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DeFazio joins Democrats heading for exits in 2022

Transportation chair saw his infrastructure efforts overlooked in final bill

Oregona Rep. Peter A. DeFazio is not running for reelection next year.
Oregona Rep. Peter A. DeFazio is not running for reelection next year. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, a veteran lawmaker with 36 years of congressional experience under his belt, announced Wednesday that he will not seek reelection in 2022.

“It’s time for me to pass the baton to the next generation so I can focus on my health and well-being,” the Oregon Democrat said in a statement announcing his decision. “This was a tough decision at a challenging time for our republic with the very pillars of our democracy under threat, but I am bolstered by the passion and principles of my colleagues in Congress and the ingenuity and determination of young Americans who are civically engaged and working for change.”

Within an hour of DeFazio’s announcement, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said she would run to succeed him as top Democrat on the Transportation panel during the next Congress. She is currently the second-most-senior Democrat on the committee and chair of its largest subcommittee, the Highways and Transit panel.

Washington Rep. Rick Larsen, who chairs the Aviation Subcommittee, is gauging interest from fellow Democrats and may also bid for the position, a spokesman said.

DeFazio’s announcement comes after a bruising year that saw his committee’s infrastructure bill largely overlooked in favor of a more modest bipartisan compromise in the Senate. DeFazio, 74, who complained bitterly about being boxed out of the process, ultimately embraced the final bill, but allies acknowledged that he felt justifiably rolled by the process. He also is recovering from back surgery. 

DeFazio has represented Oregon’s 4th District, which covers the southern half of the state’s Pacific coastline, since 1987. He had his toughest reelection race last fall against Republican Alek Skarlatos, an Afghanistan veteran best known for thwarting a gunman on a Paris-bound train from Amsterdam in 2015. Skarlatos later performed on “Dancing with the Stars” and played himself in a Clint Eastwood-directed movie about the train attack. 

DeFazio beat Skarlatos by 6 points, while Joe Biden was carrying the district over President Donald Trump by 4 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton edged Trump by just 0.1 point. Skarlatos has said he will run again but faces more of a disadvantage: Under Oregon’s new map drawn by state Democrats, Biden would have carried the 4th District by 12 points, according to calculations by Inside Elections.

Skarlatos tweeted Wednesday that DeFazio was leaving “after 36 years of failure … and turning his back on the people he was elected to serve.”

The Democratic primary to succeed DeFazio gained a notable entrant Wednesday in Oregon Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, a statewide elected office holder.

“Nobody can fill Peter DeFazio’s shoes,” Hoyle said in a statement. “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.”

News of DeFazio’s plans was first reported by Punchbowl News, spurring Republicans to weigh in even before the congressman made his announcement.

“Committee Chairs don’t retire unless they know their majority is gone,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Courtney Parella, noting that DeFazio is the 19th House Democrat leaving the chamber after this cycle. “Nancy Pelosi’s days as Speaker are numbered.”

Speaks his mind

Irascible and pugnacious, known for wearing occasionally profane novelty socks and living on a boat when Congress is in session, DeFazio, a former wrestler, has chaired the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee since 2019 but has served on the panel since he first came to Congress. 

He lost a special Senate election primary in 1995 to Oregon colleague Ron Wyden, who won 50 percent to 44 percent and went on to win the general election.

DeFazio is not shy about what he dislikes: This year, his distaste for a budgetary rule named after former Senate Budget Chairman Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia became apparent when DeFazio began regularly referring to what is commonly known as the “Byrd rule” as “the dead guy rule.” 

On days when he was feeling particularly cantankerous, he’d joke about the Senate parliamentarian having a seance with Byrd, who died in 2010. 

Nor is he a fan of Obama-era Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, whom he routinely refers to as “that jerk Larry Summers.” DeFazio was called out during one hearing for referring to Rep. Brian Mast, a Florida Republican, as a “f—ing a–hole” on a hot mic. Mast said he was proud to receive the moniker. 

Still, Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike have praised DeFazio for being fair and flexible, despite his combative nature.

“It’s not hard to get an f-bomb out of him,” Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., said in June. “But here’s the thing about him: Even though, ideologically, he and I are very, very different … what I respect about Peter is, if you can make a good policy argument, he’s open-minded about it.”

One of DeFazio’s deepest disappointments was that the bipartisan infrastructure bill did not include the sweeping environmental provisions that he had hoped for. Climate change had a personal impact on DeFazio this year, when he watched parts of his Oregon district grapple with a record-breaking heat wave. 

To him, the Senate compromise did not sufficiently address climate change.

“Transportation is the largest fossil fuel emitter,” he said in July, shortly before the Senate passed the bipartisan bill. “And anybody today who says there is no climate change is a jerk and an idiot. To do a transportation bill that doesn’t meaningfully deal with fossil fuel pollution from the largest source would be a travesty, and to lock in that policy for five years would be disastrous.”

But by November, with the House struggling to pass the measure, DeFazio had mellowed somewhat, saying that the massive investment in high-speed rail and transit will “all help reduce the nation’s carbon footprint.”

“Is this the bill I wanted?” he said. “No. But we aimed really, really high.”

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