By Mike De Felice
Kitsap News Group
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Most people don’t have the time to track the activities of the politicians representing them in Washington D.C. Frequently, the only time they learn about the activities of their U.S. representative or senator is when flyers appear in the mailbox from the lawmakers touting their accomplishments.
To get an in-depth perspective of what 6th Congressional District U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer does during a typical day in the nation’s Capital, Kitsap Daily News sent reporter Mike De Felice to shadow the congressman for a week – to get a “fly on the wall,” perspective, if you will, of what the job entails. Here is the first in a three-part series of articles by De Felice after he spent time with the congressman from Washington state.
Other articles in the series will highlight a committee that Kilmer chairs, whose purpose is to “fix Congress,” and outline the role he plays on the influential U.S. House Appropriations Committee, a group responsible in part for approving military spending that impacts Bremerton’s Naval Shipyard and other Pacific Northwest military facilities.
This article covers “A Day in the Life” of U.S. Rep. Kilmer:
6:15 am — Get up
Congressman Kilmer wakes up to music. “This morning, I woke up to ‘Get Lucky’ by Daft Punk, and yesterday I got up to ‘Brand New’ by Ben Rector,” Kilmer said after checking the playlists on his cellphone.
6:30 a.m. — Breakfast
Every morning, it’s the same — dairy-free yogurt and a few mandatory cups of coffee. He reads digital versions of The Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Peninsula Daily News, Daily World, Kitsap Daily News, Kitsap Sun, and Port Townsend Leader.
In D.C., Derek lives in an apartment in the Navy Yard neighborhood. He shares the two-bedroom place with fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan. “I don’t like being alone and I miss my family, so it’s nice to have someone to debrief the day with,” he explains.
Asked if the apartment is messier than the family’s Gig Harbor home, Kilmer answers, “Ahhh, no. I’ve got teenagers,” he chuckles. “Definitely, the dish situation is far worse in my home.”
7:30 a.m. — Heading to the office
Kilmer walks to work, rain or shine. It provides good “thinking time,” he says.
Office details: Kilmer’s office is in the Rayburn House Office Building across Independence Avenue from the Capitol, where the House and Senate debate and vote. Rayburn is one of three buildings where House legislators have offices; all are assigned based on seniority.
Kilmer’s legislative neighbors just around the corner are two Republicans, both ardent former President Trump supporters – Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a regular on Fox News, and Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, who was censured by the House in November for tweeting an animated video reportedly depicting him killing New York Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and committing violence against President Joe Biden.
Kilmer’s hallway door is adorned with U.S. and Washington state flags. In his lobby are walls filled with photographs from all around the 6th District of Bremerton Naval Shipyard, the Tacoma Narrows Bridges on opening day, Olympic National Park, and Derek in hip boots standing in a Grays Harbor cranberry bog surrounded by floating bright red berries. Pennants from schools around the state and placards from the branches of the military also are posted.
The inside of his office is decorated with more photos, including a Port of Tacoma poster emblazed with the motto, “We’re Competing with Everyone, Everywhere, Every Day” and an autographed glossy of Mohammed Ali. (Kilmer, a fan of boxing, met the boxer in the mid-’90s. He never dabbled in the sport himself.) There is also an order signed by then-President Trump renaming the downtown Bremerton post office after local African American and master diver in the Navy, John Henry Turpin.
“I’ve tried not to have an office filled with pictures of me. I’d rather have an office that makes people feel at home. Some see the pictures and say, ‘Hey, that’s my community. That’s on Bainbridge. There’s the shipyard I work there.’ That type of thing.”
On the lighter side, the office also features a collection of Star Wars-related Pez dispensers. “The Washington Post did an article naming me the biggest Star Wars nerd in Congress,” Kilmer says with pride. On Halloween, he even craves Star Wars pumpkins.
8-9 a.m. – Meet with Bipartisan Working Group
Each week over coffee, Derek co-chairs a meeting of the Bipartisan Working Group. Founded in 2011, the group of a dozen Democrats and a dozen Republicans meets to discuss legislative initiatives and how they can work together to make progress in a bipartisan fashion for the American people.
9:15-9:45 a.m. – Staff meeting with the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress
The committee is tasked with finding ways to improve Congress (which will be profiled in part 2 of this series).
Kilmer’s days can be filled with committee hearings — he is on the influential House Committee on Appropriations and several of its subcommittees, and is chairman of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress — and voting on the House floor. On other days, like the one profiled here, the bulk of the schedule consists of meetings with constituent groups from the 6th District.
“The people who have an easy time coming to my office are the people I represent. If someone is flying 3,000 miles, I’m going to meet with them. Sometimes it will be at 7:30 in the morning, sometimes it’s at 8 o’clock at night. The people who have a hard time getting a meeting with us are [lobbyists] who are paid to try and get a meeting with us,” Kilmer said with a chuckle.
Meeting format. When meeting with Northwest groups, Kilmer abandons his desk and sits in a black leather chair among visitors. Guests sit on a long couch or other cushy seats. A TV is always on in the background showing activity on the House floor in the Capitol Building, which is a 10-minute walk across Independence Avenue.
Time is a precious commodity on Capitol Hill, so the sessions start promptly, with visitors jumping into their issues. Those who come to see Kilmer fall into two general categories – those seeking funding support, such as Bremerton Shipyard officials seeking increased pay for military workers, and those pushing for policy change, like those encouraging the federal government to set up regulations fighting climate change. During presentations, Kilmer jots down notes and often takes on the role of supporter, routinely asking how he can help.
