Congressman Don Young isn’t one to be crossed lightly. The 17 1/2-term Republican — he won Alaska’s sole House seat in a 1973 special election — and former tugboat captain showed liberals his temper when he dismissed environmentalists as a “self-centered bunch of waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating, intellectual idiots” who “are not Americans, never have been Americans, never will be Americans.” More recently, conservatives have been his targets.
Young was particularly outraged by conservatives, including House colleagues, who questioned his earmarking practices. “My money, my money!” he shouted, as well as “kiss my ear!” When New Jersey Republican Congressman Scott Garrett tried to remove a $34 million earmark Young had inserted in an appropriation bill, the Alaskan roared, “Those who bite me will be bitten back.”
So why is Alaska Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell challenging Young in the August Republican primary, risking the incumbent’s ire and asking voters to bite the hand that feeds them pork? “Our reputation as Alaskans,” Parnell tells me in an interview, “is that we’re always trying to grab as much money as we can when in fact we have a lot to contribute to the rest of the nation.” Correcting that impression will require “new leaders who treat the office as a public trust, not as an entitlement,” he says.
THERE IS A RECENT precedent for Parnell’s challenge. In 2006, Republicans seemed likely to lose Alaska’s governorship because the incumbent, Gov. Frank Murkowski, was mired in controversy. Murkowski proposed an unpopular petroleum profits tax at a rate favored by a powerful local company, the Veco Corporation, which illegally funneled money to his re-election campaign through his chief of staff. He bought himself a plane despite the state legislature’s disapproval. And he appointed his daughter Lisa to fill his Senate seat. Former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles was the heavy favorite to beat Murkowski.
Instead, Murkowski finished third in the GOP primary. Sarah Palin ran 32 points ahead of him and went on to beat Knowles by seven points in the general election. Rather than lose like the national party, Alaska Republicans cleaned house and elected a Palin-Parnell reform ticket.
Could history repeat itself? Young is beset by scandals. He altered a $10 million earmark in the 2005 transportation bill after it had already passed both the House and the Senate, a move that might well be illegal and for which he is under investigation by the Justice Department. The change benefits a Florida real estate developer who contributed $40,000 to Young’s campaign treasury. He is also under a separate federal investigation for his ties to the Veco Corporation — the very same company that helped undo Murkowski.
Polls show Young losing to likely Democratic nominee Ethan Berkowitz, the former state house minority leader. His fellow pork-loving Republican, Sen. Ted Stevens, is also trailing his Democratic opponent. But Parnell leads narrowly, holding out hopes that Republicans could hold the House seat if Young is booted in the primary.
ETHICS AND ELECTABILITY aren’t the only issues in a Young-Parnell race. The two candidates differ philosophically as well. The pro-life, pro-gun challenger is a fiscal conservative who eschews pork-barrel politics. “I don’t believe the federal budget should be a playground for politicians,” Parnell says. He emphasizes his service on the finance committees of Alaska’s house and senate during eight years in the legislature.
Meanwhile, Young bragged about stuffing appropriations bills “like a turkey.” As chairman of the House Transportation Committee from 2001 to 2007, he presided over an increase in earmarks. He also played a large role in passing the overfed 2005 highway bill, which cost $286 billion and contained a record-breaking 6,371 pork-barrel projects. One of them was the infamous $223 million Bridge to Nowhere. Another, the Knik Arm Bridge (better known as “Don Young’s Way”), would boost the value of property held by his daughter.
Young and Parnell also disagree about the federal gasoline tax. Young wants to raise it by at least five cents a gallon while Parnell supports a summer gas tax holiday to lower prices at the pump. Announcing the Club for Growth’s endorsement of Parnell, Pat Toomey complained that Young “has joined with Democrats in voting to increase the minimum wage, increase income taxes on top earners, and to pass a bloated farm bill.” Young also voted with the Democrats on card check legislation allowing unions to organize without secret-ballot elections.
“I want to spend less and save more,” says Parnell. “I want to tax less, and grow the economy more. Expecting our children to pay for our spending is irresponsible.” He calls Young’s earmark abuse an embarrassment that has “damaged Alaska’s credibility” and says it is time for “principled leadership over partisan leadership.” He even suggests that “abandonment of the principles of limited government and individual freedom” is what cost Republicans control of Congress in the first place.
Pork versus principle — it’s a fight Republicans have been having elsewhere in the country. Young hopes his prodigious earmarking will have bought the voters’ loyalty, if not love. Parnell is betting that the incumbent’s big-spending ways will come back to bite him.