As a young man, he worked for the late Warren Magnuson, a towering figure in the U.S. Senate known for his ability to strike deals and work with his fellow Democrats as well as Republicans. Almost four decades later, Rep. Norm Dicks rose to nearly equal stature in the House, famous as a fierce advocate for his state and labor interests but still able to count opponents as friends.
Dicks shocked the political establishment Friday, announcing he'll retire at the end of the year after 18 terms in Congress.
"I have been thinking about this for years. At some point you have to retire. I just decided this was the right time," Dicks told The Associated Press.
In a statement, President Barack Obama thanked Dicks for his service. "Norm has spent his career working to protect our national security, championing the men and women of our Armed Forces and fighting for the many natural resources of Washington State and the Pacific Northwest."
The top Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, the 71-year-old former college football player has a reputation as a defender of the Pentagon and the Boeing Co. and its unionized workforce. The aerospace company employs thousands of people in his district.
"It comes as a surprise. He's been a mainstay of the Washington delegation for so long now, it's hard to imagine the delegation without him," said Sandeep Kaushik, a Seattle Democratic political consultant who has worked on congressional races in Washington state.
Over the years, Dicks has been skilled at "earmarking" pet projects like roads and community development grants to his northwest portion of the state. But Republicans controlling the House have banned the practice, much to the disappointment of lawmakers on the spending panel, who had controlled earmarks and awarded themselves an outsized share.
Dicks earned a reputation as an inside player, popular with Democrats and Republicans alike on the clubby panel.
"I have rarely had the chance to work with someone of his decency, strong work ethic, jovial character, and honesty," said Rep. Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican. "Norm has never hesitated to work together to maintain the comity and spirit of bipartisanship that is the hallmark of the appropriations committee."
Dicks said he's particularly proud of the work he's done to protect the waters of Puget Sound and Hood Canal and help restore the downtowns of Tacoma and Bremerton, the main cities in his district. And he said his most recent term has been very productive.
"We had a great year in 2011, with winning the tanker competition," Dicks said of the U.S. Air Force decision last year to have Boeing build its new fleet of aerial refueling tankers. The $35 billion contract was a big plus for the Seattle-area economy.
He was known not only for looking after his district's interests, but also for using his clout to benefit the rest of Washington state. Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn said Dicks was "an invaluable ally to Seattle, and he has left his mark across our state."
Dicks' 6th Congressional District included many blue-collar towns across Puget Sound, west of Seattle, and stretched to the Pacific Ocean. It did not significantly change after last year's redistricting process, and Dicks was expected to be easily re-elected this year.
His retirement could provide an opening for Republicans, who might have a chance in a district they haven't seriously contested for in years.
"I think it's a seat that the Democrats ought to retain. I think we're going to have to put forward a strong and credible replacement. Whoever that is, is going to have big shoes to fill," Kaushik said.
Dicks was a guard and linebacker at the University of Washington, playing on a Rose Bowl team in 1961. He graduated with a degree in political science in 1963, then got a law degree from UW in 1968.
Before being elected to the House, Dicks served for eight years on Magnuson's staff.
"Maggie was the lion of the Senate, and Norm became the lion of the House. He fought tirelessly on issues like bringing the tanker home for the Boeing Company. He was tremendously skilled at working both sides of the aisle," said Dwight Pelz, chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called Dicks an "institution in Washington politics."
Sen. Patty Murray, also a Democrat, said Dicks was "our state's quarterback here in Congress. ... Norm is the guy who loves Washington state more than life, who would do anything to defend it, and who works everyone to the bone to make sure the families he represents are taken care of."
Gov. Chris Gregoire said Dicks "will leave behind a legacy that is unmatched."
Dicks said he was ready for the change.
"I'm going to see more Husky games, basketball and football, and do a little bit more fishing."
Taylor reported from Washington.