To understand what Washington will lose when Norm Dicks leaves Congress five days from now, you have to meet the man.
He comes across as a latter-day Teddy Roosevelt: beefy and bombastic; exuberant, gregarious and dominating; funny, friendly and full of stories. Though he talks nonstop, he’s no bore: The ideas just come too fast.
After about 10 minutes, you realize Dicks is not merely a consummate politician, but also a man of rare intelligence and insatiable curiosity. Once he’s on one of his favorite subjects – stealth aircraft, for example, or Puget Sound cleanup – you start to wonder if anyone else knows as much as this guy.
At 72, he still looks and talks like an irrepressible ex-Husky linebacker, which he is. On the issues he follows, he’s also a formidable intellectual with a dazzling grasp of technical detail and broad context.
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Many of the tributes now being paid to Dicks amount to inventories of the projects and funding he brought home to Washington and the 6th Congressional District during his 36 years in office.
None of those lists is complete, though, because he’s done so much. Here is a sampling:
He turned Joint Base Lewis-McChord into the most important military installation on the West Coast. It has only grown as bases elsewhere have been closed. One reason is the $320 million Madigan Army Medical Center built on Dicks’ watch; the Pentagon doesn’t walk away from investments like that.
In Tacoma, he won funding for the Interstate 705 spur, the rehabilitation of Union Station and the Murray Morgan Bridge, the Commencement Bay cleanup, the Puyallup Indian land claims settlement, and the Route 509 highway bypass that moved traffic east of the Port of Tacoma and cleared that way for its modern expansion.
Dicks was indispensable in the rebirth of downtown Tacoma in the 1980s and 1990s.
The environment has been one of his passions. He has won funding for Washington’s national parks, the cleanup of Puget Sound and the removal of two dams on the Elwha River.
No one deserves honorable retirement more than Dicks. But this passage is another step away from the more civil, bipartisan and positive Congress this country once knew.
Dicks was a devoted Democrat, but he had plenty of Republican friends. His legislation fared well when Democrats controlled the House; it also fared well under Republican leadership. As former state GOP Chairman Chris Vance said, “He was a lawmaker’s lawmaker. Everyone respected him.”
Washington has sent nationally distinguished lawmakers to Congress, among them Spokane’s Tom Foley, once speaker of the House, and Sens. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Warren Magnuson – both mentors of Dicks.
Dicks now joins that roster of legends.