His 36-year career as a Democratic Congressman for Washington’s 6th District may have ended in 2012, but he’s still on the case protecting wildlife and fighting to bolster the economy in his native region. Most days Norm Dicks assumes the role of Senior Policy Advisor for the law firm Van Ness Feldman, shuttling between their offices in Seattle and Washington, D.C., where he and his wife Suzie still maintain a residence. He serves on numerous environmental and policy boards on both coasts, and his insight is informally sought by countless others.
He cherishes the rare downtime spent with family at his home on Hood Canal, but even that isn’t sedentary. A knee replacement surgery may have put an end to a once-avid tennis habit, but Dicks has happily filled the void by taking up golfing with his children and grandchildren. His schedule can be overwhelming, but he is compelled to share his passions and concerns. “I spent a whole career saying yes to people,” Dicks says during a chat in his Seattle office. “I learned that from Senator Warren Magnuson, ’29, (for whom he worked for eight years), who always wanted to find a way to help constituents. [Sen. Henry “Scoop”] Jackson was the same way—and those two won a lot of elections. It’s a winning formula!”
Dicks’ “roll-up-your-sleeves” ethos is legendary. The 74-year-old Bremerton native is repeatedly referred to as “dogged” and “tenacious.” As John “Jack” Lein, ’55, former associate dean of the UW School of Medicine, reports, “Once you convince Norm to do something, you can’t stop him.” Mike Egan, ’90, director of government affairs at Microsoft and a former Dicks aide, echoes that instead of dithering or delegating, Dicks would commonly get on the phone and start tackling an issue mid-meeting. He is celebrated for elevating issues above the politics, something Lein, as an early administrator for the groundbreaking regional medical education program that came to be known as WWAMI, saw firsthand; Dicks was a key player in the bipartisan coalition that helped secure the funding that set the program’s foundation in the late 1960s.
In recognition of his enthusiasm for service—and the profound impact his work has had on the Pacific Northwest—Dicks, ’63, ’68, has been awarded the 2015 Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus, the highest award bestowed upon an alumnus by the University of Washington. As the walls of his office can attest, it is just the latest in a series of distinctions from his alma mater; he was previously given Distinguished Alumni Awards from both the School of Law and the Department of Political Science, and was a recipient of a Timeless Award given by the UW College of Arts and Sciences during the University’s 150th anniversary in 2012.
The UW is hardly alone in celebrating Congressman Dicks. Shortly after he concluded his tenure in Congress, the Department of Defense awarded him the Distinguished Public Service Medal for his work onbehalf of military members and their families. And his eight years of duty on the House Intelligence Committee have earned him the coveted CIA Director’s Medal.
“He did a great job representing his own district, but when people in other parts of the state needed help, he was always the go-to guy with the clout and experience to help.”
Former Gov. Christine Gregoire
The accolades are the exclamation point on a career in politics that was unusually influential, so much so that he was often referred to as “Washington’s Third Senator.” Former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, ’71, elaborates: “He did a great job representing his own district, but when people in other parts of the state needed help, he was always the go-to guy with the clout and experience to help.” As a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee, Dicks wielded real power in funding projects in the areas closest to his heart: the environment and defense. When asked to identify a couple of his proudest accomplishments, Dicks is quick to answer. First, he cites the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, which offers a perfect microcosm of his political versatility: the lengthy process required significant funding ($335 million), close collaboration with the Native American community, and a strong advocacy of the environmental science that precipitated the project. Though the removal has only been complete since last summer, Dicks is proud to report that salmon are already returning to areas they have not seen for a century. It’s an early indication of success for a landmark test case that Dicks hopes to see replicated worldwide.
Dicks also continues to delight in the $35 billion contract Boeing finalized with the Air Force in 2011 to build fuel tankers. The decade-long battle saw Boeing initially win the contract, then lose it to Airbus amid a corporate scandal, only to eventually secure the deal after the process was reopened following complaints raised by Boeing over the procurement procedure. Dicks’ unwavering advocacy was crucial to the process—and crucial to the region. The result: Boeing’s Everett plant is slated to build 179 767-based fuel tankers, creating an estimated 11,000 jobs.
Dicks also takes great pride in the fact that the two largest towns in his district—Tacoma and Bremerton—have been revitalized. Federal funds he secured helped link downtown Tacoma to I-5, created public housing, and paid for renewals of Union Station and other landmarks. He was also a vocal cheerleader for what is, in his estimation, the key piece to Tacoma’s revitalization: UW Tacoma. In his hometown of Bremerton, the rebirth has taken longer, but the addition of the Puget Sound Naval Museum, Harborside Fountain Park and the $25 million Norm Dicks Government Center have made its waterfront a destination again.
As proud as he is of his time in Congress, Dicks is completely at peace with his decision to step away. “I was so ready to give the ball to [successor Derek] Kilmer,” he says. Dicks is quick to acknowledge that Congress operates less smoothly, and that the nation is far more divided, than at the start of his career. “It’s unbelievably different,” he reports. Part of that difference is a product of greater political balance. When Dicks first went to D.C. to work for Sen. Magnuson, there were 67 Democrats in the Senate and “we passed important bills all of the time.” But the real reason for governmental gridlock today, he feels, is the fissure within the Republican Party between its moderates and the Tea Party. He warns that some of the most conservative House members are “very, very extreme,” particularly in their denial of science—and points out that the more mainstream Republicans are having to spend too much of their time “looking over their shoulders” and fundraising, rather than focusing on solving problems. In contrast, Dicks attributes some of his success to the fact that he never had to spend a significant amount of time, or money, on re-elections—a freedom that afforded “great opportunity for public service.”
Despite some of these frustrations about the current political state, Dicks is hardly disengaged. He regularly speaks to Congressman Kilmer, who was recently given a seat on the Appropriations Committee, and takes the role of mentor very seriously, expressing eternal gratitude for the pols who took him under their wings for more than 40 years ago. Dicks has compliments for several of the lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, serving our state in D.C. and views them as agents of the brand of bipartisanship he championed.
Relaxation remains a rare luxury for Dicks, who continues to be committed to the same issues as when he was in Congress. That shows he “wasn’t a politician in the negative sense of the word,” explains Gregoire. “He only advocated for things he really believes in.” With a roster of clients that includes Boeing, General Dynamics and the Puyallup Tribe, he continues to leverage the relationships he built throughout his years in the trenches and provide counsel on the issues dear to him. In an understatement that has proven beneficial to many, he concludes with a smile, “I always like to be busy.”