The back-to-back meetings usually last 30 minutes. When it’s time to wrap up, a staff member subtly opens a side door to signal that the next group is waiting in the lobby. Gatherings often end with visitors crowding around Kilmer for a keepsake photo that often ends up on social media.
10-10:30 a.m. – Port of Grays Harbor (Port officials discuss a project aimed at creating agricultural export opportunities for their operation).
10:30-11 a.m. – Pierce Transit (afterward, Kilmer recounts the time he was invited to drive a Pierce Transit bus on a test course, only to destroy a number of cones. The group gets down to discussing a project aimed at improving travel time between Spanaway and Tacoma).
11-11:30 a.m. – Washington Roundtable (the nonprofit group of business executives discusses efforts to support Washington state’s economy).
Kilmer tries to eat a salad for lunch, one brought in or purchased at the Rayburn cafeteria. “I was 90 pounds heavier when I was in the state Legislature (2005-2012). I worked really hard to lose it, now I’m working hard to keep it off.” Today, he weighs in at 185 pounds.
1:30-2 p.m – Virtual meeting with University of Washington officials. They cover appropriation requests for research funding and financial aid programs.
2-2:30 p.m. – Jefferson Healthcare. Company representatives outline challenges that face rural medical providers and the ability of providers to partner with mental health services).
2:30-3 p.m. – Virtual meeting with Tribal Historic Preservation Officers. In the meeting, several Northwest tribes, including Suquamish, Makah, Quinault, Indian Nation and Jamestown S’Kallam underscore the need for increased federal tribal funding due to the recognition of an increasing number of tribes.
3-3:30 p.m. – International Longshore & Warehouse Union. Union reps share their concerns about the impacts of the Shipping Reform Act on supply chain issues.
3:45-4:30 p.m. – Staff time. Kilmer debriefs staff members and reviews the lawmaker’s schedule in the weeks ahead.
4:30-5 p.m. – Constituent calls. Part of the congressman’s day is dedicated to calling constituents. “I made a decision at the beginning of the pandemic that if someone reached out to our office who lost a job or had to lay someone off or lost a loved one as a consequence of COVID, I wasn’t going to send them a form letter. I would call them.”
5:15-5:45 p.m. – New Dems Leadership meeting. Kilmer is the chair emeritus of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of nearly 100 Democrats.
6-6:30 p.m. – Kilmer meets with Dutch members of Parliament. Derek is the son and grandson of Dutch immigrants and currently serves as the co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Dutch Caucus that works to strengthen ties between the United States and the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
6:30-7 p.m. – Votes. The congressman is called to the House floor to vote several times a week. Each time, he enjoys walking to the Capitol — on a typical day, Kilmer reports logging in 15,000-20,000 steps. During the week Kitsap Daily News spent with the congressman, he voted on several bills, including one titled the “Asset Seizure for Ukraine Reconstruction Act.” The bill authorized the U.S. government to use lawful means to confiscate and liquidate assets of Russian oligarchs linked to Vladimir Putin’s regime and use the money to benefit the people of Ukraine. The legislation was supported by Kilmer and passed the House by a vote of 417-8.
Kilmer enters his votes in a manner far more efficient than the antiquated method of individually calling each representative by name and having each voice their vote. Today, he enters his vote in seconds by using an electronic card that looks much like a credit card. Kilmer swipes the card in a device and then presses one of two buttons – a green one for “yea” and a red one for “nay.” The vote is then displayed on an LED board on the wall.
7:15 p.m. — Walks home.
8-9 p.m. — Working dinner with colleagues.
During his time in the nation’s capital, which is about half of the year, Kilmer has no qualms about working late. “Basically, I’ve told my team, ‘Load me up.’ If I’m going to be 3,000 miles from my family, I want to be working. If I can do five extra hours here and maybe free up a couple of hours to take my youngest kiddo on a hike, great.”
Kilmer touches base with his family nightly via FaceTime on his iPad. He and his wife Jennifer have two daughters — Sophie, 16, and Aven, 12 — and two Australian Shepherds, Truman and Penny. Jennifer runs the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. The family has lived in Gig Harbor since 2001.
“I feel I get the full debrief [on what the family is up to]. What I don’t get to do is sit around the dining room table and actually get to break bread with my family. But listen, I try not to complain about what I signed up for.
“I chose to do this work. Part of the reason is that I want my kids to grow up in a county where they can get a good education, a good job, have health care, and have equal rights. Frankly, I don’t want their future dictated by a completely screwed up federal government.”
10:15 -11:15 p.m. – Exercise. Kilmer tries to exercise for an hour a day.
“I generally work until about 9:30 or 10 p.m. and then do the elliptical. I’ve got shoddy knees, so the elliptical is the best I can do.” His playlist for workouts can include, “Songs from The Roots and older music like Otis Redding and Sam Cook. I have a fair amount of jazz stuff too.” Occasionally, he streams a show while on the elliptical.
After exercising Kilmer heads to bed. Falling asleep after getting his blood pumping does not seem to be a problem for the Northwest congressman. After grabbing some shut-eye, he gets up the next morning at 6:30 a.m., and is at it again.