WASHINGTON – For 30 years,Rep. Norm Dicks waited for his opportunity to be in the spotlight.
He sat on Republican-controlled committees for half that time,voted on budgets written by conservatives and spoke up when leaders gave him the opportunity – all the while waiting,planning and preparing to take the lead.
“The only reason I stayed is because I really wanted,at some point,to have a chance to get good things done for my state,” Dicks,D-Wash.,said. “Now is my chance.”
Since the November midterm elections put the Democrats in charge of Congress and elevated Dicks to a powerful Appropriations subcommittee chairmanship,others have noticed his high spirits.
“What,the big smile on his face?” asked Sen. Patty Murray,a fellow Washington Democrat,of Dicks' reaction to his newly gained power.
Dicks sat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Interior and Environment,which controls funding for environmental and arts programs,for 30 years before taking his seat at the head of the table. It isn't a large table,but it means a lot to someone who has waited so long.
“I think it's a historic record. I haven't gone back and checked,but I don't think anybody has ever been on a committee for 30 years in Appropriations and never chaired a subcommittee,” Dicks said.
But it isn't just a seat at a table. His chairmanship means more power and influence in a Congress that has many members fighting for the opportunity to shine.
The 12 chairmen of the Appropriations subcommittees are known as the College of Cardinals because of their extraordinary power to guide federal spending. In fact,Congress.org,part of a nonpartisan publishing firm that focuses on Congress and civic participation,now ranks Dicks as the 11th most powerful member of the House.
Dicks sits directly across the table from those who have come to testify. His build,left over from his days as a linebacker,commands respect. When he talks,the rest of the room listens. His booming voice carries.
He conducts hearings with authority. Nothing harsh – just a steady,firm hand,said Rep. Todd Tiahrt,R-Kan.,the ranking minority member on Dicks' subcommittee.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer,D-Md.,said Dicks is a key leader.
“Having worked with Congressman Dicks for many years on the Appropriations Committee,I know that he has been,and will continue to be,a strong representative for his constituents,” Hoyer said.
Dicks was elected to the House in 1976. He was 35 and ready to jump in to the action.
He had learned from two of the state's most notable leaders. He worked as Sen. Warren Magnuson's legislative and administrative assistant,who worked closely with Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson.
“I learned from Magnuson and Jackson that you've gotta get things done,” Dicks said. “You gotta accomplish things,you gotta make it happen. That's the real test – what do you get done?”
In his first term,he negotiated a seat on the Appropriations Committee,an unusual assignment for a newcomer.
Since then,he has won 15 elections. He attributes his election victories to his dedication to the campaign trail. Even with 31 years of name recognition,he campaigns door to door and puts out yard signs.
“On the football team,we always said you can never take anything lightly,you have to be prepared for every game,” said Dicks,who played football for the University of Washington from 1959 to 1962. “That's the way we approach elections. We want to make sure people know we still want the job.”
Last year,his Republican opponent,Doug Cloud,a Gig Harbor lawyer,received 29 percent of the vote.
“I got creamed,” Cloud admitted. “Mr. Dicks is popular in the area. He is certainly a representative of the military-industrial government complex and that is popular in the district at the present time.”
Dicks said he faced his toughest races in 1980,when Ronald Reagan was running,and in 1994,when Republicans took control of the House. He was one of two Democrats in the state to survive the 1994 Republican revolution. The other was Rep. Jim McDermott,who represents heavily Democratic Seattle.
“I guess if you work hard and do a good job,people will keep sending you back here,” Dicks said.
But his positions on issues aren't likely to please all his constituents all the time.
The American Conservative Union,a lobbying organization,rates each member of Congress based on where it believes the lawmaker falls on an ideological spectrum. The organization put Dicks on its “House Worst of the Worst” list in 2006,ranking him an 8 for that year and at 10.4 for his career. Zero is the most liberal and 100 is the most conservative.
However,Americans for Democratic Action,a liberal lobbying organization with a ranking system that assigns a zero to the most liberal and 100 to the most conservative,rates Dicks at 74,below the Democrats' average,which is in the mid-80s.
“ADA wouldn't consider him a strong liberal. He's on the conservative side of the Democratic caucus,” said Don Kusler,ADA's communications director. “But it does look like his rating has gotten higher over the years.”
Some of his votes demonstrate that Dicks doesn't always follow the party line. He voted against troop withdrawals from Iraq in 2005 and against a 2002 amendment that would have restricted the president's ability to take further military action without the approval of Congress.
