U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, says he won't run for re-election when his 18th term ends this year.

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks has the build of the linebacker he once was, the bulldog charisma of a natural politico and the legislative acumen of his mentor, the late Sen. Warren Magnuson.

But after almost 36 years in Congress, Dicks said he will not seek re-election this year, closing a career as one of the most powerful people ever to represent Washington state in Congress.

The Bremerton Democrat’s decision — a surprise that he broke to the state’s congressional delegation Friday morning — will leave a notable void in both in the U.S. House and his native state. As the top Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, he’s steered hundreds of millions in federal money to clean up Puget Sound and the Hanford nuclear reservation, revive the downtowns of Tacoma and Bremerton, and bolster defense projects in the state.

Dicks’ retirement sets off a scramble for the 6th Congressional District seat, which last was in Republican hands in 1964. The district’s newly redrawn boundaries leave it Democratic leaning, but Republicans now think they’ve got a shot.

Dicks, 71, said he and his wife, Suzie, have mulled retirement for several years. Last year, the couple put their longtime home on Hood Canal in Belfair on the market and bought another waterfront home in the community.

He and his wife “made the decision to change gears and enjoy life at a different pace,” he said. “We just decided we had a good run. I’ve been re-elected 18 times. I didn’t want to be one of those people who stayed too long.”

Suzie Dicks works as general secretary of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. Norm Dicks said the couple has not decided what to do about her job, but said they planned to spend a lot more time in Washington state.

The popular Dicks was the unofficial dean of the state’s congressional delegation. News of his decision drew swift laments and accolades.

“Our state has been so lucky to have him,” said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, calling Dicks “my mentor, my friend, my adviser, my teammate and my brother.”

Former Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton said he was as surprised as everyone else at Dicks’ announcement and praised him as a staunch advocate for his district and the state.

“I can say the whole time I was in the Senate, when I wanted something done in the House for our delegation, I always went to Norm first,” said Gorton. “I am a considerable admirer.”

Dicks is a well-known defense hawk and one of the Pentagon’s best allies. His retirement would come just as the Defense Department is trying to fend off the biggest budget reduction in its history.

He said he plans to spend the remainder of his term working to blunt the pending cuts, which were triggered by November’s failure of the congressional deficit-reduction committee co-chaired by Murray.

Key Boeing ally

Dicks’ fierce support for defense projects in general and Boeing in particular earned him the moniker “Mr. Boeing.” He was instrumental in Boeing’s bruising win of a $35 billion Air Force refueling-tanker contract last year.

At one critical point in the contest against Airbus parent EADS, Dicks ensured that Pentagon rules would give the larger Airbus tanker minimal credit for its extra capabilities. That maneuver helped tilt the competition in Boeing’s favor.

At the same time, Dicks’ closeness to defense contractors — specifically to lobbyists working for them — has made him a target of scrutiny over campaign donations and congressionally awarded federal contracts, known as earmarks.

Dicks was one of the largest recipients of donations from the PMA Group, a lobbying firm founded by Paul Magliocchetti, who went to prison for laundering campaign contributions.

In 2010, a House ethics committee cleared Dicks and six other lawmakers of any wrongdoing for steering millions in earmarks to clients of PMA, and receiving campaign contributions from the political-action committees of PMA and its clients, as well as donations from its employees.

Dicks said Friday he had no regrets about accepting campaign donations or directing money to local projects, saying that he acted only with the state’s interest.

Military supporter

James Carafono, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said Dicks is part of what he considers to be an endangered species — “blue dog” Democrats in the tradition of Washington’s Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson who could always be counted on to rally behind military spending.

A Bloomberg Government study released last year found that military spending in fiscal year 2009 in Washington state totaled $13.5 billion. That spending included $3.7 billion at Fort Lewis (now part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord), more than $2 billion in Seattle and Kent and $700 million in Bremerton.

Dicks said he will look to fellow Washington Democratic Reps. Adam Smith and Rick Larsen to continue to “look out for defense interests.” Smith, of Tacoma, is the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, and Larsen, of Lake Stevens, also serves on the panel.

Steve McBee, a former Dicks staffer who became a lobbyist, said Dicks’ legacy on defense issues may overshadow his contributions in other areas, including boosting the economies of Tacoma and Bremerton.

“He was a really important leader in helping the cities rejuvenate themselves and doing a lot of lifting on the strategy, the vision,” McBee said. “It’s a closing of a major and very dense chapter in Washington politics.”

Dicks also has left a major mark on environmental issues. He fought to save the northern spotted owl and threatened salmon runs, and worked to expand national parks and to preserve wilderness areas.

Football to politics

Dicks has been in Congress longer than anyone from the state except Magnuson and Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Magnuson served 44 years in the Senate and House, while Jackson served 43 years.

He graduated with a political-science degree in 1963 from the University of Washington, where he played linebacker and guard for the Huskies football team. He earned a law degree from the UW in 1968, and then became Magnuson’s legislative assistant. Dicks left as a senior aide in 1976 to make his successful run for Congress.

In 2010, he was in line for a long-coveted position as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. But the Democratic wipeout at the polls that November cost him the post after the GOP gained control of the House.

He’s currently the ranking Democrat on the panel as well as on its subcommittee that controls the purse strings for the Pentagon.

Ready to retire

Dicks believes divisiveness in politics, particularly within the Republican party, will mean “the Democrats will take back the House in November.”

Wouldn’t Dicks be walking away from chairmanship of a committee he has served on for decades?

“There are no guarantees,” he said.

Regardless of what happens on Election Day, Dicks said he’s finally ready to leave Congress. Dicks said a nagging neck injury from his football days also prompted his decision to retire. He sometimes suffers from numbness and said he is looking forward to devoting time for physical therapy.

“There is a lot of stress here,” he said.

Seattle Times staff reporters Hal Bernton, Jack Broom, Jim Brunner, Dominic Gates, Andrew Garber, Jonathan Martin and news researcher David Turim contributed to this story.

Kyung M. Song: 202-662-7455

or ksong@seattletimes.com