After more than three decades, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio is done with Congress

DeFazio said he’s ready to throttle back and hike in Oregon, but other leaders say the state will feel his loss in the House

By: , and - December 1, 2021 5:34 pm

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, center, is part of a bipartisan group urging President Biden to consult Congress on Ukraine. (Oregon Department of Transportation)

Peter DeFazio was waiting for three things to happen before he ended his decades-long congressional career.

First, Donald Trump needed to be out of the White House. Second, Oregon needed its long-awaited sixth congressional district. And finally, Democrats needed to control Congress.

He finally checked those three boxes this year, and now he’s ready to check a new one: enjoying retirement in his hometown of Springfield.

“There’s things I want to enjoy,” DeFazio said. “There’s wilderness areas I created. I’m going to go hike Devil’s Staircase again.”

The dean of Oregon’s congressional corps announced his retirement Wednesday morning, mere hours after alerting Gov. Kate Brown in a text message to his intention. Prospective candidates are already gearing up to replace him – Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle announced her campaign early Wednesday afternoon, and others are coming. 

DeFazio will leave a vacuum in Oregon’s congressional delegation and the state’s political world. He chairs the influential House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, where he played a key role in shaping a $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending bill signed in November.

Peter DeFazio was elected in 1986, after serving as a Lane County commissioner and an aide to former U.S. Rep. Jim Weaver, who held the congressional seat before him. He has served as chair of the influential House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure since 2019, and was the ranking Democratic member for years prior. 

During his time in Congress, he promoted legislation that brought billions of dollars to Oregon for highways, bridges and harbors. He also succeeded in protecting 390,000 acres of wilderness in the state, leading to the creation of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument and the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness.

DeFazio said his work isn’t done yet, and he plans to direct his focus to passing Biden’s social infrastructure spending package, the Build Back Better Act, during his remaining months. 

“I still have a lot of work to do in my remaining 13 months and I’ll be putting all of my efforts into that work, including helping to pass the Build Back Better Act that will bring down costs for families, create jobs, fight the climate crisis and help Americans get ahead,” he said in a statement.

But he explained other factors besides political success led him to conclude he was ready to leave Congress.

He has the longest commute of any congressman in the lower 48 states, and he recently had back surgery for issues exacerbated by 36 years of cross-country flights. He’s also dealing with other minor, but disturbing, health issues related to stress and travel, he said.

And he has other things he wants to accomplish outside of Congress, he said. He might teach, and he’s been toying with the idea of writing a book about what’s wrong with America, and his ideas to fix it. 

“I need a little more time for myself, my health and my well-being,” DeFazio said.

Leaving on a high note

DeFazio said he’s going out on top, finishing 18 terms dating back to 1987. 

Over the past year, he accomplished key goals he’s been working toward for more than 20 years. 

In December 2020, he succeeded in getting legislation to ensure taxes collected for harbor maintenance actually go toward harbor maintenance – a 25-year fight. He also succeeded this spring in repealing a 50-year-old law that exempted the health insurance industry from federal antitrust laws, which has been a personal crusade for DeFazio for the past 20 years.

And last month, President Joe Biden signed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, marking the culmination of a project DeFazio began pushing during the Obama administration’s first term. 

“It’s not exactly the policies I wanted, not as much money as I wanted, but the largest single investment in infrastructure, and Oregon will be a tremendous beneficiary,” DeFazio said in a news conference Wednesday. 

Gov. Kate Brown told the Capital Chronicle that she learned of his retirement when DeFazio texted her Wednesday morning.

“He wanted to go out on top,” said Brown, who is finishing her second term as governor. “I understand that.”

She described DeFazio as a “rapscallion” who “epitomizes Oregon. He’s such a maverick.”

Brown said DeFazio’s role as Transportation Committee chair brought millions to Oregon, and his fingerprints will be an “indelible mark” on the state’s transportation system.

She said she wasn’t surprised to learn of his decision, that a “generational shift” is coming in state leadership.

DeFazio alluded to that as well. At 74, he’s among the oldest members of Congress, and he’s the sixth most senior member of the House.

