‘Collaborative’ lawmaker Kilmer unsure what’s next

Last in a series

For the last 12 years, the 6th congressional district has been represented by Derek Kilmer, a 50-year-old Port Angeles native, who during his tenure has quietly shored up millions of dollars for projects across Kitsap County.

Kilmer’s job in Washington D.C. will soon be coming to an end. In a surprise move last November, the Gig Harbor lawmaker announced he would not be running for reelection. The news was unexpected since Kilmer had comfortably won reelection every two years during his national political career in a district that has remained solidly Democratic since 1960.

Recently, Kilmer reflected on his years in the nation’s Capitol. “It’s been an extraordinary honor to get to serve our community. I’ve liked the work. I care about the folks I represent,” he said.

Toxicity on Capitol Hill did not drive Kilmer out of Washington D.C. “There are people who are leaving Congress who are saying, ‘Good riddance. I hate this place.’ I’m not one of them.

“I knew what I was getting into when I ran for this job. Back home people will frequently say to me, ‘Man, I bet you are super frustrated.’ My response is always the same – and it is genuine – and that is, ‘No, but I am really motivated to see this get better,’” Kilmer said.

The lawmaker, a father of two teenagers, believes the time is right to hang up his congressional suit and tie. “For me, it was sort of a recognition that if you look at life as a series of chapters – twenty years of public service felt about right,” said Kilmer, who served eight years in the state legislature and 12 years in U.S. House.

Family considerations played a role in his departure. “As I have enjoyed the work, it does come at a cost. When I made the decision to run, it was with recognition that I was signing up for a 3,000-mile commute. I took sixty cross country flights last year. I’m not sure I would sign up for that again. Just out of deference for my kids,” he said.

Kilmer’s 6th District includes Kitsap, Clallam, Jefferson, Grays Harbor, Mason and portions of Pierce County.

He’s a bit of a ninja. He operates quietly, rarely being seen on cable news shows, but chalks up wins for constituents. Recently, the lawmaker steered federal monies to the county to fund projects to tackle the Gorst traffic bottleneck, increase housing opportunities in Bremerton for those in need, and support salmon recovery in the Northwest. He has consistently attracted significant federal revenue for the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Kitsap County’s largest employer.

Kilmer serves on the powerful House Appropriations Committee – the “exclusive” group that determines how much of the taxpayer’s money is spent.

Fix Congress

Kilmer became known as a lawmaker who wanted to improve Congress. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2019 appointed him to head the bipartisan select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Better known as the “Fix Congress” committee, the group was tasked with devising ways to make the dysfunctional Congress work more effectively on behalf of the American people.

In the four years the Modernization committee existed, it made over 200 recommendations to improve Congress. Recommendations included improving civility among lawmakers and raising wages to reduce turnover of staff who help members of Congress do their jobs.

House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, who came to Congress the same time as Kilmer, admired Kilmer’s work to improve Congress.

“As chairman of the Modernization committee, Derek Kilmer led a bipartisan exploration and produced a series of recommendations that will long outlast his time in Congress and make the institution more equitable, efficient and effective,” Jeffries said.

Asked what one word best describes him during his 12 years in Congress, Kilmer took no time to answer: “Collaborative.” Kilmer has stressed his philosophy has long been that to get something done in the nation’s capital requires buy-in from both parties.

“I’m a big believer that the boat moves best when everyone’s oars are in the water trying to row in the same direction. Sometimes it’s hard to get people in the boat and to row in the right direction. Sometimes you have people with their oars out of the water trying to hit everyone else over the head. That’s really hard.”

Next chapter

Kilmer’s next chapter has yet to be written. “I am frequently asked, ‘What’s next?’ I don’t have something lined up. By the way, when I told my mom I’m leaving Congress, she asked, ‘What are you going do next?’ I told her, ‘I’m not sure.’ She said, ‘You are leaving a job without something lined up?” And I said, ‘Well I like to hope I’m employable! We’ll figure it out,’” he said with a smile.

Kilmer will remain in his position the rest of the year. Five have filed for his spot. His successor will be decided in November. Democrats running for his seat are Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who Kilmer has endorsed; and state Sen. Emily Randall (26th-Bremerton). Republican candidates include state Sen. Drew MacEwen (35th-Shelton); and Janis Clark. Independent J. Graham Ralston also threw his hat into the ring.