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Don Young, Alaska's longest-serving congressman, dies at 88

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

The longest-serving member of the current Congress has died. Don Young was in his 25th term as Alaska's sole representative in the House when he passed away Friday. As Emily Schwing reports, Young was a colorful character, gruff and unapologetic but also revered for his commitment to the nation's northernmost state.

EMILY SCHWING, BYLINE: Brash - it's a word used often to describe Alaska's longtime Republican congressman. And there are videos all over the internet that show off what some describe as partisan antics and others see as a good-humored effort to poke fun at bureaucracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DON YOUNG: Mr. Secretary, welcome here. And as you see, my hat that I'm wearing...

SCHWING: In 2011, Young wore a propeller-topped beanie to a congressional committee hearing to chide then-U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for President Obama's energy policy, which Young believed was ineffective.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOUNG: Because there is no energy program. You're not as guilty, though, as other agencies within this administration. I do think you made some steps forward.

SCHWING: Born in California, Young came north the same year Alaska won statehood in 1959. He won his seat in Congress during the Nixon administration in a 1973 special election.

TARA SWEENEY: He's been the lone congressman my entire life.

SCHWING: Tara Sweeney served as assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs during the Trump administration. She's also the co-chair of Young's reelection campaign. The Alaska native says Don Young's representation of the state's Indigenous population is unparalleled.

SWEENEY: He supported efforts like the Violence Against Women Act and constantly, constantly advocating for healthy communities, safe communities and economic development and growth opportunities in rural Alaska.

SCHWING: From 1995 to 2001, Young chaired the House Natural Resources Committee. He argued often and fiercely in favor of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and drilling, a polarizing prospect both in and outside the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOUNG: I represent all the state of Alaska. The people that live there, live on the Arctic slope want this legislation.

SCHWING: On other issues, Young stuck closely to his conservative roots. He called abortion a great moral disaster and said gun ownership is built into the fabric of the nation. Young's political career was not without controversy. In 2014, the House Ethics Committee slapped him with a nearly $60,000 fine for accepting thousands of dollars in gifts and using campaign funds for personal use. He was also involved in a yearslong corruption probe led by the FBI in the early 2000s, but he was cleared of any wrongdoing. He also chaired the House Transportation Committee. And if it benefited Alaska, Young was not shy about breaking with his party. Just last year, he voted in favor of the Infrastructure and Jobs Investment Act championed by the Biden administration. It secured millions in funding for Alaska-specific projects.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOUNG: This is the last opportunity we have to make sure those potholes are filled, those airports run right, the bridges are safe and our economy can continue to grow. This is the only chance we have. To my colleagues that are voting no, I say think about it. What is the other alternative?

SCHWING: On Friday, Young was on a flight to Seattle with his wife, Anne, heading back to Alaska, when he lost consciousness. He's survived by two daughters and was 88. For NPR News, I'm Emily Schwing in Anchorage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.