It’s ‘back to the forest’ for Rep. Peter DeFazio

Retiring Democrat recalls his early days as a staffer

As Rep. Peter DeFazio prepares to leave the Capitol behind for good, he looks back at his earliest memories of working in Washington.   (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
As Rep. Peter DeFazio prepares to leave the Capitol behind for good, he looks back at his earliest memories of working in Washington. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 26, 2022 at 5:45am

He may spend his days thinking about transportation, but Rep. Peter A. DeFazio is ready to be done with airplanes. 

“I have one of the longest commutes in the Lower 48,” says the retiring Democratic chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who will soon trade those flights for a little fly fishing. 

DeFazio has always sought out the wilderness (“I don’t like hiking in a line,” he says of the crowded options near D.C.), but it was his former boss who showed him how complex that could be in western Oregon.  

“I was there a number of times when he was poking some timber baron in the chest and saying, ‘You can’t have it all,’” DeFazio recalls of the late Jim Weaver, a fierce environmental advocate and his predecessor in the House.

As a staffer for Weaver in the late 1970s and early 1980s, DeFazio got a taste of how heated the issue could get.

“Forest policy is like religion in this district,” where hippies and survivalists mingle with loggers, cannabis growers, college students and everything in between, the Democrat says. “I’ve tried to find a balance. I’ve had people in Roseburg call me an eco-terrorist. I’ve had people in Eugene throw sawdust at me.”

At least one thing hasn’t changed since his staffer days. “I just wanted to be back in the forest,” DeFazio says.

He sat down this month to talk about his memories of Weaver, a run-in with Capitol Police and his 11-hour commute. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: How did you get started working for Weaver?

A: I was in graduate school studying gerontology, and I wasn’t particularly involved in politics. But I got the paper, and I kept reading about this guy Jim Weaver who was out there fighting to save the old-growth and wilderness areas in Oregon. I thought, “Boy, this guy’s got a lot of guts.” 

So, I clipped an ad out of the newspaper — this was the old days — went down to the district office and filed an application. And that’s how my career got started. 

I was doing senior outreach and what we could call casework — solving problems for people on Social Security and Medicare. And I developed a real interest in the disability determination process, which seemed so unfair. I mean, I had one guy who had been a gunsmith and could barely see, but they told him he could return to his former profession.

I said to Jim, “I could sit here all day long and help people, but there’s a problem with the policy.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you just come to D.C.?” He was totally focused on agriculture and resources, but I became the legislative aide who did everything else. 

DeFazio, fourth from left, and other staffers pose on the Capitol steps in 1979 with Rep. Jim Weaver. (Courtesy Rep. Peter DeFazio)

Q: You hated D.C. when you first got there. Why?

A: Back in those days, John F. Kennedy’s saying still applied: Washington had all the charms of the north, and all the efficiency of the South. It had no good restaurants, and only one place to get good beer. It was not the vibrant place it is now.

And I just wanted to be back in the forest. You go to Old Rag in Virginia, and you’re hiking in a line with people. You go to the coast, and you get caught in a traffic jam. 

Q: What’s something you did as a staffer that wouldn’t happen today?

A: There was a big blizzard in 1979. I was living down by the Eastern Market metro stop, and I had cross country skis. Everything shut down, so I skied down the street to the Capitol, and then I was skiing on the Capitol grounds. And this cop stops me and says, “You can’t do that. That’s a playground activity.” 

So I turn around, and this car comes chunking up with chains on it. Some guy jumps out and says, “Hey, I’m from the Washington Star.” I told him they threw me out, and he did a little story.

I went into the office the next day, and Jim says, “Write a letter to the head of the Capitol Police. That’s outrageous.” In fact, he even went next door and got John Seiberling to sign the letter, too, so it came from two members of Congress.

I told the police chief this is not a playground activity, it’s an energy efficient form of transportation on snow. And he says, “I’m just a southern boy. I don’t know anything about skiing, but don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.” Today, they even allow sledding on Capitol grounds.

Q: You moved back home and became Weaver’s district director for a while.

A: I just really wanted to go home to Oregon. So, I worked out a deal with Jim for three months’ leave, and my wife and I did a ticket with Air India to fly around the world. As long as you kept going in the same direction, you could stop as many places as you wanted, and it only cost $1,000 bucks or something. So we did that and came back, and then I ran the district office. 

Defazio, left, poses with Rep. Jim Weaver while campaigning in Oregon in 1980. (Courtesy Rep. Peter DeFazio)

Q: Your boss was known for being pretty stubborn, like the time he tried to pull off a rare filibuster on the House floor. How did you handle that kind of zeal?

A: I was there a number of times when he was poking some timber baron in the chest and saying, “You can’t have it all. We’re going to do a wilderness bill.” And a few years later, he did get a major wilderness bill done that protected substantial portions of western Oregon. 

He had a bit of a temper sometimes. Once we were at the Valley River Center to meet with a group of sheep farmers or something, and one of them came by the table before Jim went in and just got him really mad. And Jim says, “Can’t go in there. I’m gonna yell at him.” And then he says, “Go get me a glass of milk.” He drinks the glass of milk and says, “Alright. Now I won’t yell at him.”

Q: Then you ran for local office. Did you stay in touch with Weaver after that?

A: After I got elected to the County Commission, we had this thing called Rajneeshpuram, a cult that took over a town in Oregon. One day, Jim was just across the street in his office and he comes over and says, “You guys. They’re poisoning people.” And we were like, “Jim, really? I don’t think so.” 

People had gotten sick at a salad bar up in the Dalles, and it turned out he was right. The Rajneeshees were experimenting and infecting people with salmonella. Who else would have thought of that? 

Q: He decided to run for Senate, and you ended up winning his old seat in the House. Are there things you still do the Weaver way?

A: If my door isn’t shut and my legislative staff want to ask a question, they just walk in. And my door isn’t shut very often.

They give me ideas, and I give them ideas. I’m a compulsive reader. Jim would always leave notes in our mailboxes, like old-fashioned mail slots. I came in one week and there was a story about Skylab falling out of the sky with a note attached: “Do something about it.” What am I going to do about Skylab falling out of the sky? Well, I wrote a resolution basically saying it shouldn’t fall with a whole lot of oratory language and said it’s the best I can do. He got it introduced, but it never went anywhere. 

We don’t have mail slots anymore, but I’ll text my staff and say, “I just read this. Let’s do something about this.”

Q: This is your last term in Congress. What’s next?

A: Well, first I got to deal with my archives, a massive job after 36 years. The University of Oregon can take my documents, but they won’t take artifacts. I don’t have a big house, and my wife said, “Don’t bring any of them home.” 

In the meantime, I’ve got the day job of being chair of the Transportation Committee, and it’s not exactly allowing me to sit around and contemplate a future because we’re constantly busy. 

I really am looking forward to spending less time on airplanes. I have one of the longest commutes in the lower 48. I want to go out and enjoy some of the areas I saved, like the Copper Salmon Wilderness I created. 

And I got to learn how to fly cast again, since I lost all my skills in Congress. Your skill becomes getting on and off airplanes. I’ve spent approximately 435 40-hour workweeks commuting from Washington to Springfield and back. I could be really good at fly casting if I had a hundredth of that time.