In a somber Dec. 1 virtual press conference, Rep. Peter DeFazio said he would not seek re-election in 2022. He’s represented Oregon’s 4th congressional district since 1987.
He cited health issues related to his commute and job as causing this decision.
Earlier in 2021, DeFazio had back surgery, which, he said, may have been due to frequent airplane travel from Oregon to Washington. He also said he’s experienced “disturbing health-related” issues from stress related to his job. “I decided that this is the right time — I’m going out at the top,” he added.
During his time in the House of Representatives, DeFazio spoke critically about both parties, despite his own Democratic Party membership. DeFazio’s career ends with him as chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and passing a large infrastructure bill, as well as a social welfare net legislative package that’s part of Biden’s Build Back Better legislation agenda, which awaits a vote in the Senate.
DeFazio said he wants to focus on passing President Joe Biden’s signature legislative works. When he leaves office, he said he’ll still be involved with politics, pointing to a potential book.
“It’s time for me to pass the baton to the next generation so I can focus on my health and well-being,” DeFazio said in a Dec. 1 release preceding the press conference. “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.”
When he’s out of office, DeFazio said at his press conference that he is in the process of writing a book about what is wrong with politics today. “For years I gave a speech called ‘Can American Democracy Survive?’” he said. “Even back before Trump it was pessimistic. The challenges are even greater now.”
The book will cover threats to American democracy, as well as solutions, he added. “Also what’s happened with radical deregulation that goes from trade to pharmaceuticals to transportation to telecommunications and everything that has disadvantaged Americans and profited Wall Street.”
DeFazio’s long history in politics
DeFazio has told Eugene Weekly in the past that as a congressman he’s often put policy over politics, especially during the Obama administration. When the Democrats lost control of Congress in 2010, DeFazio blamed it on Obama.
He told EW in January 2021 that Obama made a mistake in economic recovery after listening “to that jerk Larry Summers,” the former U.S. secretary of the Treasury, when pushing for the Troubled Assets Relief Package (TARP) legislation during the Great Recession. DeFazio said Obama as a result created tax cuts too small to notice and a low number of jobs.
And DeFazio is one of the few politicians who has literally raised a middle finger about policy he disagreed with. He pointed that middle finger at the policies of Wildlife Services — a program that kills predators for the livestock industry housed under the Department of Agriculture — at a Cascadia Wildlands event in August 2018.
Also in 2018, shortly after the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives, EW asked DeFazio if he was considering retiring from politics. He replied that he didn’t expect to quit until the U.S. got rid of former President Donald Trump, the Democrats took Congress and Oregon got a sixth congressional seat.
Most of that happened in 2020, and DeFazio said at his press conference that you don’t get everything you ask for in Washington. He said he’s enjoyed working with the Biden administration in passing its infrastructure bill.
Investing in “America’s crumbling infrastructure” was a legislative goal that DeFazio said he had for decades.
The Democrats will likely lose control of Congress in 2022, a common trend in modern politics that occurs in the first midterm election after a presidential transition, especially since Biden’s approval rate hovers around 40 percent according to FiveThirtyEight’s poll aggregator. But DeFazio said at the press conference that Republicans are “measuring the curtains too early.”
DeFazio said the current 4th Congressional District is no longer a Republican-favored seat after it was redrawn this year. He said he feels comfortable that a Democrat should be favored by about five percentage points during the general election.
In the ‘90s, DeFazio considered running for Senate, according to former longtime Oregon Sen. Les AuCoin’s Catch and Release: An Oregon Life in Politics memoir. In 1992 DeFazio considered unseating Republican Sen. Bob Packwood (who would soon become embroiled in a sexual abuse controversy), but DeFazio decided not to run.
Before he was elected to Congress, DeFazio served as a Lane County commissioner.
As a congressman, DeFazio has spoken out against corporate greed and special interests, he said in the Dec. 1 press release. He lists several legislative pieces as part of his legacy, including passing Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, preventing former President George W. Bush’s privatization of Social Security, opposing free trade practices that affect American workers and asserting Congressional war power authority to stop wars during the 2000s.
DeFazio has generally been admired by Oregon environmental nonprofits for his work in protecting wilderness. However, environmental groups have also criticized DeFazio, such as his hesitancy to oppose the Jordan Cove natural gas pipeline in Coos Bay (he publicly opposed it in 2019) and his proposed O&C logging plan in 2012-2013.
According to his press release, during his tenure, he permanently protected 390,000 acres of Oregon wilderness, including the creation of the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness, Copper Salmon Wilderness, Newberry National Volcanic Monument, Steens Mountain Wilderness, Oregon Caves National Monument and River Styx.
“I want to enjoy the wilderness that I created,” DeFazio said in his press conference.
Many of DeFazio’s political peers commented on his decision to not seek re-election, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying he’s known and respected by all as a champion of sustainable, smart and green infrastructure.
“His legislative successes — including expanding preservation and conservation efforts, protecting affordable health care, advancing tribal sovereignty, rebuilding our highways, ensuring aviation safety and, most recently, helping pass the historic, once-in-a-century Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Build Back Better Act — leave an outstanding legacy of progress for America’s children and future,” Pelosi said. The Build Back Better Act is in the Senate and is being proposed as a budget reconciliation package so only a simple majority is needed to pass it.
Sen. Ron Wyden spoke highly of DeFazio’s work as a legislator in Washington in a Dec. 1 press release. “Peter DeFazio blends all the best qualities of a top-notch legislator — he’s an effective, passionate and powerful advocate who always puts the best interests of his constituents first,” Wyden said. “Thanks to Peter DeFazio, roads, bridges and transportation systems in Oregon and nationwide are stronger, last longer and are cleaner and greener.”
However, DeFazio has been unable to secure the Senate votes under the chamber’s current party divide to pass his infrastructure bill that he previously said was directed at America’s upcoming existential crisis: climate change. DeFazio told EW that his infrastructure bill was the “Green New Deal,” though Republicans called it the “Green New Deal 2.0.”
Among the programs in his infrastructure bill was funding to transition all U.S. buses from fossil fuels to electric power and to increase infrastructure that encourages people to use more sustainable transportation — like biking, walking and using scooters.
DeFazio was assumed to win the Democratic nomination for his congressional seat in 2022 and was likely to have a rematch against Alek Skarlatos.
With 13 months left in DeFazio’s term, DeFazio said in the press release that he will still work toward passing Biden’s signature Build Back Better Act, which he said “will bring down costs for families, create jobs, fight the climate crisis and help Americans get ahead.”
And if Trump returns to the campaign trail, DeFazio said he’ll be loudly reminding voters “about how destructive that man was to politics.”