Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist
On a cold, rainy June afternoon at Husky Stadium, Congressman Norm Dicks of Bremerton delivered the University of Washington 2007 commencement address. Delivered might be an odd word choice. Blame the weather, the congressman's clogged right ear, the manners or lack thereof of the audience. The speech had to be the worst — or worst-received — in Dicks' three-plus decades in politics.
About 10 minutes into his discourse, with a squall pounding on graduates, parents and friends, the congressman started rambling on about global warming. Warming? On a chilly June day?
Dicks, who has two UW degrees and played football for the school, either couldn't hear the stomping in the stands or his speech was too long and boring. Either way, a few restless and rude fans began jeering and heckling, one motioning him to leave the stage.
Dicks took his moment in the heavy precip in stride. "Under the circumstances, I should have shortened the speech," he said later. "But I didn't do it and paid a price for it."
Irony of ironies: Dicks was filling in, in a way, for the first-pick speaker, former Vice President Al Gore, a good friend who couldn't make it. Gore can get away with boring; Dicks cannot.
The commencement reception was a far cry from the reaction he usually gets in the halls of Congress. There, he is treated withdeference and respect.
And why not? After 30 years of waiting for his political constellations to align, Dicks is a cardinal, one of 12 members of the U.S. House who help write the federal budget. His official title: chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee. He decides that Mount Rainier National Park needs a shot of cash after a hellacious wind and rainstorm. He decides to spend extra money on West Coast salmon recovery.
Lots of people, including Gov. Christine Gregoire, refer to Dicks, a Democrat and senior member of the state's congressional delegation, as "Washington's third senator." Congressman Jay Inslee of Bainbridge Island calls him the "appropriator's appropriator." Others call him "Stormin' Norman," a reference to his husky appearance, irrepressible nature and let's-get-it-done mentality.
He is the man in the middle of just about everything political in Washington state. Yet, because he comes not from Seattle or Bellevue, but from Bremerton and represents Tacoma and Kitsap, Grays Harbor, Mason, Jefferson and Clallam counties, he is not a household name. Most likely, the people at the stadium that day were not sure who he was, and under the circumstances, they were unwilling to find out.
What will he do?
The question for Dicks at this golden moment in his career is, what will he do with all the power he has accumulated? Does he go beyond an über-porker who brings home the goods for Washington state? Does he reach past the parochial interests of Forks, Port Angeles and Bremerton to make a more-global mark?
Unlike another former Washington congressman, Tom Foley of Spokane, who similarly paid his dues and then became speaker of the House, Dicks has ruled out becoming speaker.
There is a sense, then, he will now do more of what he already does — just bigger and better. He will continue to assure the federal government makes up for years of underfunding national parks. Washington has three big national parks within its borders. He wants to make cleaning up Puget Sound and Hood Canal as big a deal as cleaning up Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.
"I'm in the best position I have ever been in," chortled Dicks in his booming voice. "This is pretty good. I am going to do my best to take the dams out on the Elwha River."
He is particularly proud of $36 million he secured to restore Mount Rainier National Park. "That might have taken longer if I weren't the chairman."
He wants to see if wild salmon runs can be restored in the Northwest. He wants to strengthen the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.
Many people associate Dicks with national defense. He is the second-ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and a respectable voice on the war in Iraq. Throughout his career, he has been a champion of Boeing, though Boeing stuck it to just about everyone in the Puget Sound region, including Dicks, with its surprise announcement in 2001 that it was moving its headquarters to Chicago.
Dicks voted for the war in Iraq and later admitted he made a mistake because Congress was given faulty intelligence. Hillary Clinton could learn something from him. Dicks now believes the troops have had it and he supports phased withdrawal. The congressman is also a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
I caught up with him last month in the nation's capital on the first day back after the summer break.
Black glasses perched atop his nose, Dicks was seated at the committee table where he and a few colleagues were grilling Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. By the time the session was over, it was clear Americans shouldn't feel terribly secure.
Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts pressed the secretary about cargo loaded onto passenger airplanes that is supposed to be screened by the federal government, but some of which is screened only by private companies.
Then came Dicks — persistent and perturbed about federal efforts to track immigrants who are here on non-immigrant visas and expected to return home. Four 9/11 hijackers, he pointed out, were individuals who had overstayed their visas.
All Chertoff could say, in essence, was the government tries to track those who overstay but it's a big country, prompting Dicks later to note, "It's just this benign neglect. There doesn't seem to be a sense of urgency."
