ANCHORAGE — A gruff, no-nonsense Alaska lawmaker who once called the lieutenant governor “Captain Zero” and told a female colleague she didn’t know what she was talking about is now in charge of ensuring civility in the U.S. House.
U.S. Rep. Don Young, 84, was honored on the House floor Wednesday for becoming the dean, a largely ceremonial post that goes to the longest-serving member of the body. The only official duty is to swear in the House speaker after elections, but unofficially the person is responsible for keeping civility intact and holding members accountable for their actions, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan joked that Young’s new duties are to swear in the new speaker, not swear at the speaker.
“You always know where he stands, or more importantly, you always know where you stand with him,” Ryan quipped.
Young got the job after Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, resigned amid sexual harassment allegations last month. Alaska’s lone House member told his colleagues that they should not expect him to change with the new title and will still hear him holler.
“I will sometimes get out of line, but in doing so, remember it comes from my heart, and my heart is in this House,” Young said.
Young is in his 23rd term and rarely in danger of being unseated. One of his closest elections came in 2008, when Sean Parnell, lieutenant governor under Sarah Palin, challenged him in the Republican primary. That’s when Young dubbed him “Captain Zero.”
He’s had other missteps over the years, including an incident when Young waved a walrus penis bone at the new female leader of U.S. Fish and Wildlife during a committee hearing.
Young was forced to apologize a few years ago after using a racial epithet to refer to Hispanic migrant workers.
Last year, Young again apologized after addressing 51-year-old Democratic freshman Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state as a “young lady” and saying she “doesn’t know a damn thing what she’s talking about” when debating legislation about wildlife management in national preserves in Alaska.
Pelosi recounted a more civil conversation about wildlife during her speech honoring Young. She noticed a tie he was wearing one day, featuring an eagle, a baby seal and other wildlife.
Pelosi complimented him, noting the tie was a wonderful environmental statement.
“He said, “I call it lunch,’” she said to laughter.
Young was elected in a special election in 1973 after U.S. Rep. Nick Begich, an Alaska Democrat, and House Speaker Hale Boggs of Louisiana were presumed killed in a plane crash in Alaska.
As colleagues honored Young, Ryan noted it was the Alaska lawmaker’s 16,374th day in office.
Young said he has served under nine presidents, nine House speakers and alongside about 2,000 representatives in the past 44 years.
“One of the things I’ve enjoyed is the friendships,” he said. “I don’t think there’s an enemy in this House.”
He also touted being able to work across the aisle, pointing to his working relationship with former Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who retired in 2015.
“We had a lot of arguments and a lot of disagreements, but we hunted together and we ate together,” Young said. “I believe in bipartisanship. I believe in this body to lead the nation.”