Last year’s legislative election took a while to figure out, as the District 26 races took some time to finally produce winners. As the Legislature geared up for a new session, the Key Peninsula News sat down with newly elected Rep. Derek Kilmer to ask him about his campaign experience, plans and hopes for the new job. The election didn’t seem to take any energy out of Kilmer, who chose to meet at a place he came to know very well during the campaign — a local Starbucks where he would come to warm up and rest almost every day after sessions of sign waving.
Kilmer was getting ready to take a leave of absence from his job with the Tacoma- Pierce County Economic Development Board and waiting to hear about his committee assignments. His top choices for committee assignments were Economic Development, Agriculture and Trade; Transportation; and Technology, Energy and Communications.
Key Peninsula News: What was the toughest part of your campaign?
Derek Kilmer: My answer may surprise you. I knocked on 15,000 doors — that in itself is challenging because it takes time away from your family. I met a lot of people who had many problems, and they stick with you. I met a senior who said, “I choose between food and medicine every day.” They cut their pills in half. You feel obligated to fight for people like her. I knocked at the door of a single mom who has had a hard time getting a job and was going to school. It really stuck with me. Two things I talked about most were jobs and improving the economy. To put faces to those issues was challenging.
KPN: Did that help you understand your potential future constituents better?
DK: The campaign was one of the hardest job interviews I’ve had; it reminded me how much work needs to be done.
KPN: What do you see as your priority issues in 2005?
DK: I campaigned on a handful of issues that are important to me. The No. 1 issue is jobs. The issues that go on in Olympia are cumulative: Transportation, affordability of health care, higher education all factor into jobs and the economy. You have to focus on economic development in a comprehensive way. It’s like a business selling a product — we’re selling our community and our state. You have to have a good product and sell it well. The first step is to make sure we’re competitive, and the top challenge is finding good skilled workers. We’re underfunding high-demand jobs; we’ll see that in our neck of the woods with the new hospital. Employers are literally importing nurses from the Philippines. We need to make sure people like the woman on the Key Peninsula get the training they need and get a good job.
Health care is another issue. Businesses are having a hard time finding affordable health care, and workers have increased costs too. We should encourage businesses to pool their buying powers. Training is another issue. We need a job skills program for businesses to improve the skills of their work force with statematched funding. It would pay for itself: If the business closes and people are out of jobs, it will cost more to pay for unemployment. The best social service is a job.
KPN: How will these kinds of ideas help Key Peninsula jobs?
DK: My focus is on local jobs that provide good benefits. I think there are some good opportunities on the Key Peninsula. A lot of these challenges are not unique. I’m talking about small businesses in our neck of the woods; the challenges of finding skilled workers are not unique. If we address these issues, the community will benefit. The community development plan currently in the works will present some opportunities and I’d like to be a partner with that from Olympia.
KPN: What do you think the community plan will bring?
DK: Where I think we want to go — be a great place to live and have a good community and quality of life. There were some themes when I knocked on doors: education, health care, jobs, quality of life, these are all values. The main things I heard were pretty consistent with what I plan to focus my priorities on. I’ve knocked at the door of at least one person a day who didn’t have a job. Jobs and health care came up the most by far.
KPN: What other priority issues do you see facing the Key Peninsula?
DK: Transportation is a big one. Two main issues on State Route 302 are safety and congestion. The tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge are also an issue. We have not gotten our fair share of transportation dollars and we need a voice at the table who will represent the area.
KPN: How can some of these problems be resolved?
DK: For Key Peninsula, I plan to work with county Councilman Terry Lee and the rest of our Olympia delegation to make sure the safety issues are presented. The same is true with the toll: I’d like to see some state funding for the Narrows Bridge project. The argument is on fairness. We’re the only area that’s singled out. If we can make that argument successfully, the next step would be to get the funding.
KPN: Do you feel that being a freshman lawmaker has disadvantages?
DK: I don’t believe there is a hierarchy of ideas. To me, the valuable thing a new Legislature brings is new ideas. I believe you run for office not to be something but to do something. I’m not going to sit by just because I’m new.
KPN: What do you see as the most challenging part?
DK: I’ll probably be able to answer that better after the session. I think just the fact we’re facing a revenue shortfall, and the state faces many challenges.
KPN: What challenges do you see regarding the Key Pen?
DK: The Key Peninsula presents unique challenges with safety issues. To me community safety is central. One of the things we value is that this is a great place to live.
KPN: What can be done about that at the legislative level?
DK: We’ve seen some things done, like meth cleanup funding and implementing best practices.
KPN: What do you see as your role for the local community?
DK: I will have an open ear to the community and their issues that will arise. My job is to fight for it, whether it’s at the community level or just issues that only affect one family. I encourage them to call my office.
As the interview wound up, Kilmer wanted to share that one of the most gratifying parts of the campaign was the number of people who volunteered their time — about 300 of them. “It’s a team effort when you run for office. You can’t do it on your own,” he said.
Two weeks later, he called to share the good news: Not only was he assigned to his three committees of choice, but he was also named the vice chair of one of them, Technology, Energy and Communications. “I was thrilled,” he said.
Following his swearing in on Jan. 10, Kilmer may be reached by phone at 360- 786-7802, email to email@example.com, or by mail at PO Box 40600, Olympia, WA, 98504.