Dicks, now serving his 16th term in Congress, seems as boisterous and enthusiastic as he was in earlier years in the capital decades ago. He is almost always in a hurry. A onetime linebacker for the Huskies, he has more energy because of a health-and-diet kick he is on these days.
At Maggie's knee
Dicks learned to bring home the bacon in the School of Maggie, his one-time boss, the legendary Sen. Warren Magnuson.
Dicks first went to D.C. in 1968 with his wife to work in Maggie's office. As it turned out, it was the office of destiny: Chief of staff Jerry Grinstein went on to huge corporate positions at Burlington Northern and Delta Air Lines; Michael Pertschuk became director of the Federal Trade Commission; Ed Sheets became head of the Northwest Power Planning Council.
Dicks learned a lot about Puget Sound, eventually becoming chief of staff for the powerhouse senator. He also learned plenty about strong national defense from the junior senator, Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, who ran for president in 1972 and 1976. Dicks ran in his own right for the House in 1976.
Asked to state some of his favorite accomplishments, he is the unabashed hometown boy. Revitalization of downtown Tacoma, he says, without pausing. Revitalizing downtown Bremerton, he says, almost as rapidly.
In the 1980s, Dicks directed money to Tacoma's Pantages Theater and two other theaters at a time when many downtown retailers were having trouble competing with malls. Dicks also directed money to Tacoma's Union Station, which was threatened with demolition. It now boasts a federal courthouse and a state-funded Washington State History Museum next door. More recently, he has pitched in to turn around downtown Bremerton.
Critics point to pork
Dicks' detractors say he is one of the most prolific earmarkers in the U.S. House. Earmarks are late-in-the-game budget add-ons that can bypass the normal screening process.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, says Dicks ranks seventh among earmarkers, and no, he doesn't mean that as a compliment:
"Instead of allocating the funding to the most important projects in the country, he is grabbing everything to spend on his parochial pet projects," Ellis says.
In January, Dicks became the longest-serving member of the House in our state's history — 31 years. He is without question the dean and leader of the state congressional delegation, with a hand in much of the political business of the state.
For example, Sen. Maria Cantwell ran a cliffhanger race against incumbent Republican Sen. Slade Gorton in 2000. The race came down to two or three recounts and wasn't decided until many weeks after the election, early December. Soon after she learned of her victory, Cantwell flew back to D.C. to meet with then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, thinking no one would know she was there. Right.
As Cantwell waited in Daschle's outer office first thing Monday morning, trying to sort out possible committee assignments, the phone rang. Who else? Norm Dicks.
"Maria," bellowed Dicks — bellowing being a common voice tone for him. "You gotta get on the energy committee."
"How did you know I was here?" she asked.
Dicks turned on the pressure. He recalled that someone from Washington state had often served on the energy committee. The Northwest, with all its hydropower, needed a representative to protect its interests.
"If you don't get on that committee, Scoop Jackson will roll over in his grave," insisted Dicks.
So, she got on the committee.
Cantwell describes Dicks as "the wind at your back," adding, "If that isn't strong enough, I mean, if you're not moving fast enough, he's the hand on your shoulder shoving you to do something."
Grumbles across the aisle
It is one thing for fellow Democrats in blue Washington to say friendly things about the delegation dean. It would be better if Republicans were as bullish, and some are not. There is legitimate grumbling that the state delegation doesn't meet as often as it used to, that members don't work across the aisle as much as they could.
"From what we understand ... the delegation met much more regularly and worked on issues in a much more bipartisan fashion than it appears to now," said Mike Shields, chief of staff to Congressman Dave Reichert of Auburn. The sheriff-turned-representative is something of an endangered species, the last Republican in office west of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon.
The not-so-good excuse is Congress is more partisan than before, and Dicks, along with many other Democrats, is feeling his oats.
This delegation business is something Dicks can and should fix. Keep in mind, in most states, and especially in Washington in past years, the delegation dean was a senator, not a representative, so in a way, Dicks has more to prove. He is the logical person to lead the way.
It is also true that Dicks really does reach across the aisle. There is no better proof than the fact that last month he served as a pallbearer at the funeral of former Republican Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn.
So here at the high point of his career, Dicks is poised, energetic and ready to do his best for the state. His challenge to himself ought to be to reach a little further, do something lasting for global warming, and be a leader in the so-far no-end-in-sight battle to get the U.S. out of Iraq.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company