A divided, dysfunctional U.S. House of Representatives will lose a workhorse who works for bipartisan cooperation with the announcement by U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., that the six-term congressman will not seek reelection next year.
“I’ve looked at life in chapters,” Kilmer, 49, said in a letter released Thursday. “I never looked at this chapter as something I’d do for the rest of my life, and – as I shared with my kids – I’m excited to start a new chapter when my term is complete.”
State Land Commissioner Hilary Franz is widely expected to run for Kilmer’s seat in Congress, and to announce almost immediately. A dozen years ago, Kilmer was able to preempt the field for Norm Dicks’ seat with a quick announcement.
Kilmer has been a well-regarded man of the House. He copped a seat on the House Appropriations Committee as a member of the Democratic minority. Unusual for a minority member, he was able to pass bills through the Republican-run House. When Democrats won House control in 2018, he was picked to chair the bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
Kilmer has chaired and co-chaired the New Democrat Coalition, consisting of moderate and pro-business Dems in The House. He crafted and pushed through the House Wild Olympics legislation that would extend Wilderness Act protection to more than 120,000 acres of Olympic National Forest land surrounding Olympic National Park.
There will remain images pointing to the quality of the man.
In 2013, Kilmer made a point at being at gates of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, in Bremerton, talking to constituents on the morning of a partial federal government shutdown, caused by the intransigence of Republicans in the House. The shipyard’s contract employees stood to suffer most from the shutdown.
Or as folks arrived at Pacific County Democrats’ crab feed, oldest continuous political event in the state, there on the porch sat Kilmer in earnest conversation with a girl bearing a “Support Green New Deal” sign. He spent a half hour explaining to her the actual work on the environment, from Wild Olympics to thwarting Trump Administration attempts to abolish cleanup programs in Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.
Kilmer has represented, along with Norm Dicks before him, a needy part of the state. With its rust-belt mill towns, a great national park, and eight Native American tribes, the Olympic Peninsula has commanded – and demanded – attention. Its issues have ranged from water quality in Hood Canal to tsunami dangers to native villages on the coast.
“It’s been my honor to represent my hometown of Port Angeles and the entire Olympic Peninsula,” he wrote Thursday. “My upbringing – seeing the challenges facing our region – motivated my service. It’s why the core mission of my office has been to create more opportunities for more people in more places.”
It was amusing to note, in some Kilmer biographies, mention made of Port Angeles High School but scant reference to Princeton and none-at-all-to his doctorate from the University of Oxford in England. Congressional breaks would usually find Kilmer on stage in high school lunchrooms conducting community meetings. Both peninsulas in his district – Olympic and Kitsap – expected it.
Kilmer delivered no specifics on his future. Before being elected to succeed Norm Dicks in 2012, he served eight years in the Washington Legislature. He was a consultant for McKinsey & Co. and worked for the Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County.
Kilmer did not rule out future public service. “I’m a pretty young guy with more chapters in my life,” he wrote. “My plan is to ensure those chapters enable me to continue to make a positive difference. And I’d sure like to make a bit more time for those I love.”
He has achieved much. The modernization committee, nicknamed “ModCon”, delivered 200 recommendations on how to improve the creaky, often-dysfunctional “people’s House.” About a quarter have been implemented. The panel was known for meeting in roundtable format and allowing extended questioning rather than the usual five-minute format.
“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,” Kilmer wrote. The panel was disbanded at the end of the 117th Congress. Kilmer has since co-chaired a bipartisan panel known as the Fix Congress Coalition.
Earlier this year, Kilmer published a newsletter detailing his non-stop, almost frantic meeting schedule in Washington, D.C., as well as the many miles covered while at home in his district. The Olympic Peninsula has provoked grousing from members of Congress and has found itself in three different congressional districts over the past half-century.
Kilmer acknowledged that the work and travel load has taken its toll. “As nourishing as this job has been, it has come at profound cost to my family,” he allowed. “Every theatrical performance, musical recital I missed, every family dinner I was not there for. The distance I felt from my family for months after January 6th.”
More time-with-my-family is a frequent reason for leaving politics, frequently used by those in danger of losing their seats But Kilmer has represented a district labeled “safe Democratic” that President Biden carried in 2020 by a 17-point margin.
With Kilmer, the obligation seems genuine. He has for years written letters to his two offspring, Sophie and Aven, on his duties, initially chatty and lately of growing explanation into the importance of his work. “I tried to communicate to them that every day, in every way, I was trying to make things better for their generation – and for their country.”
As New Democrat Coalition leader, Kilmer did face some “corporate Democrat” flak from the far left. He faced a socialist challenger in the 2020 and 2022 primaries but was easily reelected. He made no apologies. “The New Democrats are the best kept secret in politics – a group of pragmatic, problem-solving Democrats who chase impact rather than headlines,” he wrote ‘Simply put, they’ve focused on getting things done for the American people. Our politics could use more of that.”
The low-profile Kilmer has stood in stark contrast a high-profile Washington seatmate, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. Jayapal chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, voice of the left on Capitol Hill. Jayapal can be found frequently on MSNBC and CNN talk shows, has shared intimate details of her private life in New York Times op-ed pieces, and been forced to walk back statements on Israel and the Ukraine war.
One puzzle remains. Kilmer twice passed the Wild Olympics legislation out of the House during the last Congress, with Democrats narrowly in control. But the bill never made it through the Senate, despite co-sponsorship with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash, and a Democratic majority in Congress’ upper chamber.
With Dicks and now Kilmer, the Sixth District has been splendidly, productively represented in Congress for nearly 50 years. When and if Derek Kilmer decides on a return to public service, the state should welcome him back.