Kilmer: Down the congressional rabbit hole

Ross Anderson Contributor
Posted 6/20/17

Twenty-four years ago, in a political galaxy far away, a fair-haired college student from Port Angeles went to work as a congressional intern on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

The year was 1993, …

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Kilmer: Down the congressional rabbit hole

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Twenty-four years ago, in a political galaxy far away, a fair-haired college student from Port Angeles went to work as a congressional intern on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

The year was 1993, and Bill Clinton and the Democrats appeared to be in complete control of the federal government.

Derek Kilmer, age 19, spent a couple of months answering phones and sorting mail in a Democratic congressional office.

A year later came Newt Gingrich and the Republican Contract with America, eventually followed by the Tea Party. And now Donald Trump.

And Kilmer has returned to Capitol Hill, this time as a third-term Democratic congressman representing Port Townsend and the Olympic Peninsula. It is not the same place he remembers from 1993. He’s stumbled down a rabbit hole and into a political cat fight where the traditional “My esteemed friend from Washington” has given way to “Off with their heads!”

“Talking to my more senior colleagues, you get a sense of how far the dialogue has eroded,” Kilmer said during a visit to Port Townsend earlier this month.

BIPARTISAN WORKING GROUP

A generation ago, the state’s Republican and Democratic legislators met weekly over brown-bag lunches to discuss how to deal with legislation affecting the state – be it farm bills or aerospace or public power utilities.

“We still meet periodically, but Washington is fairly unique in that regard. Other members walk by, seeing Republicans and Democrats at the same table, and they think we must be nuts.”

But most legislative issues are not fundamentally partisan, Kilmer said. It only makes sense to work together, which explains why he cochairs the Bipartisan Working Group and is cosponsoring significant bills with Republicans Dave Reichert of Auburn and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Vancouver.

Touring his home turf, the 43-year-old Princeton grad doesn’t look particularly congressional – no suit and tie, no silvery Grecian Formula hairdo, certainly no cigar. He’s a lanky, bookish guy with horn-rimmed glasses, a 1950s haircut, clad in an old suit coat over a plaid shirt and faded jeans.

BUSINESS AND HEALTH

During his morning in Port Townsend, Kilmer met with business owners, health care officials and social service providers, all worried about the course of national politics. At each stop, he pulled up a chair, looked around the room and asked: “So, what’s up?”

At Jefferson Healthcare, staffers wanted to know what’s happening with Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. In Jefferson County, he was told, Obamacare has worked by covering hundreds of lower-income people who previously would have been treated as “charity” cases, or not treated at all.

“What’s happening with the administration is the opposite of maintaining a stable commercial health care market,” Kilmer said. “The day they passed the House health care bill was the worst day I’ve had in Congress, watching them high-fiving over a bill that would push 23 million people off health insurance. Those are not statistics. They’re real human beings.”

How does he feel about Trump withdrawing from the Paris climate change agreement?

“It’s a real mistake,” Kilmer said. “We have a moral obligation to address climate change. I represent 11 Native American tribes, four of them coastal. They’re trying to relocate because their village is threatened by rising sea levels. And changes in ocean chemistry are already affecting shellfish.”

Others complained about the spiraling costs of housing in Port Townsend, about growing numbers of meth addicts, about the lack of treatment for mental illness and more.

What, Kilmer was asked, can we do about these things?

“People ask that everywhere I go. You are empowered in our system. We have to build resiliency locally so that it doesn’t matter as much what happens in Washington, D.C. The state of Washington, for example, is going to achieve the milestones laid in the Paris Accord.”

URBAN AND RUAL

The underlying problem, Kilmer said, is the gap between urban prosperity and rural areas, which have not shared the economic recovery in recent years.

“I represent six counties, and three of them supported Trump,” he explained. “These are rural areas where people are struggling with long-term economic disadvantages. They feel that, regardless of their ZIP codes, they should have a shot at the same prosperity.”

Those frustrations are reflected in the mail and phone calls arriving at his office, and the volume this year already exceeds that of all of 2016, he said.

Those basic misunderstandings crop up everywhere, he said.

“The sense of community has eroded, and the by-product of that erosion doesn’t help any of the people I represent.”

Consider, for example, proposed cuts in spending on environmental regulation, including money for rural wastewater and clean water facilities. Those cuts will be felt most in rural areas, where Republicans draw their greatest support, he said.

“The administration is having a hard time defending its budget because it is indefensible,” he said.

“My advice? My personal disposition is to put my hand on people’s shoulders and tell them calmly: ‘It’s going to be all right.’ But I can’t honestly say that.”

(Leader contributor Ross Anderson is a former Seattle Times political reporter who now lives in Cape George.)

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