The Capitol Hill office of United States Representative Don Bonker, D‑Washington, bore an unusual portrait, that of one William Wilberforce, independent minded British parliamentary reformer, philanthropist, evangelical Christian and crusader who helped abolish the slave trade.
Wilberforce was an unusual model for the seven-term (1974–88) Democratic congressman from the “rust belt” of Southwest Washington, but the earnest Bonker was a do-gooder, deeply religious and willing to challenge old boy networks and modern-day economic power.
Bonker, eighty-six, died Tuesday surrounded by family at his home in Silverdale.
Bonker was propelled into Congress by virtue of his opposition to log exports. Big timber companies in the 3rd District had discovered you could make more money sending cut-down trees around rather than through their mills.
The consequence was unprecedented, unsustainable cutting of forests, combined with loss of jobs as processing operations were shuttered.
The young Clark County Auditor won a primary over State Senator Bob Bailey, longtime aide to outgoing Representative Julia Butler Hansen, and then faced Republican Secretary of State A.L. “Lud” Kramer in the 1974 general election.
Kramer had beaten Bonker in 1972. Not this time.
Bonker had the issue, while Kramer used one of history’s worst campaign slogans: “Don’t get bonked.” Bonker won by a 60%-40% spread.
Bonker fit into a Washington delegation that was the envy of other states.
It was headed by the “gold dust twins,” United States Senators Warren Magnuson (“Maggie”) and Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson. Both chaired powerful Senate committees. The Democrats’ reformist “Class of ‘74” dumped the old Texas reactionary who chaired the House Agriculture Committee, and elected Spokane’s Representative Tom Foley as chairman. The delegation held a monthly breakfast and worked collegially across party lines to resolve state issues.
Bonker didn’t want raw logs going overseas but saw global trade as a path to prosperity for a district fronting on the Pacific Ocean.
He rose in seniority on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chairing both its trade and human rights subcommittees. He wrote legislation and chaired House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s trade task force.
Back home, if you want to see Bonker’s accomplishments, just look around. He successfully pushed to add Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach, crowning glory spots of the Pacific Coast, to Olympic National Park. It wasn’t easy: Timber companies and property rights wackos had fought creation of the national park and accused Bonker of wanting to “lock up” the Peninsula.
He took on the Port of Grays Harbor in creating the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge. With intertidal flats and salt marshes, Bowerman Basin near Hoquiam is a key spring stopover for hundreds of thousands of shorebirds migrating north to the Arctic. At other seasons, it is an important stop for local teenagers to make out.
Bonker succeeded in protecting an important bird nesting area – Protection Island – from a proposed real estate development.
He helped ransom an old growth forest, Cedar Grover on Long Island in Willapa Bay, from the clutches of Weyerhaeuser.
The May 18th, 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens reshaped a graceful symmetrical volcano known as the “American Fuji” and flattened two hundred and thirty square miles of land. Bonker was driving force behind creation of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument — at 110,000 acres, far larger than what had been proposed for protection by the Reagan Administration.
Bonker was also instrumental as Congress designated the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, where the Northwest’s greatest river carves a path through the Cascades. The usual actors protested the “land grab” and “locking up” of public lands, but the Gorge has flourished as a recreation destination with Hood River, Oregon, emerging as the wind surfing capital of America.
“I admired Congressman Bonker for taking a leading role on international trade and helping establish the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge and the Mount St. Helens National Monument, Senator Maria Cantwell, D‑Washington said in a statement. The state is “more prosperous and our natural places better protected” because of his service.
Bonker sought the Senate seat of retiring Republican Senator Dan Evans in 1988, only to lose the Democratic nomination to House colleague Representative Mike Lowry. In turn, Lowry lost to the Republican Party’s Slade Gorton.
Four years later, he again came up short as Patty Murray won the Democratic nod and captured a Senate seat which she still holds.
Bonker stayed active in trade policy, finding a post-Congress career at APCO Worldwide, a consulting and legal firm, and commenting on national and international politics, including here on The Cascadia Advocate.
He emerged in recent years with a memoir entitled “A Higher Calling.” It was a kind of ode to an era of “trust and respect,” a celebration of when members of both parties in the House occasionally found common ground and were able to intensely disagree without becoming disagreeable.
He loathed Newt Gingrich, whose elevation to House Republican leadership signaled a sharp turn to reaction and demagoguery.
“He (Gingrich) made it clear he was not interested in bipartisanship,” Bonker would say. “He just laid the groundwork, and it has gotten much more worse in the last few years.” Of his tenure in the House of Representatives, Bonker wrote: “My own achievements on international trade, human rights, preserving our natural resources happened only because of bipartisan support.”
The protection of the Columbia Gorge, done in tandem with Senators Dan Evans and Bob Packwood, R‑Oregon, was a classic example of acting across both party lines and state boundaries. So was the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act, which saw the protection of Gifford Pinchot National Forest lands in both Bonker’s turf and the adjoining district of Republican Representative Sid Morrison.
The 3rd District once again has a Democratic member of Congress.
Newly elected Representative Marie Gluesenkamp Perez said Thursday: “Don was always there to answer my questions, share a word of advice or even lend my husband a suit to wear to my swearing on ceremony in D.C… His work to preserve the woods and our way of life will continue to be felt by Southwest Washington for generations to come.”
Bonker is survived by his wife of fifty-one years, Carolyn, and two adult children.