Marie Gluesenkamp Perez with Don Bonker and Brian Baird
The late Congressman Don Bonker (left, 1937-2023) at a fundraising event for future Representative Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (center) with former Representative Brian Baird. All three have represented the 3rd Congressional District and Southwest Washington in the United States Congress. (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

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.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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One reply on “Don Bonker: 1937–2023”

  1. Thanks for this remembrance. 

    I had sev­er­al oppor­tu­ni­ties to meet Con­gress­man Bonker and found a warm and car­ing pub­lic servant.

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