Pentagon chief Leon Panetta strode into the Cannon Caucus Room on Capitol Hill, surrounded by military officers in dress-green uniforms with rows of medals on their chests.
The glittering hall with gold-gilt walls and two giant crystal chandeliers bespoke a bygone era when government was good and in the black. So did the mainly silver-haired guests who’d come one recent evening to roast Rep. Norm Dicks on his retirement from nearly four decades in Congress.
“I wanted to have a final opportunity to come up here and pay tribute to this son of a bitch,” Panetta deadpanned as laughter engulfed the vast room.
Turning serious, the former CIA director and California congressman said Dicks has been a close friend since their days as Senate aides in the early 1970s. Recalling the two men’s recent visit to Naval Base Kitsap, Panetta said the huge facility in Bremerton was one of many vital projects across Washington state that the lawmaker had helped thrive from his powerful post on the House Appropriations Committee.
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Dicks is a master of the earmark, congressionally steered funding that was once a badge of honor but has become, Panetta said, an unfair symbol of government waste and pork-barrel spending.
“‘Earmarks’ is not a bad word,” Panetta said. After a pause, with the audience starting to laugh again even before he resumed speaking, Panetta added: “Norm got his share.”
Dicks’ retirement Jan. 2 will further thin the ranks of an already vanishing breed: lawmakers who work together across party lines and view bringing home federal largess as a key part of their core duty to help their districts and their states.
A member of the “College of Cardinals” which controls much of the federal budget and arguably the state’s most powerful politician, Dicks leaves on his own terms. Though clearly irritated by the partisan bitterness, he is without rancor.
“I’m not leaving here with a bad feeling,” Dicks said in an interview. “I’m leaving with the feeling I made a contribution toward making things better.”
Rep. Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican and current chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he and Dicks, the panel’s senior Democrat, set aside partisan differences to fund worthy initiatives.
“I found that Norm is really a brilliant person,” Rogers said. “He understands that our nation is built on vision, ideas and ambition. But he also believes that a vision without funding is a hallucination.”
Former Washington state GOP chairman Chris Vance said Republicans in the 6th Congressional District were sometimes frustrated that members of their own party from elsewhere had nice things to say about Dicks.
“I don’t know anyone who hated Norm Dicks,” Vance said. “He was a lawmaker’s lawmaker. Everyone respected him.”
Dicks learned his lessons from two of the best – the late Washington state Democratic Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson. Revered as Maggie and Scoop, from the 1950s until the early 1980s they were dominant figures on Capitol Hill.
Dicks is the last direct link in the state’s congressional delegation to those Senate lions.
Magnuson, on whose staff Dicks served an eight-year political apprenticeship, taught Dicks the need to take care of the people back home, particularly when it came to jobs.
Dicks learned well. His campaign yard signs in every election but one simply said, “He Works for Jobs.”
“Maggie had good instincts,” said Tacoma businessman Herb Simon, Dicks’ longtime campaign treasurer. “But Norm had the stomach and the belly for it.”
A product of blue-collar Bremerton, Dicks was a star linebacker on a 10-1 University of Washington football team in 1960 and still carries himself as if he is about to level a Minnesota running back in the Rose Bowl. Since his election from a crowded Democratic field in 1976, few have been better than Dicks at securing federal aid for a broad array of initiatives.
Dicks insisted the money was not pork, but investments – in downtown renewal and public housing renovations in Tacoma and Bremerton; in national parks, salmon restoration and Puget Sound cleanup; in nuclear submarine bases and other military facilities across Washington state and the Pacific Northwest.
“To say that the Congress of the United States cannot appropriate money for a local project is ridiculous!” Dicks told McClatchy. “I think it’s unconstitutional.”
That view is not shared by tea party activists and anti-spending advocacy groups that pressured Congress to impose an earmark moratorium two years ago.
“Dicks clearly has been a formidable earmarker over the years,” said Steve Ellis, chief budget analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington, D.C., government watchdog group. “You can argue that it’s been good for his district and good for his state, but at the end of the day he swears an oath to the Constitution, not to his district or to the state of Washington, so in that sense it’s a disservice.”
Norm Ornstein, an analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said it’s the Constitution that grants the power of the purse to Congress.
“Protecting your constituents is not antithetical to what’s in the Constitution,” Ornstein said. “You can make a case that it’s better for elected officials to decide how to allocate resources than unelected bureaucrats.”
Dicks is Washington state’s longest-serving House member and ranks 10th in seniority among the 435 House members. Since joining the House in January 1977 and gaining a rare freshman’s seat on its appropriations panel, Dicks has directly brought or had a hand in bringing $2 billion in earmarked money to his state and his 6th Congressional District.
