Norm Dicks retired last week after 36 years representing Washington’s 6th District in the U.S. Congress. His district — which encompassed much of Tacoma and the entire Olympic Peninsula — will surely feel the loss of his tenacity, seniority and uncommon influence on Capitol Hill. But throughout his career, Rep. Dicks again and again stretched his influence beyond the borders of his district, promoting projects in Eastern Washington that he felt had statewide importance. Sometimes referred to as Washington’s third senator, the Democrat from Bremerton never hesitated to use his clout to help advance efforts led by other members of the state’s delegation.
After a brief but exceedingly educational post-graduate stint as a reporter for The Wenatchee World, I went to work for Rep. Dicks in his Washington, D.C., office in 2004, and my education continued. For the next several years I enjoyed a rare front-row seat to the congressional process and the work of our state’s longest serving congressman at the very top of his professional life.
The list of Dicks’ accomplishments within his district is long. It includes playing a leading role in the renewal of downtown Tacoma, substantially increasing the federal government’s commitment to Puget Sound cleanup efforts and investing in the area’s military facilities.
In 2007, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and Dicks — for years one of the highest ranking Democrats on the powerful Appropriations Committee — took over the chairmanship of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, on which he had served for 30 years. The Interior Subcommittee’s work lined up well with Dicks’ career-long focus on environmental issues, National Parks and Forests, and protecting threatened wildlife, including his beloved salmon. As chairman, he fought against Bush-era policies that would have gutted the budgets of our national parks and underfunded the Forest Service’s ability to fight fires.
While Dicks tackled these national issues with the energy and determination of the former Husky linebacker that he is, he remained focused on issues closer to home, including some important ones in Eastern Washington.
For decades, he pushed for increased funding for the cleanup of the Hanford nuclear site.
He used his position on the Appropriations Committee to green-light research grant requests from Washington State University that directly benefited this region’s apple industry.
In 2005, when the Bonneville Power Administration was pushing hard for the creation of a new entity to manage the region’s power transmission grid — an idea known as Grid West — Dicks listened to the overwhelming criticism from utility customers and public utility districts, including Chelan, Douglas and Grant County PUDs. The PUDs were concerned about the complexity and cost of the new entity. In response, Dicks led the state’s delegation in opposing the proposal. The Grid West idea was quickly dropped but the task of improving regional transmission continued.
There were other local PUD issues in which Dicks had a hand. He worked closely with Chelan and Douglas County PUDs in the development of Habitat Conservation Plans, required under the Endangered Species Act. He supported Grant County PUD in the development of similar fish protection measures. More recently, Dicks and Sen. Patty Murray fought to keep alive the Department of Energy’s Water Power Program, which supports research and technical innovation within the hydropower industry.
Dicks spent eight years as an aide to the late Democratic Sen. Warren Magnuson prior to his own election to Congress in 1976 and his legislative approach seemed to reflect this earlier congressional era, when it was possible for lawmakers from opposing parties to work together on policy issues and maybe even grab a drink together afterward. Even in today’s House of bitter partisan divide and brinksmanship, Dicks remained on good terms with most of his Republican colleagues.
Norm Dicks could be a demanding boss, yet I have rarely seen one who commanded such loyalty. Most of the congressman’s former staff members count their tenures with him in decades rather than years. His technical knowledge of a whole world of issues — from the practice of mass-marking hatchery salmon to the mechanics of a B-2 Bomber — had a way of catching off guard whoever sat across from him in meetings or congressional hearings.
I can think of no better civics lesson than spending a few years working on Capitol Hill, and I am grateful to have learned from one of Washington’s very best statesmen.
Kelli Scott worked as a news reporter for The Wenatchee World in 2003 and 2004. She was an aide to Rep. Norm Dicks from 2004 through 2008. She lives in Tacoma.