After a thirty-six year tenure in Congress, the longest in Beaver State history, Oregon’s Peter DeFazio announced this week that he is retiring. The chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is going out on a high note, having helped craft Congress’ infrastructure package and made major contributions to the Build Back Better plan passed by the House.
DeFazio, seventy-four, has served on the transportation committee from the day he entered Congress in 1987 and, in the words of Politico, accumulated an “encyclopedic amount of institutional and technical knowledge on infrastructure.”
He’s been much more than an expert.
DeFazio has carried on in the populist tradition of his predecessor, Representative Jim Weaver, in a district that includes Eugene but also farming, logging and fishing communities of Southwest Oregon from Albany to the California border.
He helped found the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He has backed creation of wilderness areas while representing a district with the highest timber cut off federal lands in the “lower 48” states.
He has shown an independent streak, opposing President Obama’s $797 billion stimulus plan because it did not commit adequate resources to infrastructure.
The post of committee chair, or ranking Democrat, is likely to remain in the Northwest. Representative Rick Larsen, D‑Washington, chairs the aviation committee. He and DeFazio conducted copious oversight hearings on the disastrous Boeing 737-MAX crashes and lax FAA oversight.
The Boeing Everett plant is in Larsen’s district.
You need an iron butt to represent Oregon’s Fourth District in Congress.
DeFazio has faced, in his words, “the longest commute in the lower forty-eight,” flying to Portland and then driving more than one hundred miles to his Springfield home. The district extends south from there. He has spent the equivalent of 435 forty-hour work weeks on the commute, DeFazio told reporters on Wednesday.
DeFazio began as an aide to Weaver, a lawmaker famous for predicting the disaster of the Washington Public Power Supply System’s nuclear program, and the sinister aspects of the Rajneesh cult after it settled in eastern Oregon. DeFazio was a Lane County Commissioner when Weaver retired from Congress in 1986.
He proved every bit as feisty as Jim Weaver, albeit more disciplined.
After the Supreme Court’s infamous 2010 Citizens United ruling blew away campaign spending barriers, secretive nonprofit groups started running attack ads against Democratic members of Congress. Something called Concerned Taxpayers of America aired anti-DeFazio spots. It was only identified by a D.C. address and the name of one Jason Miller as treasurer.
DeFazio invited reporters to walk over to Concerned Taxpayers’ townhouse and smoke out Jason Miller. The door was answered by a tenant who claimed no knowledge of the group or Jason Miller.
The march made a wonderful segment on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
(Jason Miller is a Washingtonian who began work as an aide to Senator Slade Gorton. He later became a successful right-wing political tactician. He emerged, after initially backing Ted Cruz, as a top aide to Donald Trump. He was candidate for White House communications director but sidelined due to a messy paternity suit. He reemerged after last November’s election as spokesman for Trump.)
“It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve as congressman for the Fourth District of Oregon,” said DeFazio, who intends to come home from his lengthy commute. He will witness the implementation of his work on infrastructure, although it will probably be a long time before America fully achieves the “green” transformation of its transportation system he has long championed.
The Democratic-directed redistricting of Oregon’s congressional boundaries has made the Fourth District more friendly to the D’s. Or as DeFazio put it, “My district has now been improved. It is now winnable by another Democrat.”
The first Democrat to announce, Oregon Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, offered an acknowledgment: “Nobody can fill Peter DeFazio’s shoes.”
The Republicans took a hard run at DeFazio in 2020. Their candidate was Alek Skarlatos, one of three young Americans who overpowered an armed terrorist on an Amsterdam-to-Paris train in 2015, and later played themselves in the movie. DeFazio was outspent but still prevailed, 54% to 46%, an eight point margin.
The voice of Peter DeFazio is leaving Congress but won’t be silenced. He has a book in him. “I want to write that,” he said Wednesday. “For years, I gave a speech called, ‘Can American democracy survive? Even before Trump, it was pessimistic. The challenges are even greater now.”