WASHINGTON – After nearly four decades in the U.S. House, Rep. Norm Dicks has had his share of good days on Capitol Hill, but he described Feb. 24, 2011, as “the happiest day of my professional life.”
Indeed, the Belfair Democrat had much to celebrate: After years of lobbying and arm-twisting by the state congressional delegation, the Air Force awarded a $35 billion aerial contract to Boeing, along with the promise of thousands of jobs for his home state.
It’s a big example of how Dicks, a 71-year-old, 18-term incumbent and long considered the state’s go-to guy, has delivered for The Evergreen State.
As the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Dicks became known as an expert on defense and spending issues, and it has benefitted his state handsomely. And fewer lawmakers were more disappointed than Dicks when Congress began clamping down on “earmarks,” funds for special projects for individual congressional districts.
There’s plenty of evidence of his legacy: his work to clean up Puget Sound and Hood Canal, to revitalize downtown Tacoma and Bremerton, to pump more money into the state’s military bases and provide them with schools, to promote the Endangered Species Act and countless other ecological and environmental projects, and to spend more on aid for the unemployed and housing programs and community health clinics for the poor.
“For 36 years, Norm Dicks has been a champion for the people of Washington state,” said Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, who shares a congressional district border with Dicks.
And that’s why so many in Washington state spent the day Friday pondering what the loss of Dicks in Congress will mean when he retires in 2013, ending a long and remarkable career in the U.S. House.
“It’s hard to imagine Congress without Norm Dicks representing our region,” said Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland. “He’s worked on everything from Union Station to (Interstate 705) to the remediation of our waterfront. He’s been essential to our downtown revitalization.”
As Pierce County’s new Democratic Party chairman in 1976, future Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma said he learned quickly about the persuasive force that was Norm Dicks.
At the time, Baarsma knew several candidates running against Dicks for the open U.S. House seat, but didn’t know Dicks well.
“So, when he called and asked for a meeting, I went in prepared to profess my neutrality,” Baarsma recalled. “I left the meeting committed to doorbelling 100 homes and putting up 25 yard signs for him.”
It was the same influential resolve that spurred Dicks into becoming who Baarsma calls the most impactful congressman the 6th District has ever had.
“He’s responsible for a host of downtown projects, from the restoration of the Pantages Theater to Union Station,” said Baarsma, who briefly worked on Dicks’ staff in 1979. “If that project wouldn’t have come into being, that whole part of downtown wouldn’t have emerged as it has today. There may not be a UW Tacoma or a (Washington State) History Museum.”
In more recent years, Dicks used his clout to help garner funding to restore the Murray Morgan Bridge and establish the Puget Sound Partnership, Baarsma added.
Some of that work also sparked criticism. Dicks regularly made Citizens Against Government Waste’s list of biggest pork-barrelers. Recently, he had come under fire for directing millions in federal funding to the Puget Sound Partnership at a time when his son, David Dicks, was the agency’s executive director.
But that ability to deliver for hometown projects also has earned Dicks a lot of fans. Tacoma consultant Tim Thompson, who served on Dicks’ staff from 1982 to 1991, credited the Democrat’s tireless thirst for knowledge and skilled diplomacy with garnering federal dollars for local and regional projects – even under GOP regimes.
“Bipartisanism – that’s his real gift, and it’s been helpful to Tacoma,” Thompson said. “When we had Republican administrations, he still managed to save Union Station and he still managed to get the new Madigan Medical Center built. He still got things done.”
Dicks used his legislative prowess from the grandest national issue to the micro-local project, Thompson added.
He became one of Congress’ top national security experts, promoted National Parks and defended the Clean Water Act, Thompson said.
At the same time, he brokered the Puyallup Land Claims deal, a $162 million package of land, cash and social programs that persuaded the Puyallup Tribe to relinquish its claims to the land under much of downtown Tacoma, the Port of Tacoma, Fife and Puyallup.
“As much as he was involved in all of these important national and regional issues, in the end, his highest priority was all about the individuals who interacted with his office,” Thompson said. “There is no busier member in Congress than Norm Dicks, but he was never too busy to meet with a constituent.”
Dicks told most of his staff about his retirement on Friday, though some key advisors had known for a few weeks.
As hundreds of Pierce County civic, political and business leaders gathered Friday for an annual update on economic development, the first reaction to any question about Dicks’ retirement was a pause and a sigh.
“Everyone deserves a rest,” said City of Tacoma economic development director Ryan Petty. “But Norm’s involvement and knowledge of Pierce County and Tacoma is unmatched.”
Dicks has long played key roles in downtown Tacoma, most recently helping lead the effort to keep Russell Investments and kidney dialysis giant DaVita’s business headquarters in downtown Tacoma. That was a split decision, with Russell moving to Seattle and DaVita opting to stay, but leaders of both companies took personal calls from Dicks during their decision-making in 2009.
Dicks’ role went beyond those personal touches. He helped secure federal funding for downtown improvements, including Pacific Avenue upgrades, which were part of the city’s incentive package.
Pat McCarthy, Pierce County executive, called Dicks’ retirement “a tremendous loss.”
“We absolutely have depended on Norm for so many years,” she said. “And it’s not just us here in Pierce County. He’s the state’s third U.S. senator.”
Pierce County officials credited Dicks with providing support for Mount Rainier National Park, flood-control projects for the Puyallup River, wastewater treatment plans, transit and highway projects, trail systems, historic preservation, community colleges and technical colleges in Pierce County and other economic development projects.
Tony Floor, a recreational fishing advocate, praised Dicks’ efforts to support fishing and mediating disputes between the state and treaty tribes.
“He has been particularly vital, often through a headlock, of bringing the state and the tribes together on these important issues,” said Floor, director of fishing affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association. “Without Norm Dicks, many of the expanded sport fishing seasons we have been granted in Puget Sound, through selective fisheries, would not be a reality.”
At the Capitol, Dicks always took pride in pushing national defense projects, and recently he has been promoting funding for the F-35 supersonic jet. He calls it “the big enchilada,” the most advanced stealth fighter in the world and a great investment in U.S. national security. It also holds the potential for more jobs for the state.
Dicks often has advocated for the military from his spot on the House Appropriations Committee and used his ground-level knowledge of Puget Sound’s defense industry to make a case for the region’s manufacturers.
“He understands the needs of our community, and specifically for our industry, the needs of our military,” said Sean Murphy, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Defense Coalition. “We have some of the best contractors in the world located here in the Northwest, and he has been a great spokesman in making sure D.C. never forgot that.”
Guy Stitt, president of AMI International Navy consultants in Bremerton, credited Dicks’ support for the Navy’s decision to convert four surplus submarines into platforms for Special Operations warfare in the early 2000s. Two submarines were converted at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, and the ships remain assets for the Navy.
“We’ve all benefited, and the nation’s benefited,” Stitt said.
Last year, Dicks, known as “Mr. Boeing” on Capitol Hill for his fierce advocacy of the company, played a key role in deciding how the Pentagon would evaluate competing bids between Boeing and its chief competitor, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. the parent company of Airbus.
After the issue of lifespan costs arose at a congressional hearing in 2008, Dicks helped engineer a change in how the Air Force evaluated the bids between the two companies. Boeing officials credited the change for helping the company win the contract.
It was a coup for a congressman who had watched his previous work to convince Congress to lease the tankers from Boeing fall apart amid a Pentagon scandal involving a top Boeing official and a senior Air Force procurement officer.
“We had a great year in 2011,” Dicks said.
The Associated Press and staff writers Jeffrey Mayor and Adam Ashton contributed to this report.