Working as a team
Dicks and Murray have a strategic alliance,especially on appropriations. Both serve on Appropriations defense subcommittees and military construction and veterans affairs subcommittees. Both also serve on committees related to homeland security.
Murray said those chairmanships give the pair an ability to have a real impact on two of the state's big issues – transportation and environment.
Dicks has said that reopening Mount Rainer National Park and cleaning up Puget Sound are among his top priorities this year.
He is working to get more federal money for Gov. Chris Gregoire's Puget Sound Partnership and President Bush's centennial project for national parks,which could total $3 billion.
He is charged with reviewing the $27 billion Interior Department budget,which includes funding for the national parks and forests and the Environmental Protection Agency. The budget work gives him larger influence because everyone wants something to be included,he said.
But he wants to use his power to show that the public was right by giving the Democrats control.
“I have to come up with a bill here that people are going to say,‘Wow,the Democrats are doing great things on the environment and they support the arts and the parks,'” he said.
‘The administration is wrong'
Like many Democrats,Dicks originally voted for the Iraq war. But in the succeeding four years,he has changed his tune.
As part of Democrats' efforts to gain more control over the war,Dicks helped to get committee approval for a supplemental appropriations bill that includes a timetable for troop withdrawal. The Senate passed a similar measure. President Bush has said he will veto the bill,and Democrats do not have enough votes to overturn the veto.
Dicks said he and his fellow committee members know they have to approve funding for the troops and will work toward something the president will sign. The conflict over the war has put Appropriations members in a tough spot.
“We're the ones who have to put up the money for this,” Dicks said. “The American people want funding for the troops,but they also want us to have an exit strategy. That's where the administration is wrong.”
Dicks is concerned with the war's increasing cost.
“At some point,this war is going to be an issue of affordability,” Dicks said. “I mean,how can we just continue to borrow,borrow all this money and pile up the debt?”
Dicks led a bipartisan group of representatives to Iraq,Afghanistan,Kuwait and Pakistan in February. He met with Gens. David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno in Iraq and top government officials in each country.
He wanted to get a firsthand view of the conflict and was not pleased by what he saw. He said the military is doing its job,but he is concerned that the Iraqi government has failed to meet crucial benchmarks and reconcile Shias and Sunnis to end violence.
“If the Iraqis were living up to the commitments they made on these benchmarks,that would be one thing,but they're not,” Dicks said. “They say the right things,but they're not doing anything.”
Dicks said he hopes Petraeus and Odierno will be successful.
“We've spent all this money,all these lives have been lost and all these people have been injured. I would like this thing to turn out right,” he said. “I have my fingers crossed,hoping this thing can turn in the right direction,but it's really up to the Iraqis,and so far they haven't done the things they have to do.”
Perhaps it isn't uncommon for a sitting congressman to have a building in his hometown named after him. But even after three decades,Dicks has never forgotten his roots.
Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman said that when Dicks visits his home district,the two sit down over a glass a wine and discuss the area's needs. He called it practicing politics the old-fashioned way.
“If we put a handshake on deal,it's a deal,” Bozeman said. “If he gives me his word,it's good.”
Dicks recently helped secure federal funding for Bremerton's plan to make the city more pedestrian friendly. A planned tunnel will route traffic off ferries underground through downtown. Dicks got about $20 million for the project,about two-thirds of the tunnel's cost,Bozeman said.
“This project will have a big impact on the quality of life in our downtown,and without his help it would not have happened,” Bozeman said.
Dicks helped secure funding for a similar downtown development project in Tacoma.
“I've kidded Norm for some time that they should rename Tacoma ‘Dicksville'? They could call it ‘Normtown,' too,I suppose,” said Rep. Jay Inslee,D-Wash. “I think you probably won't find a congressman in the country who has had such a meaningful impact on the local infrastructure and jobs in their community.”
Dicks' mother,Eileen,lives just a block away from the 2-year-old Norm Dicks Government Center,in the same house Dicks grew up in.
Dicks' father,Horace,who died in 2001,and grandfather worked at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard,the same shipyard for which Dicks has secured funding to help continue as an economic driver.
“He's hometown boy,” Bozeman said. “He loves his community. He delivers for his community.”
And perhaps,with the Democrats now in charge,that loyalty will become even more visible.
“I've been blessed in many ways. I can't complain. Even though I wasn't chairman,I still got a lot done for my state and my district,” Dicks said. “But now we can do more. Now we're in a position to get more done.”