18-term Democrat Rep. Norm Dicks of Wash. retiring - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

18-term Democrat Rep. Norm Dicks of Wash. retiring

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SEATTLE (AP) - Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks, a former college football player who cast a huge presence over state and national politics for more than 30 years, announced Friday he'll retire at the end of the year after 18 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"I have been thinking about this for years. At some point you have to retire. I just decided this was the right time," Dicks told The Associated Press.

The top Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, the 71-year-old lawmaker has a reputation as a staunch advocate of the Pentagon and is a defender of Boeing Co. and its unionized workforce. The aerospace company employs thousands of people in his district. "It comes as a surprise. He's been a mainstay of the Washington delegation for so long now, it's hard to imagine the delegation without him," said Sandeep Kaushik, a Seattle Democratic political consultant who has worked on congressional races in Washington state.

Over the years, Dicks has been skilled at "earmarking" pet projects like roads and community development grants to his northwest portion of the state. But Republicans controlling the House have banned the practice, much to the disappointment of lawmakers on the spending panel who had controlled earmarks and awarded themselves an outsized share.

Dicks earned a reputation over the years as an inside player, popular with Democrats and Republicans alike on the clubby panel. "I have rarely had the chance to work with someone of his decency, strong work ethic, jovial character, and honesty," said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky. "Norm has never hesitated to work together to maintain the comity and spirit of bipartisanship that is the hallmark of the appropriations committee."

Dicks said he's particularly proud of the work he's done to protect the waters of Puget Sound and Hood Canal and help restore the downtowns of Tacoma and Bremerton, the main cities in his district. And he said his most recent term has been very productive. "We had a great year in 2011, with winning the tanker competition," Dicks said of the U.S. Air Force decision last year to have Boeing build its new fleet of aerial refueling tankers.

The $35 billion contract was a big plus for the Seattle-area economy. Dicks' 6th Congressional District included many blue-collar towns across Puget Sound, west of Seattle, and stretched to the Pacific Ocean. It did not significantly change after last year's redistricting process, and Dicks was expected to be easily re-elected this year.

His retirement could provide an opening for Republicans, who might have a chance in a district they haven't seriously contested for in years. "I think it's a seat that the Democrats ought to retain. I think we're going to have to put forward a strong and credible replacement. Whoever that is, is going to have big shoes to fill," Kaushik said.

Dicks was a guard and linebacker at the University of Washington, playing on a Rose Bowl team in 1961. He graduated with a degree in political science from the school in 1963, then got a law degree in 1968. Before being elected to the U.S. House, Dicks served for eight years on the staff of longtime Washington Democratic Sen. Warren G. Magnuson, a towering figure in state politics throughout much of the 20th century.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called Dicks an "institution in Washington politics." "He has carried on a great tradition, following in the footsteps of his mentor, Senator Warren Magnuson," she said in a statement. Gov. Chris Gregoire said Dicks "will leave behind a legacy that is unmatched."

Dicks said he was ready to see more Husky football and basketball games "and do a little more fishing."