Congressional candidate Derek Kilmer has spent the past seven years as a state legislator and says he’s developed the “right kind of political experience,” where he’s able to work on both sides of the aisle to craft legislation and pass budgets.
The Democrat has been in the state Legislature since 2005 representing the Gig Harbor area, both in the House and now into his second term as a senator, but says his career has been in economic development and that experience in private business and government-private partnerships makes him the best candidate to take over the seat of retiring congressman Norm Dicks. He is vice president at the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County. Before that, he worked at McKinsey & Co., management consultants.
“I work with over 200 businesses a year to see how we can help them grow and create jobs and I think that is wildly relevant experience for the times we’re in now,” Kilmer told The Daily World’s Editorial Board during a recent interview.
Kilmer faces timber industry executive Bill Driscoll, a multi-millionaire member of the Weyerhaeuser family, who despite his fortune, went back to combat duty in Afghanistan in the Marines. One of Driscoll’s main talking points is that Congress needs someone without deep party ties to get things done. Driscoll, a Republican, routinely calls Kilmer a “career politician.”
“I would never suggest one individual would change the tenor of our politics but I do believe if enough of us who acknowledge it is broken and want to fix it, then I believe we can (move) the needle,” Kilmer said.
Citing the tea party movement two years ago, which forced a change in tone in the politics of Congress, Kilmer said, “I think we can get a new batch in Congress to say ‘enough’ let’s actually work together to solve our problems again. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe it.”
“I don’t think you have to read the Washington Post or watch C-SPAN to have a real sense that it’s broken right now,” he added. “The vast majority of people I talked to are primarily just frustrated because it’s gotten dysfunctional. To me it’s a sign of how broken our Congress is. When Norm Dicks called me and said, ‘I’m about to announce my retirement, you should figure out what you want to do’. It was not a no brainer for me to do this. In part because I think Congress is a mess and, in part, because I have a 3-year-old named Tess and a 6-year-old named Sophie. But as I sat down and talked about it with my wife in the most serious and lengthy discussion of our marriage. In the end, we decided to do it because we have two little kids and Congress is a mess. I actually care about the country my kids grow up in and, to me, if all of us offended by how screwed up it is sit on the sidelines, we’re never going to fix it.”
Kilmer found immediate support from dozens of Democratic leaders and any likely challengers, including state Sen. Jim Hargrove, decided not to challenge Kilmer. Kilmer had no opposition among Democrats during the August primary, even though it’s the first time in 36 years the seat has been open.
Kilmer, 38, grew up in Port Angeles, the son of two teachers, got a degree at Princeton and a doctorate in social policy from the University of Oxford. He repeatedly cited his Port Angeles roots in a recent editorial board and pointed to his doctoral thesis, which focused on the decline of the timber industry in his home town, as proof that he’s had a lifelong interest in seeing the timber industry thrive.
“I grew up in Port Angeles and saw the impact on the timber industry and, literally, it’s why I do what I do for a living,” Kilmer said. “I support working forests and support active management of the forests, both for economic reasons but also because of the other roles they play — from a recreational standpoint to acting as carbon sinks. You name it.”
Kilmer said as a member of Congress he will work to encourage more thinning and will meet with federal forest supervisors to see how an increase of harvest levels is possible.
He wasn’t specific about the potential harvest levels he thinks are possible from federal forests on the peninsula, but said the promises in the government’s Clinton Forest Plan of the 1990s have never been met.
Kilmer said that restoring funding to the Forest Service so it can pay for the administration of timber cutting is critical, as is reducing the red tape and legal landmines the Forest Service has to navigate. “I talked to someone the other day who worked in the Forest Service, who joked that he didn’t think (when he got into forestry that) he needed a degree in law school to figure it all out,” Kilmer said.
“I think we have to have a commitment to having strong natural resource industries and I’m supportive of that and I think the starting point on that is to have a role in working forests,” Kilmer said. “I think there is an opportunity to increase harvest levels on the federal forest and do it in an environmentally responsible way and I think that can be done in a way that supports our natural resource and wood products industry. I think we are well served when we try and turn down the heat and try to work together.”
Kilmer says he does not oppose earmarks for infrastructure improvements. In fact, he believes strongly that more funding needs to go to infrastructure improvements to bolster economic development activity, especially in rural areas such as Grays Harbor, which has coped with double digit unemployment since 2008.
“Things like short-line rail and providing greater capacity at our local Port is a really big deal and will promote economic development and help local businesses, not just here but across the state,” he said.
Kilmer said he would also support “amping up” tax credits and other programs to encourage private companies to invest in economically depressed areas.
“In areas of higher unemployment, having incentives to encourage investment makes sense,” he said.
Kilmer also pledged to have regular town hall meetings and question and answer sessions with his constituents.
Congressman Dicks has been criticized for not doing town hall meetings.
“My approach to serving is I always think you’re best at it when you remember who your boss is,” Kilmer said.
Kilmer noted that last year, he hosted 51 different listening sessions around his legislative district in the Gig Harbor area. Many were open to the general public and some were for gatherings such as church groups, labor groups or service organizations. “If there were seven people in a room and they wanted me to come around, I came,” he said. “I think you’re a much better legislator — and I intend to be a good congressman — when you actually listen to the people you represent. Frankly, a lot of the bills I sponsor came from people I’ve spoken to.”
The Federal Election Commission shows that as of July, the latest figures available, Kilmer has raised more than $900,000 for his campaign, which includes $686,530 individual donations, $212,345 from Political Action Committees and $2,090 from the Democratic Party.
Driscoll has raised more than $870,000, which includes $349,104 from individuals and $520,000 from himself. When Driscoll first announced his candidacy this past spring and donated half a million dollars to his campaign, Kilmer said that his “opponents think Democracy is an auction” and Driscoll’s donation was “wrong.”
Quizzed on the issue last week, Kilmer said the donation shows proof that the country needs campaign finance reform. “I actually think it’s important to have grassroots support and to make yourself available to get that grassroots support,” he said. “We need campaign finance reform and I think we need to pull some of the money out of the political process. It’s screwy.”
Asked how Driscoll spending his own money on his campaign differs from Democrats, such as U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, doing the same thing, Kilmer said he didn’t want to speak for what those Democrats do. “I don’t think we should have a for sale sign on Congress,” he re-affirmed. “Whether that’s for someone to buy a seat in Congress or whether it’s outside groups trying to influence elections, I think democracy works best by having actual citizens have a say in their politics (so that) people win election or lose elections based on their value of ideas and willingness to listen to people.”