Dicks, Norman "Norm" (b. 1940)

  • By Brad Holden
  • Posted 4/15/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21208
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As a longtime U.S. Representative, Norm Dicks (b. 1940) spent his career in Congress representing the same blue-collar, working-class district in which he was born and raised. A native of Bremerton, Dicks starred in football in high school and at the University of Washington, and then carried lessons learned on the gridiron into the political arena. He was a ranking member of the congressional appropriations committee, helping to secure funding to restore Puget Sound and other local waterways, including the Nisqually River estuary and the Elwha River. Dicks was a ranking member of the defense appropriations subcommittee and served as a strong advocate for Washington's military bases. He played instrumental roles in urban development projects in Tacoma and Bremerton. These and other congressional accomplishments led some to refer to him as "Washington's third senator." Dicks retired in 2013, but remained a proud and active part of his Western Washington community.

Early Years

Norman DeValois Dicks was born on December 16, 1940, in Bremerton. His father, Horace DeValois Dicks, was a Navy veteran who worked at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, and his mother, Eileen, was a secretary at Darigold. Horace and Eileen instilled an ethic for hard work in Norm and his younger brother, Leslie. Their parenting philosophy was straightforward: work hard, play hard, and get a good education. The family attended Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Bremerton, and Norm was confirmed there as a teenager. He attended West Bremerton High School, where he was captain of the football team and elected class president. 

Norm graduated high school in 1959 and, because of his strong football skills, was recruited by the University of Washington (UW) to play for the Huskies. During his first year at UW, in 1959, he was a member of the freshman team and pledged at the Sigma Nu Fraternity. On the football team, Dicks played both center and linebacker and earned a reputation for his tenacity. He would become one of the team's star players, and during his sophomore year, the Huskies capped their season with a 17-7 victory against the University of Minnesota in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Dicks's parents had taught the importance of a good education, and this stayed with Norm, who became one of the university's top student-athletes and received a Tyee Scholarship for academic achievement.       

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy visited Seattle to give an address to the UW's centennial convocation at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. Dicks had developed a great admiration for the young president and attended the speech, along with hundreds of other UW students, in which Kennedy spoke of the need for Americans to be "united in recognizing the difficult days that lie ahead" (jfklibrary.org). The event proved to be highly influential for Dicks. This was during the civil rights movements as well as America's escalating role in Vietnam, and Dicks joined the Student Board of Control and became an active member of Young Washington, a student political group. He would later watch the news of Kennedy's assassination with other shocked students at the Husky Union Building.

Dicks played his final football game in the 1962 Apple Cup at Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane. He graduated in 1963 with a degree in political science, enrolled at the UW's law school that same year, but dropped out to take a break from the rigors of student-athlete life. He spent the next year working for two Seattle businesses before re-enrolling in law school in 1965. It was during his graduate law studies that he met Suzanne "Suzie" Callison, who worked at a nearby travel agency. She had deep Seattle roots going back to her grandfather, George W. Dilling (1869-1951), mayor of Seattle in 1911. Norm and Suzie had their first date in June 1967, quickly fell in love, and were engaged a month into their courtship, followed by marriage on August 25, 1967.

In his third year of law school, Dicks secured an internship with the Washington State Attorney General's Office. The following year, he graduated from law school and went to work for one of Washington's most influential politicians, paving the way for his own political future.  

"Stormin' Norman" Enters Political Arena

In November 1968, Norm and Suzie moved to Washington D.C. Dicks had secured a job as an aide to U.S. Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989), for whom he would work until 1976. The state's other senator at the time was Henry "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983). From these two influential senators, Dicks learned the art of political deal making, how to navigate the political world, and the importance of taking care of your constituents.

During these early, formative years in Washington D.C., Norm and Suzie welcomed the birth of their two sons; David, who was born in 1971, followed by Ryan in 1975. The following year, in 1976, U.S. Representative Floyd Hicks (1915-1992) opted to retire from Congress to run for a seat on the Washington State Supreme Court. With nearly a decade of political apprenticeship now complete, Dicks decided to seize the opportunity. He resigned from the Magnuson post and immediately launched a campaign to run for the newly vacated seat in Washington's 6th Congressional District, a wide-ranging district that includes parts of Kitsap, Mason, Grays Harbor, Jefferson, and Clallam Counties, and the important port cities of Tacoma, Port Townsend, Aberdeen, Port Angeles, and Dicks's hometown of Bremerton. The district is a blue-collar region of the state and has a large military presence, including several Coast Guard rescue stations. It also boasts some of the state's most prized natural resources, including Olympic National Park, and a range of important waterways. Dicks understood the district's needs, so it seemed logical for him to seek political office there.

Running as a Democrat, Dicks jumped into the race with the same level of fervor that he used to bring onto the field during his football days. He qualified for the general election via the blanket primary and won the general election with 74 percent of the vote against Republican nominee Rob Reynolds. Dicks would hold on to this seat for the next 36 years. He was once asked about his political longevity and he recalled his days as a UW Husky: "On the football team, we always said that you should never take anything lightly. You had to be prepared for every game. That's the way I approached elections. You had to make sure people know you still want the job" ("Rep. Norm Dicks' Iconic Service"). Dicks decisively won re-election 17 more times before he announced his retirement in 2012.