Some of Dicks’ earmarks have been relatively modest sums, such as the $150,000 he procured in 2010 for Tacoma-based Pierce County Alliance to find new homes for children abused or neglected by their parents.
Other earmarks have been for multiyear, big-ticket projects, such as a cumulative $335 million for removing two dams from the Elwha River to help increase the populations of Dicks’ beloved salmon.
He admits to only one bad earmark, when he decided to use National Park Service funds for a project called “Walk on the Mountain” which included a much needed pedestrian bridge in downtown Tacoma.
“I fixed that,” Dicks said. “All the other earmarks have stood the test.”
Beyond earmarks, Dicks has protected tens of billions of dollars from the Energy Department, Defense Department, Fish and Wildlife Service and other executive agencies for nuclear waste cleanup at the Hanford reservation, upgrades at his state’s 10 military bases, improvements at its three national parks and countless more initiatives.
His fingerprints are on projects in virtually every part of Washington state. Back when downtown Tacoma was known for black tar heroin and prostitutes, Dicks provided federal funding to help restore Union Station that kickstarted the downtown revitalization.
East of the mountains, Dicks became a champion for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation cleanup and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the Tri-Cities. Early on, Magnuson had told Dicks to give Sam Volpentest, Tri-Cities’ top lobbyist, whatever he wanted. Shortly before Volpentest’s death at 101 in 2005, Dicks flew to the Tri-Cities to visit him.
“You go down the list and Dicks contributed as much to the Tri-Cities as the west side,” said Gary Petersen, vice president for federal programs for the Tri-City Development Council. “He’s been known as the state’s third senator.”
There have been a few bumps along the way for Dicks during his long appropriations career.
In 2009, the Office of Congressional Ethics investigated Dicks, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania and Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia over allegations that they had obtained earmarks for clients of the PMA lobbying firm in exchange for campaign contributions.
Dicks denied any improprieties, and the agency declined to recommend that the House ethics committee expand the investigation.
Between 2007 and 2010, Dicks also faced nepotism allegations from political foes over $16 million in federal grants and earmarks that he steered to the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency where his son was executive director.
Dicks and his son, David Dicks, denied any wrongdoing, saying the congressman had a longstanding interest in cleaning up the country’s second-largest estuary. Puget Sound had been getting peanuts in federal funding at a time when the federal government was spending millions of dollars on the cleanups of Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.
“This is a very important issue for the people in my state,” Dicks told the Washington Post in February 2012. “This isn’t about me or my son.”
Dicks’ funding prowess grew from the wide web of connections he built, starting in November 1968 when his stint with Magnuson introduced him to Panetta and other Capital Hill aides who would later rise to prominence. By the time Dicks won election to Congress in 1976, he knew the funding process so well and had so many key contacts that House Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts placed him on the prestigious Appropriations Committee, an unusual coup for a newcomer.
O’Neill later said he was lobbied on behalf of Dicks by the owner of the New England Patriots, O’Neill’s hometown football team. Turns out Dicks had randomly bumped into the Patriots’ owner at a Seattle Seahawks football game and asked him to put in a good word for him with O’Neill.
Dicks’ House freshman class alone included a number of future luminaries whose advances would increase his clout over the years, among them future vice presidents Dan Quayle and Al Gore, future CIA and Pentagon chief Panetta, future presidential candidate Dick Gephardt, future White House budget chief David Stockman and future Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.
For most of the 1990s, Dicks had the White House on speed dial, paying visits to his pal Gore and becoming close with President Bill Clinton over late-night Hearts games at the card table. It was possible to see him as secretary of defense or secretary of interior if Gore had been elected president in 2000.
In addition to his connections, Dicks had a unique blend of personal qualities that made him an exceptional appropriator. He did his homework, mastered the details of complex projects and had little patience for others who came to meetings poorly primed. In what was sometimes a breach of congressional protocol, Dicks would call House staffers directly with questions, convinced they often know more than their bosses.
“If you go into a room to talk with him, you’d better be prepared.” said former Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman. “The minute he thinks you don’t know what you’re talking about, he’s gone.”
Tim Thompson, a Tacoma environmental lobbyist who worked for Dicks from 1981 to 1992, remembers early-morning wake-up calls in which his boss would grill him on the day’s agenda.
“This guy’s energy is off the charts,” Thompson said. “He approached his job with every ounce of energy, and he insisted on preparation and demanded research.”
Yet for someone as intense as Dicks, he had the patience and stamina needed to see complicated initiatives through multiple stages over many years, sometimes bringing opponents together and insisting that they hash out their differences.
“He is one of my absolute favorite members of Congress who takes joy in legislating, in solving problems,” said Bill Arthur, a deputy national field director for Sierra Club in Seattle. “I fought with him more than I agreed with him, but his door was never closed.”
