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Way up north, Democrat targets Alaskan icon

In Alaska, for many years a Republican bastion, Democrat Ethan Berkowitz, a 45-year-old state legislator, is aiming to bring longtime Republican Rep. Don Young’s long public career to its sunset. contributor L.D. Kirshenbaum reports.
Ethan Berkowitz, a Democratic legislator trying to unseat Alaska's longtime Republican Rep. Don Young in Congress, takes son Noah on a dog sled ride.
Ethan Berkowitz, a Democratic legislator trying to unseat Alaska's longtime Republican Rep. Don Young in Congress, takes son Noah on a dog sled ride.
/ Source: Special to

In his pursuit of the House seat held for 35 colorful years by Alaska’s Republican Rep. Don Young, Democratic legislator Ethan Berkowitz turned to the northern equivalent of kissing babies: He gamely jumped on a sled and hustled a team of dogs over the Iditarod trail.

Whether or not the mushing helped, pundits and polls alike suggest that Berkowitz, a 45-year-old state legislator, has a good chance of bringing Young’s long public career to its sunset.

The Alaska race is the one of the most dramatic examples of a national trend in which incumbent Republicans are fighting to keep formerly safe seats in Congress, particularly because Alaska has only one congressman. On Wednesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee placed Berkowitz on its list of “Red to Blue” candidates who will receive strategic and financial support leading up to the November election.

Alaska has been firmly in the “red” on political maps for years.  Both Alaska’s senators are Republicans — though one of those seats could also go to a Democrat this fall. Gov. Sarah Palin is a Republican, and the GOP holds a solid but shrinking majority in both houses of the state Legislature.

Young, 74, is a cantankerous Alaskan icon. He is an unrepentant pork barrel champion who is serving his 18th term as Alaska’s only member of the House of Representatives. To the rest of the country, he is best known for pushing earmarks for what became known as the “Bridge to Nowhere” during his tenure as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2000 to 2006.

A political sea change?

Image: Don Young
** FILE ** In this Aug. 7, 2007 file photo, Rep. Don Young R-Alaska, answers questions in his office in Anchorage, Alaska. For decades, Alaskans have contentedly called Young congressman, and Sen. Ted Stevens senator their Republicans in far-off Washington. (AP Photo/Al Grillo, File)Al Grillo / AP

The former riverboat captain’s fight for his political future is part of what could be a political sea change in November. Nationwide, the Democratic Party is hoping to add as many as 25 seats to its thin majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and around six seats in the Senate.

In addition to the national trend, Alaskan Democrats are benefiting from messy criminal investigations involving Young and 84-year-old Ted Stevens, another Republican who has served as Alaska’s senator for the past 40 years. The latter is locked in a tight race with Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, 46.

Young and Stevens are under investigation by the FBI and the Department of Justice regarding an alleged bribery scandal involving officials of VECO, an oil field and pipeline services company that sought to be a major player in the construction of a natural gas pipeline.

The company’s top executives have pleaded guilty. Their testimony revealed that company employees performed free home renovations for Stevens and that the company made a series of payments to his son. In Young’s case, it’s not known why he’s being investigated. In July 2007, The Wall Street Journal cited anonymous sources as reporting that Young’s relationship with VECO was being examined, but provided no details.

Change in highway bill probed
Young’s legal and ethical headaches grew in April, when the Senate directed the Justice Department to look into potentially illegal after-the-fact language changes in a 2005 transportation bill. The bill included a $10 million highway improvement earmark for a Florida interstate highway. Once the bill was passed by the House and Senate, wording in the bill was changed to stipulate that the funds would go specifically toward construction of an interchange on what’s known as Coconut Road. The language change – and the interchange – would have benefited a developer who is a Young campaign donor and fundraiser.

After being mired in unrelated issues, a different transportation bill, with the original highway improvement language restored,was signed by President Bush on June 6.

The VECO case also reached into Alaska’s state Legislature. The offices of eight lawmakers — seven Republicans and one Democrat — were raided by the FBI.Two former lawmakers are now serving time for bribery, extortion and conspiracy. At least two others are still being investigated and another — state Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch — is awaiting trial pending resolution of evidentiary issues. FBI tapes recorded by an undercover informant in which legislators are heard asking for bribes, have been available for months to voters on the Anchorage Daily News Web site.

That situation is potentially beneficialfor Berkowitz. In May 2006, he dressed down Weyhrauch and other Republican lawmakers on the state House floor for allegedly allowing oil company lobbyists to persuade them to rescind an amendment to a tax bill they had just passed.

“No telephone call is supposed to change what we’re doing,” an angry Berkowitz said in the hearing, audio of which has been posted on the Internet by a political blogger. “No lobbyist is supposed to peer over the rail and tell us to change our mind.”

Weyhrauch denied that lobbyists were behind his change of heart.

Challenger stresses jobs, education
Berkowitz is reluctant to call attention to Young’s legal problems, and was visibly uncomfortable when asked about the subject during a recent visit to Seattle.

“There’s no doubt that Don Young is in a lot of trouble, but that’s not why I’m running,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about him and his personal issues. This would be a competitive race anyway.”

