A departing liberal from Washington state warns of chaos to come

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., cast his last vote Thursday after serving 28 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., cast his last vote Thursday after serving 28 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. AP

As the retiring dean of the Washington state U.S. House delegation, Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott figures that he cast an average of 2,500 votes per year over the last 28 years, a total of 70,000 or so.

As he prepared to push the button for the very last time on Thursday, Seattle’s liberal congressman said the mood on Capitol Hill has been “very surreal” since Nov. 8. And he said he had expected to leave Congress under far brighter circumstances, not with Donald Trump as the president-elect.

“If the first month after the election is any indicator, we’re in for a whole lot of chaos,” McDermott, 79, said in an interview.

In his farewell speech, McDermott told his colleagues they’ll face “a dark and difficult road,” but he urged them to confront a “menacing wave of nativism, misogyny and racism that is raging in our country.”

It’s a fight that McDermott plans to watch from afar, as he moves back to his beloved Seattle, where he’ll paint, write a book on the workings of Congress and teach a politics course at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.

He intends to travel abroad, too.

“I’ve been in 101 countries, but I’ve never been in Portugal,” McDermott said. “It’s the first time in my life that I have the opportunity to do whatever I want to do and nobody can tell me, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ or ‘No, you shouldn’t do that.’”

It’s the end of a 46-year political career for McDermott, first elected to Congress in 1988, after serving 18 years in the Washington state Legislature.

He began his career as a young psychiatrist assigned to the Long Beach Naval Station in California in 1968, helping soldiers deal with trauma after they learned to kill in Vietnam. It’s where his anti-war positions hardened.

McDermott gained national attention in 2002 as Congress debated a war resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. He went to Baghdad and stood on a rooftop for an interview with ABC TV’s George Stephanopoulos, proclaiming that President George W. Bush was so eager to go to war that he would mislead the country about whether military action was needed. Angry Republicans nicknamed him “Baghdad Jim.”

McDermott kept an exhibit in the hallway outside his office, showing the faces of 150 Washington state soldiers who’d been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he wanted to do what he could to remind people of the great human costs of war.

In January, when McDermott announced his retirement, President Barack Obama said he’d been “a much-needed voice” for the nation’s most vulnerable.

Washington state Democratic Rep. Suzan DelBene said McDermott made a mark by his work on behalf of low-income families, foster children and people with mental illness.

“It won’t be the same without the dean of our delegation,” she said.

McDermott was one of the strongest backers of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, commonly known as Obamacare. Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress will be in for “a rude shock” when they try to scrap the law next year, he said.

“They’ve been running on campaign rhetoric for years and years and years about repeal and replace,” McDermott said. “But now it’s like the dog that caught the school bus: What do you do now? It’s in their lap and they’ve got to repeal and replace and that is not going to be easy. ... They’re going to have a lot of angry people on their hands.”

McDermott backed Democrat Hillary Clinton for president, first in 2008 and again this year. He said Trump’s win has yet to fully sink in on Capitol Hill.

“It’s been very surreal here – it doesn’t seem real in many respects,” he said.

McDermott, never one to mince words, said it’s hard to see how the next four years will be “anything short of calamitous,” adding that congressional oversight will be more important than ever.

“When you have somebody who makes a fetish out of unpredictability, believing that that’s the way to shake things up, you take away what people look for in government, which is stability,” McDermott said. “This president-elect likes to pick up the phone in the middle of the night and call somebody in China or sit down at his Twitter and Twitter something out and tell Boeing they’ve gotta stop building an airplane. I mean, he is totally out of control, he’s like a 15-year-old. ... That’s going to make for a very chaotic four years.”

McDermott said he has spent much of the past year packing, “taking 28 years of paper and putting it into archive boxes.”

“It was much more emotional than I thought it would be,” said Diane Shust, McDermott’s chief of staff. “It was very hard for Jim to see things come down from his walls. It was a hard thing.”

McDermott had to vacate his office on Nov. 30. He spent his final days in the Democratic offices of the House Ways and Means Committee.

“There was a saying in the Washington state Senate: We bury the bodies warm,” he said. “There’s no ceremony, no nothing, you’re out of here, get out. I mean, it’s sort of a bath in cold water going back to civilian life.”

But he said he’s eager to get settled back in Seattle.

“I think for me it will be a sense of loss, a sense of sadness,” McDermott said. “I can’t imagine that I’ll be happy, because I’m leaving friends and I’m leaving a life’s work here. I spent 28 years of my life here, working as hard as I could. ... But it’s been a good run.”

Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-6154, @HotakainenRob