Retiring 6th District Democrat Norm Dicks gave his political protégé, Derek Kilmer, the early word in March that he wouldn’t seek a 19th term. “He told me, ‘In about an hour I’m going to announce my retirement, and you should figure out what you’re going to do,’ ” Kilmer recalled in an interview. With a head start, he went on to beat Republican businessman Bill Driscoll in a campaign in which Dicks’s reputation as a stalwart defender of the district’s military installations and businesses loomed large.
Kilmer grew up as the son of two public-school teachers in Port Angeles, where he first met Dicks at age 18. “He’s been a really great mentor for me over the years,” Kilmer said. Watching the town’s economic struggles in the wake of the timber industry’s decline prompted Kilmer to pursue a career linking public policy and economic development. He got a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Princeton University and a doctorate from the University of Oxford in England in social policy, with a focus on economic development.
In 2002, Kilmer went to work for the nonprofit Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County. As a vice president, he talked with 200 businesses a year in an effort to broaden the economies of communities like Port Angeles, long dependent on timber. “How do you put more legs on the stool so it’s more stable,” he said. “How do you diversify a local economy to help it prosper?”
Kilmer was elected to the Washington House as a Democrat in 2004 and two years later moved to the state Senate. He rose to chair the chamber’s Capital Budget Committee, where he promoted legislation to create jobs by borrowing money for public construction. In addition to economic development and education, Kilmer focused much of his time as a legislator on veterans’ affairs. Naval Base Kitsap is in the 6th District, and veterans make up more than 15 percent of the population.
A military background was one major difference between Kilmer and his GOP challenger. Driscoll served in the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan and also worked in the timber and real-estate industries. He called the federal deficit the biggest threat to national security and departed from Republican orthodoxy in calling for tax increases tied to specific spending cuts. Driscoll also supported abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
But Kilmer maintained a strong lead in the polls, and he made sure to let voters know that he was running with Dicks’s backing. The district’s major newspapers endorsed Kilmer: The Seattle Times calling him “a problem solver who can be bipartisan,” and The News Tribune of Tacoma praised him for having “an uncommon understanding of trade, business taxation, smart regulation, job creation and other fundamentals of economic growth.”