In addition to his connections, Dicks had a unique blend of personal qualities that made him an exceptional appropriator. He did his homework, mastered the details of complex projects and had little patience for others who came to meetings poorly primed. In what was sometimes a breach of congressional protocol, Dicks would call House staffers directly with questions, convinced they often know more than their bosses.
If you go into a room to talk with him, youd better be prepared. said former Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman. The minute he thinks you dont know what youre talking about, hes gone.
Tim Thompson, a Tacoma environmental lobbyist who worked for Dicks from 1981 to 1992, remembers early-morning wake-up calls in which his boss would grill him on the days agenda.
This guys energy is off the charts, Thompson said. He approached his job with every ounce of energy, and he insisted on preparation and demanded research.
Yet for someone as intense as Dicks, he had the patience and stamina needed to see complicated initiatives through multiple stages over many years, sometimes bringing opponents together and insisting that they hash out their differences.
He is one of my absolute favorite members of Congress who takes joy in legislating, in solving problems, said Bill Arthur, a deputy national field director for Sierra Club in Seattle. I fought with him more than I agreed with him, but his door was never closed.
During the 1980s, Dicks spent five years brokering talks between Port of Tacoma officials and Puyallup Tribe of Indians leaders over disputed land claims. The negotiations finally produced a $162 million settlement for which Dicks obtained federal funds to pay the tribe in exchange for relinquishing valuable parcels in the port area and downtown Tacoma.
Dicks was involved directly in the negotiations, sitting in on all-day sessions that resulted in the second-largest lands claim settlement in history between the United States and a tribe, former Pierce County executive John Ladenburg said.
It turned around a tribe and made them prosperous, Ladenburg said. But is also gave a huge boost to the Port of Tacoma, among the largest on the West Coast and an important driver in the local economy.
In another extended round of negotiations, Dicks helped the Madigan Army Medical Center resolve a raft of wrongful-death lawsuits. After several years of interviewing doctors and hospital officials and inspecting its dilapidated corridors and outdated equipment, Dicks secured $320 million in federal funds to settle the claims and modernize the hospital.
Knowing it would be difficult to obtain $320 million in one lump sum, he persuaded fellow House appropriators to fund the Madigan upgrades in smaller annual payments, an arrangement that became a model for renovating other Army hospitals around the country.
You dont come back here just to vote, Dicks said of his approach in the House. You need an agenda, you need things you want to accomplish.
The granddaddy of all marathon megadeals was the Elwha River restoration, for which Dicks, an avid outdoorsman, secured 15 consecutive annual appropriations. Over the years he kept the project on track in countless meetings with leaders of the City of Port Angeles, Clallam County and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, along with constituents who lived near the river.
As chairman or senior Democrat at various points on the Appropriations defense or interior subcommittees, Dicks helped obtain funding for natural resources projects and weapons programs nationwide.
Washington states military bases survived four rounds of base closings because Dicks used defense appropriations to keep them among the most modern in the nation. Dicks also was a strong backer of the B-2 bomber, worked for nearly 10 years to get the Air Force to buy Boeings 767 tanker and supported Texas Democratic Rep. Charlie Wilsons efforts to send money and arms to Afghans fighting the Soviets.
Dicks interest in national security issues was cultivated by Sen. Jackson, who was a defense hardliner at the height of the Cold War.
The hard-line approach has occasionally caused Dicks political problems. In the 1980s, he supported the Reagan Administrations effort to build the MX missile a vote that led to a censure from the Washington state Democratic Party. He didnt show up at the partys 1984 convention in Tacoma where he may have been booed.
We came here to take hard votes, Dicks said.
The defense hawk does regret at least one vote, the one in support of the Iraq War. He says he was misled by the second Bush administration about weapons of mass destruction.
Dicks shut down his office in D.C.s Rayburn House Office Building right after Thanksgiving and has since been working out of an ornate, large single room on the third floor of the Capital building with a stunning view of the National Mall. It is painted Husky purple and gold.
Packed away and headed for the archives at the University of Washington are the mementos of his career: the pen used by the first President George Bush to sign the Puyallup lands claim settlement, the Interior appropriations gavel, the Husky footballs and the picture of his winning Apple Cup interception, models of the B-2 bomber and the new 767 tanker, the picture of him in the Oval Office with President Clinton and the citation for his CIA Directors Award.
His last few months in office have included a farewell tour of sorts, with goodbye speeches and appearances dotting the district and culminating in a by-invitation-only party last Sunday, Dicks 72nd birthday. The sendoff at Tacomas Hotel Murano was thrown by Dicks campaign committee, the Puyallup Tribe and Washington State Democrats.
Even as he retires, Dicks isnt about to disappear and said he could see himself as a consultant working on such issues as ocean acidification, climate change, Puget Sound restoration and endangered salmon. Asked whether he would become a lobbyist, Dicks said he would rather be a consultant and either open his own firm or join an existing one. By law, he cant lobby Congress for a year after he leaves.
He said he will be spending more time in Washington state, where he owns a home on Hood Canal, than in Washington, D.C.
I do want to spend more time with my family, if we ever get this session over with, Dicks said Thursday. This is going right to the edge of the cliff. I also want to do a little more fishing.
In the meantime, hes been assisting his successor, Democrat Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor, in getting settled. Kilmer, who will be sworn in next week, calls Dicks a mentor.
One of the things he said to me a few years back is Play to win, but dont leave noses bloodied, Kilmer said. I really respect that. People feel Norm was always a hard worker and a vigorous adversary, but he remained collegial.
James Rosen works for the McClatchy Newspapers Washington, D.C., bureau. Les Blumenthal covered Congress for The News Tribune for more than two decades before retiring in 2011.