Congressman Derek Kilmer’s interest in politics goes back to his teenage years growing up in Port Angeles in the 1980s,where he saw economic hardship in a community largely dependent upon the timber industry. He felt inspired to study public policy with a focus on economic development issues in college and graduate school.
Kilmer’s subsequent work at the Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County left him thinking government could be more effective. He entered politics and was elected to the state House of Representatives for the 26th District in 2005. He served one term before moving to the state Senate in 2007, where he served until being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012. He was re-elected in 2014 and is now running as an incumbent on the November ballot.
“My focus in public service has been about trying to create jobs and have a more functional government,” Kilmer said.
“The district I represent really drives my interest in seeing an economy that works in both urban and rural communities,” he said. That includes helping the port be more competitive, keeping jobs at Naval Base Kitsap and helping the small businesses he called “the backbone of our local economy.” In rural areas, Kilmer believes challenges in geography can be overcome through technologies such as high-speed internet, which “remains tough for some areas of our district,” he said.
“We want good schools for our kids, which in part means making improvements in our local economies,” Kilmer said. He cited the need for vocational and technical training opportunities, along with more affordable college. In 2015, he co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to reduce student loan debt for teachers working in low-income schools.
“We’ve got to get past the point in politics where success is defined by making the other party look stupid,” said Kilmer, commenting on his bipartisan approach. “We’ve got to change the focus to making progress.”
President Obama signed two bills into law authored by Kilmer: The American Savings Promotion Act and an official recognition of the Bainbridge Island Japanese-American Exclusion Memorial honoring those Americans interned during World War II.
Kilmer has also worked to help military veterans enter the civilian workforce after their time in service. “All of my work in these areas is geared to ensuring everyone can figure out their place in this economy, hopefully with less struggle than we’ve seen in recent years,” he said.
Kilmer, whose grandmother is 106 years old, said Social Security and Medicare are “the two most successful public policies in the history of this country.” He said he is committed to preserving these programs for current seniors and future generations of retirees.
Success at home means bringing stakeholders together without having to pass legislation, Kilmer also said, and as an example cited his role establishing The Timber Collaborative, which brings the conservation community and the timber industry together to reconsider how to manage federal land in a way that both increases jobs and improves the health of forests. He also co-founded the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus to elevate the recovery of Puget Sound as an issue to the federal level.
Kilmer frequently visits with local groups like the Key Peninsula Business Association and the Lions Club. “Too often it feels like our elected officials are distant from us, so I’ve tried really hard to be available to the folks I represent,” he said.
“I take pride that half our staff in the district does what we call casework, where someone is grappling with a federal agency, whether it’s Social Security, the IRS, or most commonly the Veterans Administration,” Kilmer said. He recently helped obtain a Silver Star for former U.S. Army Sgt. Edward Dvorak of Lakebay, a Vietnam veteran who risked his life to save others in November 1968 but was never recognized for it.
“That’s 47 years after he earned it,” Kilmer said, adding it was one example of “the stuff we’re able to do when people know we’re here and available to help.”