WASHINGTON, D.C. — Two weeks after being sworn into office, Congressman Derek Kilmer says he’s still getting comfortable with people calling him congressman.
“I tend to make people just call me Derek,” he said. “It just seems easier to me.”
Kilmer served in the state Senate representing the Gig Harbor area for six years before winning the 6th Congressional seat when congressman Norm Dicks retired last year. Kilmer says he always felt that titles complicated his relationship with his constituents. He says he’s no different than most people.
Take, for example, his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 3.
Accompanying him during the ceremonies were his daughters Tess and Sophie, ages 3 and 6. His wife, Jennifer, and parents J.C. and Marietta also attended.
“That was both very special for me and my family and frightening for me as a parent,” Kilmer said. “Anyone who has a 3-year-old will appreciate what having them sit through a two-hour ceremony is like. My 6-year-old made it though the entire thing. My 3-year-old bugged out at some point as I heard the escalating use of the phrase, ‘I want mommy.’”
Kilmer says that his biggest priority is economic development and getting people back to work. He’s been named to the House Armed Services and House Science, Space, and Technology committees.
Last month’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut has now put potential gun control legislation at the forefront for Congress.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama urged Congress to ban both military-styled assault weapons and high capacity clips, as well as expand background checks of gun buyers. Obama also said he intends to sign 23 executive orders to strengthen existing laws and practices and provide more research on gun violence.
“My response was more as a dad than as a policy maker when the tragedy happened,” Kilmer said. “I have a little girl in the first grade and, that night, like a lot of parents, I went home and hugged my kid. … To me, it’s important that any actions that get taken aren’t just symbolic. I’ve already started reaching out to people in the law enforcement community and we’ll have a bit of a robust conversation once the proposals are there to look at in detail.”
Kilmer says he hasn’t made any decisions on whether he’d support an assault weapons ban. And he doesn’t have an opinion yet on high capacity clips, although he says that’s an area he wants to do more research on and talk to experts.
“I grew up in a hunting family and at a state level, I was generally supportive of gun rights,” Kilmer said.
The National Rifle Association gave Kilmer a “B” grade when he ran for Congress, declaring him a “generally pro-gun candidate.” That’s the same grade the NRA gave Kilmer two years ago when he ran for re-election to the state Senate, according to a database the gun rights association has on its website.
Asked whether gun legislation should best be addressed on a state by state level, rather than a blanket federal solution, Kilmer replied, “I’m not trying to be cagey with you, I’m just not sure.”
Kilmer said he’s not heard much from his constituents on potential gun legislation. Instead, he said much of the emails his office has received had to do with “fiscal cliff” worries and concerns about cutting back too much on federal programs for those who rely on social programs.
“There’s a real concern out there about dealing with our long-term fiscal sustainability and doing so in a way that respects our values and ensures that people who are vulnerable continue to get the services we need,” Kilmer said.
As a Democratic state legislator, Kilmer said he always made it a point to work with the other side of the aisle. But during his six years in office, he was always in the majority. Now, in Congress, he’s in the minority.
“There are so many issues that are, frankly, not Democratic or Republican issues,” Kilmer said. “They’re Washington issues or American issues and we just need to commit to work together.”
Kilmer said that one of the first people he turned to on the floor of the House was Republican Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, who represents the 3rd Congressional District, including Pacific County.
“And, since then, I’ve visited her in her office and asked her for advice and to express my interest in working together on areas where we could work together,” Kilmer said.
He said other Republicans in the Washington state delegation have also been inviting, noting Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane was “very welcoming” and Congress Dave Reichart of Auburn was “extremely generous with his time and telling me what to expect in coming here.”
“And Congressman Doc Hastings (of Pasco) was kind enough on the day I got sworn in to stop by my office and welcome me to Congress,” Kilmer said. “I think we need to get past the point where, frankly, either side is defining success as making the other side look like failures. We’ve got to get past that. For me that means actually trying to engage folks on both sides of the aisle to solve problems.”
Kilmer said he has most of his staff hired by now and has opened up district offices in Tacoma and Bremerton.
At one point, Kilmer was considering having a dedicated economic development official working in the district.
“What we decided to do was really look to make sure every member of our staff can deal with some aspect of economic development issues, even the folks who will primarily be doing case work, to make sure they have some outreach skills to help employers in the district” Kilmer said. “That was part of the conversation we had with everyone we interviewed because that was such a big focus for me and as we’ve built my team to put it to work. That’s what’s been a focus for me.”
His chief of staff is Jonathan Smith, a former attorney at Preston, Gates and Ellis in Seattle and a veterans of a decade of experience working in congressional offices.
“He has private industry experience and has worked on the hill and is very focused on economic development and the other things we’re going to be doing,” Kilmer said. “Together, we’re actually going to be setting up a small business advisory council and will do meetings in the district. We’re going to be meeting with small business leaders back home and will sit down with employers to provide input on what they believe we can do to help them grow and thrive and stay in our neck of the woods.”
Kilmer said he’s still sorting through the issues that have been left unfinished by Dicks.
“There are issues that don’t function like a stop clock,” Kilmer said. “For example, today we were just talking about the Naval Shipyard in Kitsap County, which has some seismic upgrades that need to be made in case there’s an earthquake. That’s something he had started working on and there was some funding for it and that’s something I’ll have to continue to focus on.”
Also left unresolved is the federal Wild Olympics legislation that would increase wilderness areas around Olympic National Park and establish wild and scenic river designations on rivers coming in and out of the park. Dicks and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray sponsored the legislation last session. Kilmer said he has not re-introduced it. Kilmer said he had no immediate timeline for what he wants to do with the legislation.
“We’re meeting with proponents and opponents and plan to walk through all the details of the legislation when it was introduced,” Kilmer said.
Kilmer will be on the Harbor next week for the opening of the new hospital in Elma, called Summit Place Medical Center. Ceremonies begin at 10 a.m., Jan. 25.