primary challenge from state Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux of Kodiak, an attorney and a former Kodiak borough mayor.
Benson is running again and faces former state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz in the Democratic primary.
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