Rep. Don Young’s visits sparks protests in Sitka

Congressman Young was met with demonstrators calling for climate change legislation and gun control. This angered some Sitkans, who staged a pro-gun rally at the roundabout. (Photo by Emily Kwong/KCAW)
Congressman Young was met with demonstrators calling for climate change legislation and gun control. This angered some Sitkans, who staged a pro-gun rally nearby. (Photo by Emily Kwong/KCAW)

Rep. Don Young, Alaska’s longest-serving lawmaker, visited Sitka on the last day of the Republican National Convention. He was scheduled to speak to the Chamber of Commerce. But he first had to pass through a group of pretty disgruntled constituents.

Seven Sitkans clustered at the back entrance of the Westmark Hotel, awaiting Congressman Young and bearing signs written in black marker.

Andrew Thoms’s sign read, “Congratulations on your retirement.”

“It’s a not so subliminal message that it’s time for Don Young to pass on the reins of leadership to the next generation that’s going to have to deal with the issues that he’s not dealing with. Especially climate change,” he said.

Throughout his 44 years in office, Young has maintained his position that climate change is not caused by human activity and that guns shouldn’t be regulated. This bothers Don Muller, who said, “Well, NRA’s given [Young] an A+. You don’t get an NRA A+ by being open-minded about gun control.”

Protesters hold signs critical of Rep. Don Young while he spoke in Sitka. (Photo by Emily Kwong/KCAW)
Protesters hold signs critical of Rep. Don Young while he spoke in Sitka. (Photo by Emily Kwong/KCAW)

Leading the group was a Vietnam veteran, but he asked not to be named. The group circled the Westmark twice. Traffic on Lincoln Street took note. And, while a few passerbys offered fist bumps in solidarity, others weren’t so polite.

Muller: What did he do?

Vietnam veteran: He gave me the finger.

Littman: Seriously that’s…

And then, a car slows down, guy sticks his neck out of the window and said, “You guys are pissing me off. And doing a good job of it. Keep it up.”

I asked demonstrator Cindy Littman, “What is it like protesting in Sitka?”

She said, “It’s uncomfortable to be out here, but I would welcome an opportunity for someone to ask me about why I’m standing here and actually have a conversation about it.”

Littman wishes more members of Sitka’s liberal community had come out, but isn’t surprised by the low turnout. “People just don’t feel like he’s responsive at all. That was my first reaction. Was to not even bother to come out.”

Rep. Don Young speaks at the Sitka Chamber of Commerce. (Photo by Emily Kwong/KCAW)
Rep. Don Young speaks at the Sitka Chamber of Commerce. (Photo by Emily Kwong/KCAW)

 

And then, the moment everyone’s been waiting for. Congressman Young came up the sidewalk and seeing the protestors, grinned. “I’m glad you spelled my name right!,” he quipped. And after bidding them good luck, walked into the hotel.

Young soon took to the podium. He told Chamber of Commerce members that he doesn’t mind the presence of protesters. “That means I’m being recognized. They may not agree with me, but at least they recognize I’m alive and well. I noticed one sign said, ‘Enjoy your retirement,’ and believe me if I was to be beat or I was to retire, I’d enjoy it. I think I’m good for the state.”

This is a campaign year for Young. And his remarks circled back to why he’s good for Alaska and Alaska’s economy.

“There’s only one real wealth in this country, in this state and that’s resources. And the development of. The manufacturing of,” Young said.

Last fall, Young introduced a bill that gave the state access to 2 million acres of federal land for timber harvest (H.R. 3560). President Obama is unlikely to sign it if it passes. But Young was victorious more recently, adding five amendments to an Interior Appropriations bill that would rollback part of the federal management’s plan for Alaska in favor of state rules.

“No one else does that,” Young said. “That’s because of seniority and knowledge and people that play the game.”

Of his challenger for the single House seat, Democrat Steve Lindbeck, who is the former general manager of Alaska Public Media, Young said he’s not feeling much of a threat.

“[Lindbeck] is too old for the job. I’m 83 years old. He’s 63. But when he gets to my age he’ll be dead. And that’s the facts of life. And I’m good at this. I’m fired up. I’ve got a great new wife. And that’s up to you: in the Chambers and the business people in this community and the people of Alaska and those people who protest me, let them have it. I’m still here,” Young said.”

Watching him speak was Young’s wife Anne, a flight nurse from Fairbanks. As for the presidential election, Young said he hadn’t made up his mind yet.

“Right up front, I’ve never been a Trump fan. I’m going to vote for him if I vote for somebody. I’m certainly not going to vote for Hillary because that’s another eight years of Obama. More regulations,” Young said. “[Obama’s] pumping out regulations by the thousands right now.

Young isn’t the only one concerned about the federal overreach. For while he was speaking, another protest formed a few yards away.

Six Sitkans are waving a variety of flags: American and others saying “Support our Troops” and “Don’t Tread on Me.” Jake Denherder said he organized the pop-up rally in response to the Don Young rally and it’s anti-gun messages.

“We already have too many gun laws in this country and I thought I’d come down and show everyone what I think,” he said.

Standing in the roundabout, Denherder has an assault rifle, a SCAR 17,308, slung across his shoulder. Dave Fowler saw Denherder, pulled over and joined in. Fowler said, “It’s not about hunting and it’s not about personal defense. It’s about being able to defend yourself against unruly government.

This protest, unlike the other one, is receiving a chorus of honking horns. But the groups are in agreement about one thing.

KCAW: Congressman Young, what do you think of him?

Fowler: He’s been there too long. He needs to go. We need fresh people. We need Tea Party guys in there.

It’s pretty unusual in Sitka to see so much political demonstration – from both parties – in one city block. But in a way, all these individuals, Congressman Young included, are exercising one thing: Our freedom of speech.

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