The Capitol Hill office of U.S. Rep. Don Bonker bore an unusual portrait, that of one William Wilberforce, independent-minded British parliamentary reformer, philanthropist, evangelical Christian and crusader who helped abolish the slave trade.
Wilberforce was an unusual model for the seven-term (1974-88) Democratic congressman from the “rust belt” of Southwest Washington, but the earnest Bonker was a deeply religious do-gooder, who was willing to challenge old boy networks and modern-day economic power.
Bonker, 86, died Tuesday surrounded by family at his home in Silverdale.
Bonker was propelled into Congress by virtue of his opposition to log exports. Big timber countries in the 3rd District had discovered you could make more money sending cut-down trees overseas, rather than through local mills. The consequence was unprecedented, unsustainable cutting of forests, combined with loss of jobs as processing operations were shuttered.
The young Clark County Auditor won a primary over State Sen. Bob Bailey, longtime aide to outgoing Rep. Julia Butler Hansen, and then faced Republican Secretary of State A.L. “Lud” Kramer in the 1974 general election. Kramer had beaten Bonker in 1972. Not this time. Bonker had the issue, while Kramer deployed one of the state’s worst campaign slogans: “Don’t get BONKED.” Bonker won by a 60-40 margin.
Bonker fit into a Washington delegation that was the envy of other states. It was headed by the “gold dust twins,” U.S. Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson. Both chaired powerful Senate committees. The Democrats’ reformist “Class of ‘74” dumped the old Texas reactionary who chaired the House Agriculture Committee, and elected Spokane’s Rep. Tom Foley as committee chair. The delegation held a monthly breakfast and worked collegially across party lines to form unity on state issues.
Bonker didn’t want raw logs going overseas but saw global trade as a path to prosperity for a district fronting on the Pacific Ocean. He rose in seniority on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chairing both its trade and human rights subcommittees. He wrote legislation and chaired House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s trade task force.
Back home, if you want to see Bonker’s accomplishments, just look around. He successfully pushed to add Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach, crowning glory spots of the Pacific Coast, to Olympic National Park. It wasn’t easy: Timber companies and property-rights wackos had never forgiven Franklin D. Roosevelt for creating the national park. They accused Bonker of wanting to “lock up” what remained of the north coast.
Bonker took on the Port of Grays Harbor in creating the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge. With intertidal flats and salt marshes, Bowerman Basin near Hoquiam is a key spring stopover for hundreds of thousands of shorebirds migrating north to the Arctic. At other seasons, it is an important stop for local teenagers to make out.
Bonker succeeded in protecting an important bird nesting area – Protection Island – from a proposed real estate development. Bonker and colleague Norm Dicks were responsible for ransoming an old growth forest, Cedar Grove on Long Island in Willapa Bay, from the clutches of timber giant Weyerhaeuser.
The May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens, reshaped a graceful symmetrical volcano known as the “American Fujiyama” and flattened 230 square miles of land. Bonker was driving force behind creation of the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument — at 110,000 acres far larger than proposed by the Reagan Administration.
Bonker was also instrumental as Congress designated the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, where the Northwest’s greatest river carves a path through the Cascades. The usual actors protested the “land grab” and “locking up” of public lands, but the Gorge has flourished as a recreation destination with Hood River, Oregon, becoming the wind surfing capital of America.
“I admired Congressman Bonker for taking a leading role on international trade and helping establish the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge and the Mount St. Helens National Monument,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement. The state is “more prosperous and our natural places better protected” because of his service.
Bonker made an “up or out” decision in 1988. He sought the Senate seat of retiring GOP Sen. Dan Evans in 1988, only to lose the Democratic nomination to House colleague Rep. Mike Lowry. In turn, Lowry lost to the GOP’s Slade Gorton. Four years later, he again came up short as Sen. Patty Murray won the Democratic nod and captured a Senate seat which she still holds.
Bonker stayed active in trade policy, finding a post-Congress career at APCO Worldwide, a consulting and legal firm. He emerged in recent years with a memoir entitled A Higher Calling, and wrote articles for Post Alley. The book was an ode to an era of “trust and respect,” a celebration of earlier times when members of both parties in the House occasionally found common ground and were able to intensely disagree without becoming disagreeable. He loathed Newt Gingrich, whose elevation to House Republican leadership signaled a sharp turn to reaction and demagoguery.
“[Gingrich] made it clear he was not interested in bipartisanship,” Bonker would say. “He just laid the groundwork, and it has gotten much more worse in the last few years.” Of his own Congressional tenure, Bonker wrote: “My own achievements on international trade, human rights, preserving our natural resources happened only because of bipartisan support.”
The protection of the Columbia Gorge, done in tandem with Sens. Dan Evans and Bob Packwood, R-Oregon, was a classic example of acting across both party lines and state boundaries. Likewise the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act, which saw protection of Gifford Pinchot National Forest lands in both Bonker’s turf and the adjoining district of GOP Rep. Sid Morrison.
The Third District drifted to the Republicans in recent years, due to economic hard times in the once-blue logging districts and from neglect by the state Democratic Party. Now it again has a Democratic member of Congress, newly elected Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp-Perez. She said Thursday: “Don was always there to answer my questions, share a word of advice, or even lend my husband a suit to wear to my swearing on ceremony in D.C. . . . His work to preserve the woods and our way of life will continue to be felt by Southwest Washington for generations to come.”
Bonker is survived by his wife of 51 years, Carolyn, and two adult children.
A version of this piece appeared in the Northwest Progressive Institute’s “Cascadia Advocate.”