During his first term in Congress, Dicks won a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee -- a rare feat for a Congressional freshman -- and eventually served as the committee's ranking Democrat. He served for eight years on the House Intelligence Committee, and became a ranking member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. He earned a solid reputation as a political moderate who produced federal dollars for his home state. In addition to maintaining strong support for the state's military and aerospace hubs, he championed innovative urban-renewal projects and environmental preservation.

A Pro-Defense Democrat

Politically, Dicks operated much like one of his mentors, Henry Jackson, who was known as a Cold War liberal. Jackson always supported higher military spending and taking a hard line against the Soviet Union, while also supporting social welfare programs, civil rights, and labor unions. Dicks followed in Jackson's footsteps and was known as a "pro-defense Democrat." Throughout his career, he maintained strong support for local military bases, including Naval Base Kitsap, Joint Base Lewis McChord, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, and the region's Coast Guard stations. His support extended to The Boeing Company, helping win the company a contract for the new Air Force refueling tanker. Dicks also focused on efforts to keep the state's numerous military bases modern and efficient.

During the 1980's he was involved in many of the major arms-control debates in Congress, and his familiarity with defense programs led to his appointment, in 1990, to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, on which he served for eight years. Starting in 1995, he served as a ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, and in 1998 was given the CIA Director's Medal for his outstanding service on the committee. In 2008, the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation awarded Dicks its Naval Heritage Award for his longstanding support.

Following the events of September 11, 2001, the United States found itself in the so-called "War on Terror," and the Bush Administration asserted that Iraq illegally possessed a large number of weapons that could be used for mass destruction. In response, President George W. Bush (b. 1946) asked Congress for approval to use U.S. military force against the regime of Saddam Hussein (1937-2006). When put up for vote on October 10, 2002, Dicks was among the 81 house Democrats who voted in favor of authorizing military force in Iraq, though he would later change his position after it was revealed that Congress had been given misleading information.

During the remainder of his political career, while the nation's military remained deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dicks recognized the new challenges that faced the local military and worked to assist with such things as care for wounded soldiers while also securing the equipment, ships, and aircraft needed for ongoing operations in the Middle East. In 2010, he became the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. In a statement, he said, "At a time when our nation's military is deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, I am especially aware of the importance of addressing national security issues in a constructive manner that brings these conflicts to a close while sustaining our ability to defend ourselves against a wide range of risks. I will continue to give my work on this subcommittee the energy, study and deliberation that this responsibility warrants" ("Congressman Dicks Officially ...").  

Environmentalist and Community Builder

Protection of Washington's natural resources was another priority for Dicks, who served on the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee during his entire tenure in Congress, thus putting him in a position to provide oversights for the state's national parks and forests. His first significant accomplishment came in 1984 when he was successful in adding Clearwater Wilderness -- a 14,300-acre forest in the North Cascades -- to the Washington Wilderness bill, thus protecting it as public land. In the 1990s, he worked with the Clinton administration to bring federal assistance to restore Washington salmon runs, clean up the Hanford nuclear site, and protect waterways. His efforts helped add protections for Puget Sound and Hood Canal, including protections against oil spills, and he was instrumental in the passage of the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act in 1992. The Elwha River restoration project removed two dams, enabling the river to flow freely once again and help repair local ecosystems and restore salmon runs.

Perhaps Dicks' biggest environmental achievement came in September 2000, when he wrote a bill that created a new federal lands conservation trust. This landmark bill doubled the nation's commitment to preserving threatened parklands and protecting wildlife. Soon after, however, in response to the events of September 11, environmental agencies faced a series of dramatic cutbacks when the Bush administration shifted much of the allocation of federal funds to the War on Terror. In response, Dicks championed various legislation to increase funding for environmental protections. In a statement to the media, he said, "The Bush administration has cut the Interior Department budget over the last six to seven years by 16 percent ... it has cut EPA by 29 percent. It has cut the Forest Service by 35 percent. It has devastated these agencies ... We are trying to turn the corner, to bring these agencies back" ("U.S. House Boosts ..."). 

For these efforts, The Wilderness Society gave Dicks the Ansel Adams Conservation Award in 2008, followed by the Lifetime Achievement Award in Salmon Conservation, given to him in 2010 by the Washington nonprofit group, Long Live the Kings.

While always being a steward of the environment, Dicks also helped to broker various urban development projects within his district. He was able to help obtain Urban Development Action Grants to spur the revitalization of downtown Tacoma, including the restoration of Tacoma's Union Station, the locating of a branch campus of the University of Washington in downtown Tacoma, and the renovation of the historic Pantages Theater. 

He also helped restore the vitality of downtown Bremerton, with redevelopment of the old waterfront area, including restoration of the Admiral Theatre. In addition, Dicks worked with the Navy to help build new housing and improve the quality of life for Navy personnel stationed there. For his efforts, The Norm Dicks Government Center was opened in his hometown on October 22, 2004.