“The next generation and the next generation after them are already elected,” he said. “They’re talented. They’re good, and they will serve us well. So I’m not concerned about continuity. I’ve done what I can, and it’s an appropriate time to pass the torch.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a statement Wednesday thanked DeFazio for his service and said he has been an “absolute force for progress.” 

“Chairman DeFazio is known and respected by all as a champion of sustainable, smart and green infrastructure, whose progressive values, passion and persistence have helped rebuild America and the middle class,” Pelosi said. 

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, who has worked with DeFazio since the two ran against each other in a special Senate primary in 1995, called him a “top-notch legislator.”

“Thanks to Peter DeFazio, roads, bridges and transportation systems in Oregon and nationwide are stronger, last longer and are cleaner and greener,” Wyden said. “Oregonians always know with full confidence that Peter stands proudly in the vanguard of the battle for good jobs, strong transportation and ensuring everybody gets a fair shake.” 

Rep. Peter DeFazio speaks at the Eugene Depot on May 24, 2021. (Oregon Department of Transportation)

A decider

Throughout his long career in the House, DeFazio has worked on the environment, health care and animal welfare. But when it comes to the stuff that moves Americans –  railroads, roads, bridges and aviation –his expertise is unparalleled, said Rep.Earl Blumenauer, who represents Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District.

The two worked closely together since the 1980s, when they were both county commissioners, and more so since Blumenauer was elected to the House in 1996.

“Peter is simply the most knowledgeable and influential member of Congress in either party in the House or the Senate in things that relate to transportation and infrastructure,” Blumenauer told the Capital Chronicle. “And I don’t want to give the impression that he’s one-dimensional, because he’s not.”

DeFazio was able to push for federal funding for Oregon’s infrastructure, including arranging for hundreds of millions of dollars for bridge repair in 2005. Ward McCarragher, former chief counsel of the Transportation Committee and now a transit lobbyist, said the state likely wouldn’t have received that money without DeFazio in a senior role on the committee.

“He was a decider,” McCarragher said. “He was one of often four, maybe even two people in the room making these critical decisions, and being able to make the case for why this was a unique need for Oregon for these bridges. He convinced his colleagues that that was a worthy investment.” 

McCarragher worked with DeFazio through his 25 years on House staff, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks when DeFazio took a lead role in legislation on airline recovery and improving transportation security. He said the congressman was incredibly passionate about his work. 

“He gets upset about issues, but it’s because he deeply cares,” McCarragher said. “To me, that always reflected well, as somebody who’s seen a lot of members of Congress. He got upset and was impatient with progress. He wanted to see things happen.” 

The Transportation Committee under DeFazio has been one of the more bipartisan, said Betsy Boyd, who worked on DeFazio’s first campaign in 1986 and was his district manager until 2000, when she went to work for the University of Oregon. She’s now the university’s federal lobbyist.

“What I appreciate is how he has handled this (divided) time,” Boyd said. “He had Republican members who voted for his infrastructure package.”

As a lawmaker and person, DeFazio is direct and open. He says what he means and wears his heart on his sleeve, she said. 

“When he’s upset, you know it,” Boyd said.

She raved about his work ethic, saying he spent hours focused on details. He was instrumental in changing funding formulas, including for the highway trust fund, to funnel more money to Oregon. Depending on how formulas are tweaked, putting more emphasis on population density or geographic spread can change the amount a state receives.

“The staff even quantified how much that is,” Boyd said. “It amounts to billions of dollars.”

Beth Osborn, director of the advocacy organization Transportation for America, worked with DeFazio when she was at the U.S. Department of Transportation. She said she started going through the 12 steps of grieving when she heard Wednesday that he was retiring. 

“He’s been such a leader and a visionary on transportation,” she said. “There are not a lot of people who truly understand what’s working and not in transportation systems and how that relates to policy.”

She pointed to the $715 billion surface transportation reauthorization and water infrastructure bill that DeFazio crafted and helped pass with bipartisan support earlier this year. The bill authorized spending for roads, rail, vehicle charging stations and drinking and wastewater infrastructure, among other things.

“He produced one of the most innovative transportation reauthorization proposals I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I’ve been working in this area since the late ’90s, and he put together a proposal that was really thoughtful about how to take a long standing program and update it for the needs of today, a world emerging from Covid.”

