CORRECTION: An earlier version of the accompanying photo caption misidentified the committee. Dicks is the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee.
Rep. Norm Dicks's decision on Friday to retire at the end of the 112th Congress undoubtedly will set off a scramble to succeed him as the top Democrat on the omnipotent Appropriations Committee, and it could become a factor in a tough primary between two veteran lawmakers far from his Washington state district.
Next in line on Appropriations is Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who is locked in an intense Democratic primary battle set off by redistricting with Rep. Dennis Kucinich in Ohio.
Dicks's retirement could be a boon for Kaptur in her Tuesday face-off with Kucinich in the Buckeye State's 9th District. In this final stretch, she can talk up her seniority and tell voters that in choosing her, they may get to be represented by a soon-to-be very powerful lawmaker.
Former House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., said that if he were Kaptur, he would “certainly” raise the possibility that “the odds are that she would be considered the next in line on paper."
“The last I looked, Dennis wasn’t on the committee," added Obey, who is now senior counsel at Gephardt Government Affairs. "A state like Ohio is more than most focused on economic issues, and I would think that would be something her constituents would want to know.”
On Friday, Kaptur was demure about her chances. "I know seniority matters on our committee more than on other committees, perhaps, and I am No. 2 now," she said.
"The last Ohioan to chair Approps was [former President] James Garfield in 1875,” Kaptur noted, "so I know how precious this moment is."
However, her seniority does not assure her the top Democratic Appropriations slot. Party leaders will ultimately decide. And a House Democratic aide said the committee’s fourth-ranking Democrat, Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, also is letting her interest be known. “She definitely wants to be considered,” said the aide.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., certainly has considered Kucinich an annoying loose cannon of sorts. But Kaptur has also at times been a thorn in her side, particularly with her abortion position. Kaptur is among a group of Democrats who initially opposed President Obama's health care law because of the way it handled coverage for abortion services.
Then there's the technicality that Minority Whip Steny Hoyer is actually the most senior Democrat on Appropriations after Dicks. The Maryland lawmaker is on leave from the committee while he serves in leadership.
Hoyer's office immediately responded that he has no plans to return to the panel.
Dicks's retirement, and that of Appropriations Committee Democrat Rep. Maurice Hinchey of New York, reflect the loss of a “tremendous amount of institutional knowledge,” Obey said. It also takes two senior Democrats away from the Defense Appropriations subcommittee.
The prospect of a Kaptur defeat by Kucinich would represent a third senior Democratic departure from that panel.
“That’s losing a hell of a lot of talent and know-how,” Obey said. “They are all pragmatic people who know how to get things done.”
Dicks is the 22nd member of the House to retire outright this cycle and the 13th Democrat to do so. Nine Republicans are retiring outright.
Obey, who served 41 years before deciding not to seek reelection in 2010, is the man Dicks succeeded as the top Democrat on the panel. He recalled running into Dicks at the Kennedy Center four or five months ago when Dicks joked to him, "There are a lot of things about this job you never warned me about."
“Norm’s great strength as a legislator is that he started out life as a staffer,” said Obey. “If you start out as a staffer, you learn how to get things done before you have to step out in spotlight and get things done in a public way.” And because he had been a staffer in the Senate, he also knows how the other body works, Obey said.
“So, he brought a lot of legislative skill,” said Obey.
"After 18 terms representing the people of the 6th Congressional District of Washington, preceded by eight years on the staff of [former] Sen. Warren G. Magnuson, Suzie and I have made the decision to change gears and enjoy life at a different pace," Dicks stated on Friday.
Home-state Sen. Patty Murray, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was first out with words of praise.
“Norm Dicks is a true Washington state institution," she said in a statement. "But more than that, he is my mentor, my friend, my adviser, my teammate, and my brother. He is our state’s quarterback here in Congress, and I can’t imagine our delegation without him."
Dicks, the son of a worker at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, is a former football linebacker at the University of Washington, where he was nicknamed "Dizzy Dicks'' for his manic style on the field. His voting record reveals him as a moderate Democrat who has been unusually supportive of military spending. He voted for the Iraq war resolution in 2002 but later regretted it. He said he was misled by U.S. claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
He often quotes former Washington Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson, saying, “I’m not a hawk or a dove. I just don’t want my country to be a pigeon.’’
Dicks is known as “Mr. Boeing’’ on Capitol Hill for his unflagging support of the state’s largest defense contractor. He said that the awarding of a $35 billion tanker contract to Boeing last year “was the happiest day in my professional life.’’
Not shy of earmarking, Dicks has brought federal money home to his district for everything from the multibillion-dollar cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation to the revitalization of Tacoma's waterfront. Ever since a close election in 1980, he has proven his popularity by winning reelection by wide margins.
The partisan lean of Dicks's western Washington turf hardly changed during redistricting. First elected in 1976, he was reelected with 58 percent of the vote in 2010.
One Democratic name to watch in the race to succeed Dicks is state Sen. Derek Kilmer, who grew up on the Olympic Peninsula and represents the biggest swing part of the district.
In a statement, Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., who by all accounts has a good relationship with Dicks, praised his “decency, strong work ethic, jovial character, and honesty.”
Sean Sullivan, Scott Bland, and Katy O'Donnell contributed.