Republicans hardly have a lock on corruption in Washington, but they do seem to hold the patent on an especially brazen breed of dodgy politician. This is the official who combines devious dealing with abusive behavior. Alaska Rep. Don Young seems to fit the mold, as did former California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, now doing jail time for bribery, fraud and tax evasion.
Sellers of the public interest tend to be amiable fellows, who, upon sensing they’ve gone too far, back off. But a certain type revels in pushing the limits for all to see. The bully stuff is to scare off critics. And the more blatant the self-dealing, the better. Its in-your-face quality suggests awesome power that can’t be touched.
Young was a father of the infamous $200-million “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. It’s a ludicrous waste of the taxpayer money, but something that an Alaska pol could justify as pork. No such veil covers his efforts to ram a controversial highway interchange down the throats of local Floridians.
That started in 2005, when Republicans still controlled the House and Young was riding high as chairman of the House transportation committee. It happened that a real-estate developer named Daniel Aronoff owned 4,000 acres off Coconut Road in Estero, Fla. An interchange connecting that road with Interstate 75 would greatly inflate the value of Aronoff’s land.
Aronoff threw Young a fundraiser that netted him $40,000. Shortly thereafter, a $10 million earmark to study a Coconut interchange appeared in the transportation bill.
The story does not end there. Turns out that Lee County doesn’t want the interchange because it would harm wetlands and drinking water – and had twice rejected the proposal.
So Young sent a letter to the county threatening to remove the $10 million if it was not spent on the Coconut interchange. Then Republican Rep. Connie Mack, whose district includes Estero, wrote his own letter, warning that a rejection of the interchange would “make it difficult for Southwest Florida to have future success in securing federal resources for other important projects.”
The intimidation did not go unnoticed in Lee County. Ray Judah, a county commissioner and Republican, called the earmark the kind of corruption that is “a cancer on the federal government.” (The county has since acquiesced on the $10 million study, but it now includes other possible interchange locations.)
Did Young expect craven obedience once he unleashed his bluster? Perhaps. Young has nurtured his reputation as a lasherout. He once called congressional colleagues who tried to block one of his environmental predations “waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating intellectual idiots.”
When a reporter recently inquired into the Coconut Interchange deal, he responded with an obscene gesture. Shades of Cunningham, who employed similar means of communicating displeasure. The “Duke” also shoved another congressman and called gay men serving in the military “homos.” Students of cracked personalities were not all that surprised when Cunningham was hauled off for compromising national security to enrich a campaign contributor.
Republicans paid a big price last November for tolerating such troublesome personas. The Coconut interchange deal now puts two traditional GOP strongholds into political play – Florida’s west coast and Alaska.
Speaking of which, Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens has just been drawn into an FBI probe into alleged bribery of state lawmakers, including his son, Ben Stevens. The Justice Department wants him to hold onto his records. So two-thirds of the Last Frontier’s all-Republican Washington delegation is currently in trouble.
Both parties should know: When a committee chairman openly brags about a pork-laden bill – as Young did – that “I stuffed it like a turkey,” you have a problem on your hands. The public wants some respect, even if it’s being rolled. ©2007 The Providence Journal Co.