ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — FROM his seat in the chambers normally used for Anchorage Assembly meetings, United States Rep. Don Young (R) glared at Sarah James and launched into a tirade against her and other Gwich'in Athabascan Indians opposing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
"Gwich'in people didn't protect the [caribou] calving grounds. These people protected the calving grounds," Mr. Young thundered, pointing to two pro-drilling Inupiat Eskimo leaders. "You can't have it both ways.... Your snow machines are run by gasoline. Your outboard motors are run by gasoline. Your schools are run by the oil revenue that comes from Prudhoe Bay."
The outburst interrupted Ms. James's testimony at a special congressional hearing on ANWR held here last August. To Young's opponents, his performance summed up all that is wrong with Alaska's at-large US House member: a scorched-earth policy on environmental issues and a rude style that is an embarrassment to the state.
But supporters say it summed up all that is right with Young - a blunt-talking former river-boat captain and schoolteacher from the Athabascan Indian village of Fort Yukon.
Among his supporters are many Alaska natives who normally vote Democratic but note that Young's wife is Gwich'in and that he has championed native issues on Capitol Hill.
Young's Democratic challenger is former Valdez Mayor John Devens, founder and past president of Prince William Sound Community College. Mr. Devens basked in national prominence after the Exxon Valdez supertanker struck a reef in 1989; his professorial manner won him admirers in Washington in the months following the spill. But that admiration didn't help him in his 1990 congressional campaign against Young.
Alaska's two-term junior US senator, Republican Frank Murkowski, is considered vulnerable in this year's election. The former Fairbanks banker is said to have disappointed business leaders by his inability to secure congressional permission for oil drilling in ANWR and has irritated other Alaskans by toeing the Bush administration line on such issues as abortion.
One of Murkowski's two Democratic challengers is seeking to make US history. Willie Hensley, an Inupiat Eskimo who formerly was state senator from Kotzebue and was the architect of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, is vying to become the first aboriginal American to serve in the US Senate. The other Murkowski challenger, former state Commerce Commissioner Tony Smith, has attacked the senator for drawing the vast majority of his contributions from outside Alaska, mostly from the oil and defens e industries.
All the congressional candidates support oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a project viewed by most as vital to the state's economy. But challengers say the incumbents have alienated the nation's centrists with their hard-line opposition to environmental concerns.
They argue that tougher environmental rules should be a condition of ANWR development.
Devens, for example, says spill cleanup equipment should be cached all along the Alaska coast and fishermen along the entire route traveled by tankers carrying Alaska crude should be trained for immediate spill response. Hensley says part of the revenues from ANWR oil leases should be earmarked for cleanup of sites polluted in Alaska by past military and industrial activity.
Murkowski's campaign chest dwarfs those of his challengers. By the end of March, he had raised $930,000, compared with $315,000 raised by Smith and a little over $100,000 raised by Hensley.
Lodwrick Cook, chairman of Atlantic Richfield Corporation, which is the parent company of ARCO Alaska Inc., last December led a Washington, D.C., fund-raiser for Murkowski that was attended by President Bush. Cook also came to Alaska in February, where he was the keynote speaker at the state Republican's Lincoln Day dinner, and repeated his endorsement of Murkowski and Young. ARCO is a joint operator, with BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., of the huge Prudhoe Bay field, the lifeblood of Alaska's economy.
The Alaska incumbents also have the White House campaigning actively for them. Some analysts say the Bush administration is tailoring its Alaska policies in order to make the current congressional delegation look good to voters back home. The US Department of Commerce, for example, recently affirmed a North Pacific Fishery Management Council decision that allocates part of the Alaska ground-fish harvest to seafood plants in Alaska coastal towns rather than to the mostly Seattle-based factory trawler flee t.
Young and Murkowski benefit from direct White House campaigning, too. Vice President Dan Quayle recently served as host of a fund-raising reception here during a stopover on a trip to Japan, and touted the two as unbeatable.
Young appears less confident. He is dogged by his 57 overdrafts on his House bank checking account, despite having his lawyer notify Alaska journalists that a libel lawsuit might result if Young is accused of writing a "bad check," "bounced checks," "bum checks," or "kited checks."