WASHINGTON – Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks, the longest-serving member of Congress in Washington state history, stunned the political establishment Friday by announcing that he will call it quits in January, ending a 36-year career that made him one of the most powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“Everybody has to go,” said Dicks, 71.
Dicks ranks 10th among the 435 House members in seniority. His 18 terms topped the longevity record for the state’s congressional delegation set by Democrat Tom Foley, who left Congress in 1995 after 30 years.
Adding to an increasingly long list of congressional retirees, Dicks, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said he wants to spend more time with his family.
“I’d be 74 at the end of my next term,” he said in an interview. “And you know, with all respect, I just think I’ve got 10 to 15 years, and I want to just spend them with my family, and more fishing, and a few of those things.”
Democrat Patty Murray, the state’s senior senator, called Dicks “a true Washington state institution” and said he served as her friend, mentor, advisor, teammate, and brother.
“He is our state’s quarterback here in Congress, and I can’t imagine our delegation without him,” she said, describing Dicks as “the guy who loves Washington state more than life, who would do anything to defend it, and who works everyone to the bone to make sure the families he represents are taken care of.”
South Sound leaders lauded Dicks for his contributions to the 6th Congressional District, which they said would be a far different place without the benefit of the clout Dicks wielded on its behalf.
“I’m a history buff, and I don’t think any elected official has had a more profound effect on our district than he,” said former Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma, who volunteered on Dicks’ first congressional campaign and worked briefly on his Washington, D.C., staff in 1979.
Dicks worked for eight years as a top aide to the late Washington state Sen. Warren Magnuson before joining Congress in 1977. He said that serving in Congress is “an honor like no other profession in our country.”
“I’ve decided that after 44 years, eight with Senator Magnuson and 36 years in the House, it’s time to spend more time with my family and children and go out when you’re still alive,” he said.
He said he and his wife Suzie had decided “to change gears and enjoy life at a different pace.”
But Dicks said his health also played a factor in his decision. A former football player, he said he has been experiencing numbness in his neck as a result of injuries he sustained while playing the sport in college.
“I just think it’s time,” he said. “I’ve got a few things with my neck that I’ve got to work on from football, and it’s time to let somebody else do it. When I played football, I straightened my cervical spine, and now it’s become very arthritic and compressed, and so I have a lot of numbness. It’s not debilitating, but it’s something I’ve got to take better care of.”
On Capitol Hill, Dicks earned the nickname of “Mr. Boeing” for his fierce advocacy of Boeing, and he played a leading role in the years-long battle to win a Pentagon contract for the company to manufacture a fleet of aerial refueling tankers.
He is regarded as one of Congress’ top experts on spending and defense issues and will long be remembered for his ability to deliver “earmarks,” or money for special projects for his district, before Congress began clamping down on the practice.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California called Dicks “a proud son of his home state and a lifelong public servant” who had earned respect from both his constituents and other members of Congress.
Dicks’ retirement captured plenty of attention, even from the White House.
“Norm has spent his career working to protect our national security, championing the men and women of our Armed Forces, and fighting for the many natural resources of Washington state and the Pacific Northwest,” President Barack Obama said.
In Washington state, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire said the state has had “no greater advocate” than Dicks and that he will leave a legacy “that is unmatched.”
“Washingtonians statewide will greatly miss Norm’s presence in Congress,” she said.
In a sign of his influence, Dicks is often referred to as “Washington’s third senator,” said Democrat Maria Cantwell, the state’s junior senator. She said that Dicks has “carried on a great tradition” in Magnuson’s footsteps.
“For more than 40 years, Norm has been involved in every major issue affecting our state – from protecting salmon and cleaning up the Puget Sound to supporting our military installations and fighting for the Air Force tanker,” Cantwell said.
Republicans joined in the praise, touting Dicks for his ability to work across party lines in a Congress that has become increasingly polarized.
“I have rarely had the chance to work with someone of his decency, strong work ethic, jovial character and honesty,” said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Dicks joins a growing list of lawmakers choosing to step aside. According to Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication, he is one of 22 House members – 13 of them Democrats – who have announced they will retire this year.
Fifteen others are running for Senate or other offices.
Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009 firstname.lastname@example.org
Staff writer Lewis Kamb contributed to this story.