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Congress / Analysis

Dicks Retirement Ends Boeing Generation

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., praises the first model of the Boeing 767 Tanker Transport in a 2003 photo.(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

photo of Reid Wilson
March 5, 2012

In the midst of an economic recession, Boeing stands out as an anomaly. The aerospace giant has added more than 10,000 jobs in recent years, set several new records for airline sales to both domestic and international carriers, and this year could reclaim the title of largest commercial airplane manufacturer in the world. 

Without a generation of skilled appropriators from Washington State looking out for Boeing and helping win military and government contracts, it might not have been that way: The state and the Puget Sound region might have entered the current economic downturn much earlier, in the way Michigan experienced its own single-state recession. 

Now, the last member that generation of Boeing-backers, Washington Rep. Norm Dicks, is leaving the stage. After 18 terms in Congress and years before that as a top Congressional aide, Dicks said Friday he would not seek another term later this year.

 

"He's kind of the last of a great generation to leave," said Denny Heck, a long-time Evergreen State expert who founded TVW, the state's version of C-SPAN after serving as a top aide to Gov. Booth Gardner in the early 1990s. "We jokingly referred to him as our third U.S. Senator for decades. But it's not a joke, it was real."

Dicks began his career on Capitol Hill learning from the masters of a past appropriations era. He served as administrative assistant -- Senate-speak for chief of staff -- to Sen. Warren Magnuson in the early 1970s, at a time when Magnuson chaired the powerful Commerce Committee. Dicks left Magnuson's office to run for Congress on his own, winning a seat in 1977. 

Dicks's career as a member began at the height of Washington State's power; that year, Magnuson took over the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson chaired the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and then-Rep. Tom Foley, later the first House Speaker from a state west of the Rockies, chaired the House Agriculture Committee. Together, they steered billions in earmarks to Washington State, while helping Boeing secure billions more in government contracts.

After Magnuson lost in the 1980 Republican wave, Jackson died in 1983 and Foley lost his seat in the 1994 GOP landslide, Dicks was the last great Washington State appropriator. He rose to become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee, a post from which he could further aid Boeing. After Rep. David Obey retired and two more senior Democrats left, Dicks became the top-ranking Democrat on the panel. As the second-ranking Democrat on the defense subcommittee when Rep. John Murtha was still alive, Dicks helped Boeing win a U.S. Air Force tanker contract that had originally been awarded to a European aerospace conglomerate.

(Had Dicks run for re-election and Democrats retaken the House, he might have been in a position to recreate Washington State's influence inside the Beltway; Rep. Adam Smith, who, like Dicks, lives in Tacoma, is the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.)

"There were countless regional issues that united the Washington State congressional delegation over the years, and in those instances his clout was immensely helpful to the residents of Washington State," said Rob Nichols, a former communications director to the late Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., and ex-Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and now CEO of the Financial Services Forum.

Dicks has other legacies, most notably the money he secured to help rebuild and revitalize downtown Tacoma and to clean up Puget Sound and the Hood Canal, projects nearly as big in scope as the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. On Capitol Hill, he may best be remembered for acting like the staffer he used to be -- Dicks had a reputation for calling staffers in other offices directly and either urging them to push their bosses in his direction or yelling into the phone when he didn't get his way.

And Dicks took care of his fellow Washingtonians, regardless of party. Nichols, who worked for Republican Dunn, recalled living a few doors down from Dicks and his wife Suzie for a decade. Dicks, he said, would routinely return from trips back to the state with fresh-caught salmon.

"This state's entire Democratic establishment just walked around all day [Friday] occasionally tearing up," said Heck, who is running for Congress in a district that neighbors the one Dicks is vacating. "People were, frankly, grief-stricken on the one hand. On the other hand, good for him and Suzie."

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