WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Don Young was forced Friday to pull from the radio a campaign commercial that touted him as the recipient of a "Hero of the Taxpayers" award by a fiscal watchdog group.
The commercial said the Republican congressman had been singled out for an award by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group that brought national scrutiny to the price tags of the so-called "bridges to nowhere" sought by Young.
More than a dozen people who heard the commercials air on AM radio in Anchorage called Taxpayers for Common Sense to ask them why they had given Young an award, said Keith Ashdown, the organization's chief investigator and originator of the "bridge to nowhere" catchphrase. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization, does not endorse candidates.
The organization did give Young an award in 2003 — but it's not an honor most members of Congress boast about. They awarded Young their Golden Fleece Award for his backing of the Ketchikan-to-Gravina-Island bridge, which became a powerful national symbol of out-of-control congressional earmarking.
Young's campaign said the ad was supposed to refer to the "Hero of the American Taxpayer" award he received recently from Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group led by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. But the Young campaign mistakenly referred to Taxpayers for Common Sense, said his campaign spokesman, Mike Anderson.
Anderson called the commercial a mistake, apologized for any inconvenience it caused, and took it off the air at the request of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
"Honest mistake, but it's a mistake," Anderson said. "I've learned a long time ago that when you screw up you'd better call the right folks and tell them you apologize and let them know we're fixing it."
Young, under scrutiny by the Justice Department in connection with a federal corruption investigation, is facing one of the most difficult reelection campaigns of his 35-year House career. The 75-year-old congressman faces Alaska Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell in the Aug. 26 Republican primary. The lieutenant governor has drawn the backing of the Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group that has paid for television commercials critical of Young.
In the now-pulled radio commercial, the Young campaign criticizes Parnell for saying "he'd put a stop to all Alaska earmarks" and says he "should be ashamed."
"Why would Parnell do this?" the ad asks. "To get money from a group called Club For Growth, which opposes projects that benefit Alaska. Now that Parnell's in the "club-for-no-growth," they're running false ads accusing Don Young of pushing higher taxes on Alaskans, when the opposite is true."
Parnell countered that "a quick Google search for 'wasteful' and 'Don Young' fills the computer screen with the real story."
"It wasn't just a simple mistake," said Parnell's campaign spokesman, Stephen Howell. "Any notion that he is a fiscal conservative in this regard is just bunk. It's not just (that he had) the wrong organization, it's that he has voted to increase taxes."
Norquist, too, backed away from any implicit endorsement of Young. Although Young achieved "hero" status for his 2007 votes on tax issues, he will not receive an award for his 2008 voting record, Norquist said. Young's vote on a supplemental war funding bill earlier this summer sealed that decision, Norquist said, although the bill easily passed Congress and was signed into law by President Bush.
The bill included an expansion of the GI Bill and additional unemployment benefits adding up to more than $71 billion over the next decade.
Anderson said Young voted for the bill because Alaska has 75,000 veterans. The bill was a balance between supporting vets and a small tax increase, Anderson said, and Young went with the vets. He said Young had also received indications from senators that the Senate might strip out some of the tax provisions.
But anyone who voted for that bill will automatically be disqualified from the 2008 "Hero of the American Taxpayer" list, Norquist said. Americans for Tax Reform considers that a deal-breaker vote for those, like Young, who signed a pledge vowing not to raise taxes, Norquist said.
"He is a pledge-taker and now a pledge-breaker," Norquist said of Young. "Having broken the pledge, that's the worst thing you can do. It doesn't get any worse."