Berkowitz said Alaska is being swept up in the national desire for change and wants government to focus on bread-and-butter issues like jobs and education. Currently, he said, small family fishing boats are sitting idle and the high school graduation rate remains dismal. Alaska also suffers from standardized testing required by the No Child Left Behind program, he said, adding, “I’ve never met a standardized kid.”

He is also committed to what he calls the state’s leadership toward national energy independence. He said he appreciates “environmental sensitivities,” but like a majority of Alaskans he firmly supports limited oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a stance in opposition to that of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the presumptive Democratic nominee, and other party leaders.

Berkowitz envisions the limited drilling, plus construction of a natural gas pipeline, as part of a transitional energy strategy that would also emphasize renewable energy. Toward that end, he said, Alaska has tremendous potential for wind, geothermal and tidal power.

ANWR drilling seen as tough sell
Berkowitz also said Alaska needs to get tough in negotiating with the big oil companies that lease oil and gas fields from the state and to lessen the companies’ influence with lawmakers.

Image: Ethan Berkowitz

“There are those who give fealty to the oil companies,” he said. “I’m not one of them.”

He said his energy strategy has received a good reception in Washington, D.C., even within the Obama campaign.

But R.A. Dillon, a Washington, D.C.-based political and energy issues correspondent for Oil Daily and Alaska’s Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, said Berkowitz will have a tough time persuading environmentalists and fellow party members to support even limited ANWR drilling.

The stance is a popular one in Alaska, though, and could help him attract “Alaska’s large (bloc of) unaffiliated and independent swing voters” in November, Dillon said.

He pointed to a small May 29 poll by Anchorage’s Hellenthal & Associates, sponsored by Alaskan lobbyist Sam Kito, which showed Berkowitz leading Young by over 20 percent and running especially strong in more populated parts of the state.  It also concluded that more than twice as many voters — 34 percent — had a “very negative” opinion of Young than viewed him in a “very positive” light.

Monica Irons, 47, is a Juneau pediatrician and registered Democrat who can’t help but follow the campaign — her living room window looks out on the state Capitol across the street. She said she hopes the ANWR drilling doesn’t happen, but she knows many in the party are in favor of it.

Putting off the drilling, she said, is a good idea: “The more the technology advances, the better it gets and the less damage it causes.”

In a phone interview from his office in Washington, D.C., Young had no comment when asked about the criminal investigations.

Young touts experience, clout
Young cited his experience shaping energy policy as among his biggest strengths, saying that the U.S. needs “to get back on the supply side of energy, not the demand side.”

He called Berkowitz “a very qualified individual,” but noted that newcomers to Congress don’t have the political clout needed to make things happen. “They’d have to start right from the bottom,” he said.

Before squaring off with Berkowitz in November, Young is facing a challenge from within his own party. Sean Parnell, the lieutenant governor, has entered the state’s Aug. 26 primary and has the popular governor’s support.  Parnell also has been endorsed by the Club for Growth, which works to promote anti-tax candidates and to defeat what it sees as free-spending incumbents.

“We think Don Young epitomizes what’s wrong with the Republican conference,” said Pat Toomey, the group’s president. “Parnell represents what the Republicans need to do to recapture their reputation, their brand, and their majority.”

Despite such backing, polls indicate Parnell may not prevail against the tarnished but well-financed Young in the primary — barring some adverse news on the criminal front.

“People here forgive their congressmen and senators a lot — unless they’re indicted,” said Democratic state Rep. Max Gruenberg, who has been involved in Alaskan politics since he went to work for Sen. Stevens in the early 1970s.

But he said the November election doesn’t depend on the outcome of the FBI investigations, and articulated the hope of newly optimistic Alaska Democrats.

“The Democrats are fielding better candidates who aren’t afraid of the oil companies, and the population is responding,” he said.

Though both Berkowitz and Young were born and raised in California, they have both embraced the wilderness ethos that Alaskans treasure.

Outdoorsman one-upsmanship
In the interview, Young gently disparaged Berkowitz as a metropolitan lawyer.

“He’s coming from Anchorage — that’s a minus,” Young said in his distinctive staccato delivery. “That’s where a majority of the votes are, but I have the background from elsewhere. I came up to be a trapper and a gold miner and a river boat captain.” Young lives much farther north in remote Fort Yukon.

Gruenberg said that Young has the part of quirky outdoorsman down pat. “He’s got the beard and the personality,” he said. “His office looks like the Olde Curiosity Shoppe.”

Gruenberg was referring to the souvenirs and mementos that cover Young’s Capitol Hill office walls nearly floor to ceiling. Framed photos of Young, often with his wife, Lu, at his side, keep the plaques, pelts, tusks, commemorative firearms and antlered trophies company. “I’ve got 36 heads on the wall,” Young boasted genially. “I’ve been hunting since I was 6.”

Berkowitz isn’t cedingthe wilderness image game to Young.

His campaign photos show him with his photogenic wife, Mara Kimmel, and two small children; they also show him fishing in chest-high waders and variously enjoying the great Alaskan outdoors.

But he rejects the notion that he is either seeking to out-Alaska the grand old congressman, or that he represents a new, urban kind of Alaska politician. 

“It’s not about how many miles you’ve logged mushing dogs,” Berkowitz said. “There are all kinds of Alaskans, and all kinds of ways to be Alaskan. No matter where we started out, we’ve all gotten the ‘high-latitude attitude.’”