Sunday, March 29, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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In The 6Th District, Dicks Keeps Delivering

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

IN A SERIES of occasional stories this year, The Times is examining the politics and profiling the candidates in each of the state's nine congressional districts.

TACOMA - Interstate 705 skirts the eastern edge of downtown, separating the decaying central business district from an equally dilapidated port and waterfront. Calling it an interstate inflates the freeway's importance. It is all tentacles reaching out every which way, appearing to search for some thriving commerce to justify its exit ramps.

The road, a new bridge, the refurbished Union Station, a new federal courthouse, waterfront parks and the Tacoma branch campus of the University of Washington all are government attempts to jump-start redevelopment of this city. While none of the umpteen-million-dollar construction projects bears his name, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, is the primary reason they got built where they did.

Nine years ago, when one of his legislative assistants was having trouble finding federal money to restore the historic train station, Dicks bellowed at her, "Find a way!"

"The word `can't' leaves your vocabulary when you go to work for Norm," says Terri Claffey, now a lobbyist for MCI.

What's happening on the fringes of downtown Tacoma reflects Dicks' view of the relationship between the federal government and local communities. He's convinced that the only person in Washington, D.C., who cares about a congressional district is the person who represents it.

So for the past 22 years he has looked after the 6th District's interests: making sure there were modern exercise and recreational facilities at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, sophisticated air-traffic-control equipment at often fogged-in Bowerman Field in Grays Harbor County, a new Highway 509 bridge to serve Tacoma's port, a salvage-timber bill for loggers on the Olympic Peninsula; and $77 million to settle the Puyallup Indian Tribe's claim to a big chunk of Pierce County.

It is an old-fashioned approach to the job that harkens back to an era when the federal government - through irrigation projects, hydroelectric dams and roads - made industry and farming possible throughout Washington state. Call it pork, if you like, but it's hard to imagine Washington without apple orchards, wineries, the Hanford nuclear reservation, the aluminum industry, Boeing, and a military presence that annually brings $6 billion in federal spending to the state.

Over the years, the 6th District has gotten more than its share. While much of the money goes directly to wages and benefits, a considerable amount has been spent on construction projects and grants that have underwritten economic development projects such as the restoration of Tacoma's Pantages Theatre, construction of the Sheraton Hotel and I-705, dubbed "the road to nowhere" - the last mile of interstate freeway ever built.

"Everything" is the word Tacoma Mayor Brian Ebersole uses to describe what Dicks' presence in Congress has meant to Tacoma, which at one point during the Carter administration received more federal money per capita than any city west of the Mississippi.

"People in the 6th view bringing home the bacon as a positive thing," says Ebersole. "In the 6th it's always been desirable to get your fair share, or more. It's the right thing to do and it's good politics. Norm does it noisily, and they love him for it."

Although Dicks does have detractors, his repeated success at the polls seems to prove Ebersole right.

Unlike Eastern and Central Washington, where residents tend to resent the federal government while taking for granted the billions of dollars it spends there, people in the 6th know who butters their bread. Earling Mork, Tacoma's city manager between 1975 and 1990, says the military's presence led to an acceptance of big government.

"The legacy of the military drifts around the county," says Mork, now executive director of the Economic Development Council. "If it can work for the military, why not for other projects? Much of what I see in downtown Tacoma came from the Urban Renewal Act."

Even Republicans concede there is a comfort level with government spending not found elsewhere.

"The Olympic Peninsula has no industry, no Microsoft," says Helen Harris, past chairwoman of the Jefferson County Republican Party. "People either fish, or work in the logging industry, or work in the shipyard at Bremerton. And certainly those people have a different attitude towards the government."

Cheri Williams, who runs Dicks' office in Bremerton, says people there have come to depend on the government and trust it.

"What we have over here are a lot of government and military retirees," she says. "Having worked for the government a number of years, they have a grasp of how things work and how they don't work. There's a lot of acceptance of decisions by the government. They grew up with it; they lived it for 20 or 40 years."

The combination of loggers, fishermen, defense workers, military personnel and retirees usually isn't a recipe for success with Democrats. In the 6th, however, Dicks has used it to his benefit. Toss conservative, old-fashioned labor Democrats and senior citizens worried about their benefits into the mix, and Dicks becomes nearly unbeatable.

