U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio had his legacy in mind as he spoke to reporters Wednesday in the wake of his announcement he would not seek reelection in 2022.
DeFazio, who has served in Congress for 36 years and will be 75 at the end of his last term, announced his retirement on Wednesday morning.
He freed up money for port dredging, took away the antitrust immunity of the health insurance industry, ensured safer airplanes and drove investment in America’s crumbling infrastructure.
In his first term, he worked with Republican Mark Hatfield on the largest ever expansion of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in the lower 48 states.
He preserved areas as wilderness like Devil’s Staircase that now he’d like to spend some time hiking in, he said.
“There will be new challenges for the next representative, and things that they’re going to have to fight for for our state, but I feel good about the legacy I’ve left,” DeFazio said.
DeFazio also said he’s proud of some battles he fought and lost, including attempting to block the bailout of Wall Street and free trade agreements that have made it necessary for Americans to buy things like N95 masks from China during a pandemic
He was vilified for his opposition to trade agreements in years past, but people are now seeing the cost of trade agreements that allow companies to move jobs to take advantage of cheap labor and lax environmental regulations oversees, he said.
“There’s fights that I’ve lost but I’m proud I was there for,” he said.
He also said he’s never told people in part of his district one thing and people in another part something else.
“For years I’ve had Republicans walk up to me at the Douglas County Fair and say, ‘Hey I don’t like that, I didn’t like what you did, but I always know where you stand so I still vote for you,” he said.
DeFazio said he recently had back surgery, and said the biweekly cross-country flights to and from Washington, D.C. haven’t been good for his back. That and some “minor but disturbing” stress-related health issues he didn’t name contributed to his decision to retire, he said.
Then there’s the change in the political climate.
“Half my career has been in the minority, but in the old days in the minority, particularly in infrastructure, we could work across the aisle,” he said.
But this year, the 13 Republicans in the House who “had the guts” to vote for infrastructure received death threats, he said.
There are widespread predictions that Republicans will wrest control of the House from Democrats in 2022, but DeFazio said he’s not convinced.
“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.
Either way, DeFazio’s district has become more solidly Democratic thanks to the recent redistricting.
DeFazio said he did not know what Democrats would emerge as candidates, but said he will support whoever wins the primary in May.
One Democratic hopeful has already thrown her hat in the ring.
Oregon Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle announced her candidacy Wednesday afternoon.
Hoyle said in a statement DeFazio will go down as a “giant among Oregon leaders.”
She said DeFazio is irreplaceable, but said she would file as a candidate for the seat because Oregon needs a continuation of his strong leadership.
“Nobody can fill Peter DeFazio’s shoes. But I am determined to do all I can to ensure that his dedication to our people and communities, his strong and principled leadership, and his track record of putting the needs of hard-working Oregonians first will continue,” Hoyle said.
Hoyle, of Springfield, has served as Labor Commissioner since 2018. Prior to that, she was state House Majority Leader.
Republican candidate Alek Skarlatos had an entirely different reaction.
“After 36 years of failure — burning forest, poorest congressional district in the state, partisan policies that have destroyed southwest Oregon — and turning his back on the people he was elected to serve Peter DeFazio is retiring,” Skarlatos posted on Twitter.
DeFazio said there would be a lot of dead communities on the Southwest Oregon Coast without his advocacy over the years.
Every year, he said, he earmarked dredging for the ports in his district. In the last year, he got harbor maintenance tax monies freed up so the ports wouldn’t have to scramble for cash to keep their harbors open and jetties repaired.
He also cited his work that made it possible for the state to fix up a former Coos Bay railroad site that could soon be converted into a container port.
He said Skarlatos wasn’t the most qualified person to run.
“His opinion means nothing to me,” DeFazio said.
DeFazio said the 2020 race between himself and Skarlatos was the most expensive congressional race in the state’s history.
Republicans threw everything they had into it, he said, and he still beat Skarlatos by six points. Now, after redistricting, his district is five points better for a Democrat than it was then.
“It’s a time when I feel good that another Democrat can win. So it’s a good time to go,” he said.