DeFazio is probably the most knowledgeable person in America when it comes to transportation, or at least one of them, said Bill Shuster, a lobbyist and former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. Shuster and DeFazio worked together on a number of transportation policies over the years, and opposed one another on others.

“I always say about Peter, when he was against me he was a worthy opponent, and when he was with me he was a great ally,” Shuster said. 

U.S. Rep Peter DeFazio talking to constituents (DeFazio campaign)

Bipartisan leader

On paper, DeFazio’s current congressional district should favor Republicans. But thanks to his strong base in Lane County, and a reputation for working across the aisle, DeFazio has easily won re-election each time he ran. 

His most serious challenge came last year from Alek Skarlatos, a former Army National Guardsman who gained international recognition for stopping an armed terrorist on a Paris-bound train in 2015. Skarlatos outraised DeFazio by nearly $500,000 – but DeFazio still beat him by 6 points. 

After the Oregon Legislature approved new congressional districts in September, the redrawn 4th Congressional District gives Democrats a clear advantage. Those boundaries are now set for the next 10 years.  

DeFazio said that math played into his decision to retire. 

“My district is, thanks to the legislature, now five or six points better for Democrats,” he said. “Finally I have a district that another Democrat can win. It’s no longer a Republican district.”

Although he’s a liberal Democrat, DeFazio has had the ear of both Republican and Democratic administrations, Blumenauer said. He even had access to the Trump administration. 

But, Blumenauer said, DeFazio is losing patience with partisan rancor in the House. DeFazio spent most of his congressional career in the minority caucus, but he recalled being able to work with Republicans, especially on infrastructure. 

“Now the 13 Republicans who had the guts to vote for my infrastructure bill are being threatened with being removed from their committees,” DeFazio said. “They’re getting death threats, because infrastructure has become a dirty word, because of the Republican leadership who doesn’t want anything that has President Biden’s name on it to succeed. That’s very, very unfortunate.” 

Chris Wig, chair of the Lane County Democratic Party, said DeFazio is celebrated for his work in transportation, but he was also well known in his district for his work on environmental policies and veterans affairs. Wig is the director of a behavioral health treatment center in Eugene that works with veterans. 

“I’ve personally witnessed how his office responds to concerns from veterans trying to  access benefits and deal with the system,” he said. “He has been a pre-eminent advocate for veterans, and that doesn’t get a lot of headlines.”

Political ramifications

DeFazio is the 19th House Democrat to announce his retirement this year. Republicans greeted his retirement announcement as a sign Democrats will lose their congressional majority. 

“Committee chairs don’t retire unless they know their majority is gone,” said Courtney Parella, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Nancy Pelosi’s days as speaker are numbered.” 

I'm not going away. I'm still going to be active, but it's going to be at my pace. And I'm not going to be doing biweekly transcontinental airplane flights.

– U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio

DeFazio dismissed predictions that Democrats will lose control of Congress in the midterms. 

“I think the Republicans are measuring the curtains a little too early, and having overconfidence on the other side of the aisle is always good,” he said. “At this point, they’re offering nothing in the House of Representatives or in the Senate except obstruction.”

If Democrats keep the House, his chairmanship could go to District of Columbia delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the second-ranking Democrat on the committee. Norton announced Wednesday that she plans to seek the post.

If Republicans succeed in taking the House, Missouri Republican Sam Graves would most likely become the new chair. 

DeFazio said he’s confident that his work will stand the test of time. Oregon will still receive more money every year because of his changes to transportation spending formulas. The state will have money to dredge harbors and Oregon’s wilderness will remain protected because of legislation he passed, and the 295 people who received scholarships paid for because he refused to take congressional pay raises have forever had their lives changed. 

“There’s a lot of things that I’ve done that are gonna last long after me,” DeFazio said. “The new person will have different skills, different talents, and different achievements, but I know that they will serve us well also.”

RELATED STORY: DeFazio’s retirement decision triggers political watch for candidates; 2 declare to run

Jane Norman of the Capital Chronicle’s Washington bureau contributed reporting

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.

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Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years. She has won state, regional and national awards, including a National Headliner Award for a long-term care facility story and a top award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for an investigation into government failures to protect the public from repeated salmonella outbreaks. She loves to cook and entertain, speaks French and is learning Portuguese.

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.

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