During the 1980s, Dicks spent five years brokering talks between Port of Tacoma officials and Puyallup Tribe of Indians leaders over disputed land claims. The negotiations finally produced a $162 million settlement for which Dicks obtained federal funds to pay the tribe in exchange for relinquishing valuable parcels in the port area and downtown Tacoma.
Dicks was involved directly in the negotiations, sitting in on all-day sessions that resulted in the second-largest lands claim settlement in history between the United States and a tribe, former Pierce County executive John Ladenburg said.
“It turned around a tribe and made them prosperous,” Ladenburg said. “But is also gave a huge boost to the Port of Tacoma,” among the largest on the West Coast and an important driver in the local economy.
In another extended round of negotiations, Dicks helped the Madigan Army Medical Center resolve a raft of wrongful-death lawsuits. After several years of interviewing doctors and hospital officials and inspecting its dilapidated corridors and outdated equipment, Dicks secured $320 million in federal funds to settle the claims and modernize the hospital.
Knowing it would be difficult to obtain $320 million in one lump sum, he persuaded fellow House appropriators to fund the Madigan upgrades in smaller annual payments, an arrangement that became a model for renovating other Army hospitals around the country.
“You don’t come back here just to vote,” Dicks said of his approach in the House. “You need an agenda, you need things you want to accomplish.”
The granddaddy of all marathon megadeals was the Elwha River restoration, for which Dicks, an avid outdoorsman, secured 15 consecutive annual appropriations. Over the years he kept the project on track in countless meetings with leaders of the City of Port Angeles, Clallam County and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, along with constituents who lived near the river.
As chairman or senior Democrat at various points on the Appropriations defense or interior subcommittees, Dicks helped obtain funding for natural resources projects and weapons programs nationwide.
Washington state’s military bases survived four rounds of base closings because Dicks used defense appropriations to keep them among the most modern in the nation. Dicks also was a strong backer of the B-2 bomber, worked for nearly 10 years to get the Air Force to buy Boeing’s 767 tanker and supported Texas Democratic Rep. Charlie Wilson’s efforts to send money and arms to Afghans fighting the Soviets.
Dicks’ interest in national security issues was cultivated by Sen. Jackson, who was a defense hardliner at the height of the Cold War.
The hard-line approach has occasionally caused Dicks political problems. In the 1980s, he supported the Reagan Administration’s effort to build the MX missile – a vote that led to a censure from the Washington state Democratic Party. He didn’t show up at the party’s 1984 convention in Tacoma where he may have been booed.
“We came here to take hard votes,” Dicks said.
The defense hawk does regret at least one vote, the one in support of the Iraq War. He says he was misled by the second Bush administration about weapons of mass destruction.
Dicks shut down his office in D.C.’s Rayburn House Office Building right after Thanksgiving and has since been working out of an ornate, large single room on the third floor of the Capital building with a stunning view of the National Mall. It is painted Husky purple and gold.
Packed away and headed for the archives at the University of Washington are the mementos of his career: the pen used by the first President George Bush to sign the Puyallup lands claim settlement, the Interior appropriations gavel, the Husky footballs and the picture of his winning Apple Cup interception, models of the B-2 bomber and the new 767 tanker, the picture of him in the Oval Office with President Clinton and the citation for his CIA Director’s Award.
His last few months in office have included a farewell tour of sorts, with goodbye speeches and appearances dotting the district and culminating in a by-invitation-only party last Sunday, Dicks’ 72nd birthday. The sendoff at Tacoma’s Hotel Murano was thrown by Dicks’ campaign committee, the Puyallup Tribe and Washington State Democrats.
Even as he retires, Dicks isn’t about to disappear and said he could see himself as a consultant working on such issues as ocean acidification, climate change, Puget Sound restoration and endangered salmon. Asked whether he would become a lobbyist, Dicks said he would rather be a consultant and either open his own firm or join an existing one. By law, he can’t lobby Congress for a year after he leaves.
He said he will be spending more time in Washington state, where he owns a home on Hood Canal, than in Washington, D.C.
“I do want to spend more time with my family, if we ever get this session over with,” Dicks said Thursday. “This is going right to the edge of the cliff. I also want to do a little more fishing.”
In the meantime, he’s been assisting his successor, Democrat Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor, in getting settled. Kilmer, who will be sworn in next week, calls Dicks a mentor.
“One of the things he said to me a few years back is ‘Play to win, but don’t leave noses bloodied,’” Kilmer said. “I really respect that. People feel Norm was always a hard worker and a vigorous adversary, but he remained collegial.”
James Rosen works for the McClatchy Newspapers’ Washington, D.C., bureau. Les Blumenthal covered Congress for The News Tribune for more than two decades before retiring in 2011.