Their Departures Further Shrink the Region’s Experience and Clout in the House
The overall experience and seniority of the Pacific Northwest delegation continues to shrink with the recent announced retirements of Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer and Washington Congressman Derek Kilmer.
The decisions by Democrats Blumenauer and Kilmer not to seek re-election in 2024 follow earlier decisions by Peter DeFazio to step aside last year and Greg Walden to call it quits after 2020. DeFazio was elected to Congress in 1986, Blumenauer in 1996, Walden in 1998 and Kilmer in 2012. Blumenauer and Kilmer represent solidly Democratic districts that have already attracted prominent Democrats to run for their open seats.
Washington and Oregon still rank as the top of states with seniority in the Senate. Washington Senator Patty Murray has the third most seniority in the upper chamber and Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is fourth. Washington Senator Maria Cantwell ranks 12th and Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley is 30th. All four are Democrats. Murray chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and Wyden chairs the Senate Finance Committee.
When Democrats were in control, DeFazio chaired the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and played an instrumental role in passage of a major infrastructure package. When Republicans were in control, Walden chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Blumenauer serves on the House Ways and Means Committee and founded the Congressional Bike Caucus. Kilmer led the House Select Committee on Modernization that advanced numerous ideas to bring the operation of Congress into the 21st century.
Washington and Oregon enjoy the most seniority in the U. S. Senate.
Blumenauer, Bow Tie and Livability
Blumenauer, who will complete 14 terms when he retires, says he wants to return home to join the drive to keep Portland a livable city. In an interview with OPB, he disavowed any interest in running for local office. “I’d rather be a resource, working on the revitalization of our city, dealing with Portland State and Portland Community College, helping in terms of navigating some of these problems with housing and addiction and dysfunction.”
He singled out Governor Kotek for her efforts to revitalize Portland. “I’ve worked with five governors now and Governor Kotek has been more engaged with helping us in our local community than any governor. I’ve had great relationships with them, but Tina has really zeroed in. She understands the challenge and she’s put herself out there.”
Blumenauer takes pride in his role in helping the Biden administration and DeFazio gain passage of a major infrastructure funding measure. But he sees his legacy in Congress as the “Johnny Appleseed of livability”. “Being able to take the livable communities agenda to Congress, being able to spread the word, campaigning around the country. It was very exciting and I think consequential.” He also cites his work at the federal level on legalizing cannabis.
His decision to leave Congress is also personal. “I think it’s pretty clear [Democrats] are going to be in control of the House of Representatives next time and that’s attractive. But I truly think there are better ways I can spend my time. The House is increasingly dysfunctional. I’ve been on airplanes 14 hours a week forever. I have a family that I have neglected a little. It was time.”
Blumenauer is a rare breed of politician who has served on a city council, county commission and community college board as well as in a state legislature and Congress, representing the same city where he was born, raised and earned his undergraduate and law degrees. His first political project was a campaign to lower Oregon’s voting age. He was unsuccessful but supported the national effort that led to the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18.
He won a Portland House seat in 1972 while still working on his law degree and serving on the Portland Community College board. Serving before the state Capitol was expanded with House and Senate office wings, his “office” was in a hallway.
After he left the legislature, Blumenauer was elected to the Multnomah County Commission. On his second try, he won election to the Portland City Council and was assigned to head the Department of Public Works. While serving on the council, he was appointed to state Board of Higher Education. He ran for mayor of Portland in 1992 but lost to Vera Katz. Blumenauer won Oregon’s 3rd District congressional seat in 1996 in a special election following Wyden’s victory in a special election to replace Senator Bob Packwood who resigned.
Kilmer and Congressional Modernization
Kilmer succeeded Norm Dicks, an outsized personality who played football for the University of Washington and served in Congress 36 years. While Dicks was known for his work on House Appropriations, Kilmer earned his spurs chairing the bipartisan House Modernization Committee that outperformed expectations.
“Things aren’t going to change overnight. But, if one reviews the progress that has been made in recent years, it’s hard not to come away feeling hopeful,” Kilmer said. “I had a fair amount of trepidation about joining an institution known for its dysfunction. When I decided to run, I knew that part of my focus would be – simply put – on trying to make government work better.”
“The Modernization Committee showed that Congress can do things better when folks check their partisan agendas at the door and just focus on working together,” he added, noting the committee approved more than 200 reforms, a quarter of which have been implemented. For the story within the story of the Modernization Committee, check out this Under the Dome blog.
In a statement announcing his decision not to seek re-election, Kilmer, 49, wrote, “As nourishing as this job has been, it has come with profound costs to my family. Every theatrical performance and musical recital I missed. Every family dinner that I wasn’t there for. The distance I felt from my family for months after the events of January 6th. I am conscious that I didn’t always deliver in the way I wanted; and hope they will forgive me for that.”
He disclosed that before each plane trip to Washington, DC, he wrote notes to his son and daughter describing what he would be doing in the coming week, whether it was voting on health care or dealing with the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “The common thread of each of those letters was this – I tried to communicate to them that every day, in every way, I was trying to make things better for their generation.”
Before entering politics, Kilmer was a business consultant and a Star Wars fan. Born and raised in Port Angeles, Washington, Kilmer took his undergraduate degree in public affairs from Princeton University and earned his Ph.D. in comparative social policy from Oxford University. He hasn’t publicly indicated his plans when he leaves Congress.