Newspaper clippings. Campaign buttons. A hat he wore in Ghana. It took 320 hours to list all the items archived from the congressman’s offices.
“You can take anything that’s sitting around here. You can have it.”
I glance over at the bookcase in Congressman Jim McDermott’s Seattle office. Old copies of congressional rules. A Ray Charles record. A pretty green cloth box.
“I’m good,” I tell McDermott, who can’t stop smiling.
You really can’t blame the man. He’s freshly out of the political game after 46 years — the last 20 spent representing Washington’s 7th Congressional District.
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“I’ve seen people leave Congress in handcuffs,” he told me Saturday morning. “I’ve seen them die. I’ve seen them defeated. And then there’s a few who walk out. And I thought to myself, ‘That option seems like a better option.’ ”
Once McDermott announced in January that he wasn’t seeking another term (he will be succeeded by state Sen. Pramila Jayapal), the planning and packing began.
But how do you deal with 28 years of paper and keepsakes? Campaign buttons and T-shirts and gifts brought back from 40 trips to Japan, 18 trips to India?
It took McDermott’s right-hand staffer Tera Beach 320 hours to list everything from his congressional career being packed up and archived at the University of Washington: 68 boxes from his Washington, D.C., office and 18 boxes from Seattle.
They will join another stash of memories from his career in the Washington state Legislature, which started in 1970.
“This is what a pack rat turns out to be,” said McDermott, who will be 80 on Dec. 28.
What’s worse, he’s a storyteller. And nearly every item had one.
“It was like walking through history, remembering all the people I had fights with,” he cracked. “This has been a whole year of looking back, and it was exhausting to go through, emotionally and physically, and look through all of this.”
He found a newspaper story about a 1991 meeting with the late Sen. Brock Adams about forming what would become Sound Transit. McDermott was there then, and for the opening of the University of Washington light-rail station last May.
There’s a hat he wore on a trip to Ghana in 1961. A calendar of flower arrangements sent over by the Japanese Embassy every year. And a picture of a mountain goat. He’s a Capricorn, he said, “and the goat is sure-footed in high places.”
He has had his slips, he said.
“I can admit I made a mistake here and there,” he said. “You get to the plateau where you say to yourself, ‘I’m never going to be president, I’m never going to be governor. I’m never going to be vice president of the United States. I’m never going to be a senator,’ ” he continued. “But I’ve been a congressman, and I did a lot of stuff.
“And that’s the stage of integrity,” he said, “the stage of when you look at what you did and you say, ‘This is what I did and I’m proud of it.’ ”
At the top of his list is a 2008 bill called “Fostering Connections,” which allowed relatives to become guardians for foster children, allowed siblings to stay together and delayed “aging out” of the foster system from age 18 to 21.
McDermott, a child psychiatrist, considers himself “godfather” to the 500,000 foster kids across the country.
“That was about as deep in my soul,” he said.
He found an early copy of the AIDS Housing Opportunity Act of 1990, written by former staffer David Bly, which established housing for people with AIDS.
Early on in his public career, he wrote bills that allowed dental technicians (and not just dentists) to clean teeth; and started one of the first physician-assistant programs in the country. He also helped preserve the Cedar River Watershed Land Exchange Act, giving Seattle more control over its primary water source.
Small, but important things.
“That’s what a member of the Legislature does,” McDermott said. “Somebody going there, thinking they’re going to do big things, they’re going to bring peace to the world …” He let out a cackle.
“Good luck!” he said. “I’m going to try and work toward peace, but what I will be sure of is that you have clean teeth and housing and clean water.”
McDermott had been planning a trip to Australia but instead is going to teach a class at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, focusing on what will happen during the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency.
He also joined Twitter as “ExRepJim”: “Today I am entering the next chapter of my life. Hooray!!!”
“My staff thought somebody hacked me,” McDermott said. “I scared the hell out of these people.” (He’s now up to 13 followers.)
He can’t walk around Green Lake, he said, without six people stopping him to talk.
That is likely to happen more and more after the inauguration. McDermott is happy to listen, but beyond what he offers in his UW class, we’re on our own, he said.
“Somebody else is going to have to deal with this guy Trump,” he said. “Not me. And I can give them all my wisdom about how you deal and what you have to do and the pitfalls and where (Trump) is going that are going to be the problems.”
His only problem is getting out by Dec. 17.
I leave with an eraser shaped like a Japanese Daruma doll and a campaign button from one of McDermott’s early races.
And the sound of that cackle following me down the hall.