Retirement and Post-Career

In 2012, Dicks announced his intention to retire from Congress. In a statement to the media, Dicks, then 71, said, "I am announcing today my intention to complete my service in the House of Representatives at the end of the current session but not to be a candidate for re-election to the 113th Congress. After 18 terms representing the people of the 6th Congressional District of Washington, preceded by eight years on the Staff of Senator Warren G. Magnuson, Suzie and I have made the decision to change gears and enjoy life at a different pace" ("State To Lose Top Powerbroker").  

His retirement capped a 36-year service to the 6th Congressional District and drew praise from both sides of the political aisle. U.S. Senator Patty Murray (b. 1950), a Democrat, remarked, "Our state has been so lucky to have him," and described Dicks as "my mentor, my friend, my adviser, my teammate and my brother" ("Rep. Norm Dicks' Iconic Service"). Former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton (1928-2020), a Republican, said, "I can say the whole time I was in the Senate, when I wanted something done in the House for our delegation, I always went to Norm first. I am a considerable admirer" ("Rep. Norm Dicks' Iconic Service"). As of 2021, Dicks was the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives from Washington.

When looking back at his career in Congress, Dicks told reporters that his biggest regret was voting for the Iraq War. "I'm still glad Saddam Hussein is not there, but I feel we were misled, not intentionally misled, but we were not given accurate information, and if we had known Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, I don't think Congress would even have been asked to vote on that" ("Dicks' Long Service ...").  

Upon his retirement in 2013, Norm and Suzie moved back to their home on Hood Canal, where he remained active in helping local communities. He joined the board of the Seattle nonprofit Long Live the Kings as an ambassador to a new U.S./Canada partnership, the Salish Sea Marine Survival project. Dicks was elected to the board of directors of the National Bureau of Asian Research, as well as the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, and served as senior policy advisor at the law and public policy firm Van Ness Feldman LLP. He continued to receive awards in his post-retirement life, including the 2013 Frank Pritchard Lifetime Achievement Award, for his work as a civil steward on behalf of Washington's economy and environment, followed by the University of Washington's Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus Award in 2015. 


"Congressman Dicks Officially Selected To Chair Defense Appropriations," University of Washington website, March 10, 2010, accessed April 15, 2021 (Congressman Dicks Officially Selected to Chair Defense Appropriations | Federal Relations (washington.edu); "Attorneys Are a Vanishing Breed In The Legislature," The Seattle Times, January 6, 1974, p. 12; "Congressional Candidate Promises Service To Constituents, Not Press," Ibid., August 4, 1976, p. 22; John Arthur Wilson, "Most Congressmen Breeze to Victory," Ibid., November 3, 1976, p. 22; Mike Wyne, "Dicks Resigns from Hicks’ Staff; Will Take No Pay,’ Ibid., November 25, 1976, p. 1; Dean Katz, "Reagan Administration Studies Big Rate Increase for Federal Power," Ibid., September 22, 1982, p. 1; Susan Gilmore, "Bangor Officer Resigns to Run Against Dicks," Ibid., April 1, 1988, p. B2; Eric Pryne, "Dicks Forges Delegate Compromise In The House," Ibid., April 13, 1988, p. H3; "New Defense Budget Bill to Include $6 Billion for Washington State," Ibid., October 2, 1988, p. B10; "Norm Dicks Timeline," Ibid., March 3, 2012, p. A4; Kyung M. Song, "State To Lose Top Powerbroker -- Rep Norm Dicks Retiring After 36 Years, ‘Mr. Boeing’ Will Leave Big Void," Ibid., March 3, 2012, p. A1; "Rep. Norm Dicks' Iconic Service," Ibid., March 4, 2012, p. A12; "Dicks’ Long Service," Ibid., January 6, 2013, p. A12; Nicole Brodeur, "Green Awards for Norm, Mike on a Bike," Ibid., June 4, 2013, p. B4; "The ‘Undecideds’ Hold the Key," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 21, 1976, p. A1; "Norm Dicks Wins 6th District Nod," Ibid., September 23, 1976, p. 11; "A Navy OK for Hood Span," Ibid., August 1, 1980, p. 36; S. L. Sanger, "Chips Fly as Dicks and Beaver Meet," Ibid., October 17, 1980, p. 10; Joel Connelly, "Watt Threatens Norm Dicks," June 23, 1981, p. 23; Joel Connelly, "Rep. Dicks Fires Away On Arms Policies," Ibid., December 29, 1985, p. 63; Joel Connelly, "Dicks Gets Greenie Award," Ibid., March 31, 2008, p. 18; Eric D. Williams, "Government Center Dedication," The Kitsap Sun, October 24, 2004, p. 1; Kayla Webley, "Kitsap County’s Heavy Hitter: Finally It’s Norm Dicks Time," Scripps Howard Foundation Wire, April 16, 2007; Norm Dicks official congressional biography accessed at www.bioguide.congress.gov on March 6, 2021; John C. Hughes, Bob Young, Lori Larson, 1968: The Year That Rocked Washington (Olympia: Legacy Washington, 2018); Author interviews with Norm and Suzie Dicks, November 2020 and February 2021, notes in possession of Brad Holden.

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