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Longtime Washington Rep. Norm Dicks is retiring

UPDATED: Fri., March 2, 2012, 3:34 p.m.

Rep. Norm Dicks, a powerful Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives often referred to as Washington’s “third senator”, is stepping down at the end of this term after 36 years in Congress.

Sometimes known as “the linebacker” from his days playing football for the University of Washington, Dicks occupied key spots on the House Appropriations Committee and its military construction subcommittee that were vital to Spokane as well as his Puget Sound congressional district.

Dicks, 71, said he and his wife have decided to “enjoy life at a different pace.” The most senior member of the state’s congressional delegation, Dicks was thought to be a shoo-in for re-election in his heavily Democratic district.

When Congress began the push to upgrade Fairchild Air Force Base and its World War II and Korean War era housing and military buildings in the 1980s, Spokane’s congressman Tom Foley relied on his long-time friend and ally Dicks, and his spot on the appropriations panels, to shepherd through the multi-million renovations. The two met when Dicks was on the staff of U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson and Foley was a junior representative and former staffer for U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson.

As Foley rose through the ranks to speaker, his clout and Dicks’ careful eye on the military purse strings, ensured Fairchild got the kind of improvements that made it one of the Air Force’s main refueling tanker bases and protected it from closure.

A major supporter of Boeing, which employs thousands of workers in and around his district, Dicks was also pivotal in discussions that involved replacing the Air Force’s KC-135 tanker fleet with a new plane, and doing everything possible to make sure the plane was built by Boeing. The Air Force awarded the multi-billion dollar contract to Boeing one year ago.

Dicks’ legislative skills weren’t applied solely to finding money for the state’s military and naval facilities. He was a champion of such environmental causes as restoring the Olympic Peninsula’s Elwha River by removing dams built in the early 20th Century and returning the river’s salmon. Dam removal began last summer. He was a strong supporter of Indian treaty rights, helping to negotiate the recent land swap that will move the Quileute Tribe’s elementary school out of a tsunami zone, and active in commercial and sport fisheries issues.

Always quick with a quip or a joke, Dicks was recently in Olympia to testify on a bill involving fishing at a Senate panel. He was sitting in the front row of the audience when his cell phone went off, and kept ringing while he searched through pockets to find and silence it.

When he got to the witness chair, Dicks apologized for not wearing a suit — he’d just flown in from Washington, D.C., and left his suit coat there, he said — and for the phone. He has two, and couldn’t leave them in the other Washington.

Under committee rules, Chairman Kevin Ranker said, he has to buy everyone on the committee a beer.

“I’d be delighted to do that,” Dicks said and as the banter continued over his attire, he added: “This isn’t counting against my time, is it?”

Elected officials of both parties praised Dicks as news hit of his decision to retire. Fellow Democrats like Gov. Chris Gregoire called him “a trusted partner, a staunch ally and a close friend.” Sen. Patty Murray called him “the guy who loves Washington state more than life, who would do anything to defend it and who works everyone to the bone to make sure the families he represents are taken care of.”

President Obama released a statement thanking Dicks for his service: “Norm has spent his career working to protect our national security, championing the men and women of our Armed Forces and fighting for the many natural resources of Washington State and the Pacific Northwest.”

Republicans, too, were generous in their praise, with Attorney General Rob McKenna, the GOP frontrunner for governor in the 2012 election, lauded him for working on a bipartisan basis “and putting the needs of Washingtonians first.”

Secretary of State Sam Reed said he admired Dicks’ dedication. “He never played partisan politics when dealing with state issues.”

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