Commentary: Challenger has more grace than Don Young

The following appeared on the editorial page of the Anchorage Daily News.

Ethan Berkowitz did not own the home field advantage for Thursday's candidate debate with Congressman Don Young. The forum was sponsored by Alaska's leading resource development advocacy groups, filled with strong supporters of Rep. Young.

The questions were pro-development: ANWR oil drilling. Offshore oil drilling. Endangered Species Act. Pebble Mine. Preserving the 1872 federal mining law. Opening more federal land for logging and other development.

About half the audience had been given electronic voting devices, so they could immediately answer questions from the moderator and give their reaction to the candidates' replies. Among the "voters," 52 percent were Republican, 12 percent Democratic.

Though the candidates took similar stands on many questions, Berkowitz got thrashed. Only 18 percent preferred his answer endorsing some reforms to the 136-year-old federal mining law. Only 27 percent thought he would be more effective in helping open ANWR.

But as the debate went on, Berkowitz began to get better marks. Forty percent preferred his pitch for a comprehensive energy plan that includes conservation and renewables, in contrast to Young's boilerplate response: Drill more, stop lawsuits, cut red tape.

Asked how to keep the feds from locking up more Alaska lands, Berkowitz did even better with the audience. He said it's not effective to bully and intimidate. You have to reason with people. You can help Alaska's case by upholding high ethical standards.

That answer got him 42 percent.

In closing, Berkowitz joked, "I knew it was going to be tough. I didn't know how tough until I saw it quantified."

Contrast that with Don Young's attitude toward those who disagree with him. At a press conference in February of this year, he indicated that if you did not vote for him, he doesn't consider you a constituent. If you disagree with Don Young, your opinions are illegitimate. He won't hear them.

It's hard to imagine Don Young doing what Ethan Berkowitz did on Thursday: standing before a politically unsympathetic audience and getting a respectful hearing. Picture Don Young addressing a gathering of Alaska environmental activists. Wouldn't happen. He doesn't consider them Alaskans.

Voters should not underestimate what an important difference this reflects between the two candidates. One chooses not to listen to people who don't agree with him, hasn't updated his answers to public policy questions for at least 20 years and seems to go out of his way to antagonize his political opponents. The other makes an effort to bridge the differences between Alaskans, offers answers that address the state of the world today and sees compromise as a path out of chronic gridlock.

Berkowitz told the resource development audience, "I'll never yell at you. I'll never embarrass you."

Too late for Don Young to say that.