Dicks, completing his 22nd year in Congress, hasn't come close to losing since 1980, the year Ronald Reagan won the presidency. The closest anyone has come since was in 1994, the year the Republicans won control of Congress, when a little-known coffee vendor named Ben Gregg kept Dicks' winning percentage to 58 percent. Last election, Dicks returned to form with 67 percent of the vote.

With his seniority in Congress and membership on the House Intelligence Committee, Dicks is something of a national figure on defense and natural-resource issues. But unlike former House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Spokane, whose backing of the Clinton administration got him labeled as someone who put the president's interests over those of his constituents, Dicks has never forgotten where he came from or allowed himself to be defined as something he is not.

"He's been here forever and amen," says Harris, who now lives at Port Ludlow in Jefferson County. "I suppose someday he'll be beatable, but he's not going to be disappearing into the sunset anytime soon."

That frank assessment explains why it's been difficult to even recruit viable opponents.

Reputation built on success

Dicks' reputation is built on having successfully tackled problems that could have devastated segments of the economy in his district. He is widely credited with cementing the military's presence in the state during the last two rounds of base closures. And in Tacoma he gets virtually all the credit for settling the Puyallups' land claim.

"Norm was there in the beginning, in the middle and in the end over a five-year period of negotiations," says Mork. "He talked to the Indians when no one else would. If it had not been for Norm, it never would have happened. But then, I can't think of a time when Norm didn't deliver."

Often just the threat of Dicks' involvement is enough. Recently, Tacoma officials met with Gov. Gary Locke to argue for additional money for the University of Washington's new branch campus. According to Ebersole, the first words out of Locke's mouth were, "Good God, do you have Norm with you?"

Assured Dicks hadn't made the trip, Locke told Ebersole, "Well, that's worth $5 million right there."

The secret to Dicks' success is his understanding of the job and his determination to succeed. As a result of the 1990 census, his district was reconfigured. Through redistricting he lost the Port of Tacoma, the city of Puyallup, most of Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base - four places where he had invested considerable political and economic capital. In return he got the natural-resources-based Olympic Peninsula, where in the 1994 primary Clallam County voters sent him a wake-up call by voting for somebody else.

A typical response

Dicks responded in typical fashion. First he sponsored and got the Clinton administration to support a timber-salvage bill that circumvented environmental laws. Then he carved out $4 million in federal assistance for a transportation center at the Port Angeles ferry terminal. Olympic Gateway has since become the centerpiece of that downtown's makeover and waterfront renovation.

Dicks has been so successful on behalf of his district that it comes as a shock when he fails. His inability to prevent the battleship USS Missouri from being moved from Bremerton to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii has left about 200 local Navy veterans and Kitsap County residents believing he either doesn't have the clout he claims or sold them out as a trade-off to keep Whidbey Island Naval Air Station from being closed.

"We've been fighting like a dog to keep it on the mainland, and he hasn't been any help at all," says Russell Nickerson, a retired shipyard worker and activist in MOM (Missouri on the Mainland). "He did help some in the beginning, but now he has a defeatist attitude."

One night a little over a year ago, while visiting Algonquin Provincial Park near Ottawa, Canada, Dicks was urged by friend Rodger Schlickeisen, president of the Defenders of Wildlife, to try communicating with the park's wolves.

Dicks howled at the wolves and the wolves howled back.

"To tell you the truth, it was a fairly strange howl, but he got the whole damned pack howling back at him," says Schlickeisen.

The experience heightened Dicks' interest in wolves and led him to look into relocating a pack in Olympic National Park, which just happens to be in his district.

Not everyone appreciates Dicks' interest in wolves. There is some opposition among people who live adjacent to the park. They have provided Republicans with a rare occasion to openly criticize him. A "pretty stupid idea" is the way Allan Bentley, chairman of the Clallam County GOP, assesses the proposal.

Stupid or not, Congress appropriated $300,000 to study whether wolves could successfully be reintroduced to the park. If the answer is "yes," and Dicks gets behind the plan, you can bet there will be howling before long.

And probably a federal program to ease the transition.

Robert T. Nelson's phone message number is 206-464-2996. His e-mail address is:

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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