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Straight Talk: Rep. Peter DeFazio reflects on 36 years in Congress

DeFazio has endorsed Oregon Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle to succeed him in the 4th District and said he's confident she can win.

PORTLAND, Ore. — U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, has a lot of things he's looking forward to when he retires at the end of this term. 

He wants to cruise the Intracoastal Waterway in the boat he's been living on in the DC area for the past 14 years. He'd love to, once again, hike Devil's Staircase in Oregon's coastal rain forest, a wilderness area he helped to protect.

"That's the hardest day hike I've ever done in my life. There's no real trail. It's true untracked wilderness," DeFazio said.

He wants to run some of Oregon's rivers, go back to the Oregon Caves and write the book about threats to American democracy he's been collecting notes on for years.

RELATED: Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio announces retirement, won't seek re-election in 2022

Credit: KGW Staff
U.S. Rep. Peter Defazio, D-Oregon, talking with KGW in 1988.

"I've been throwing things in a folder for a couple of decades but never had time to organize them. But retirement may give me the opportunity," he said.

He's especially looking forward to enjoying more time with family and their rescue dog, a black lab named “Liddy,” DeFazio calls the “sweetest dog ever.”

After 36 years representing Lane County and much of Southwest Oregon, DeFazio announced in December he would not seek a 19th term. 

He is the longest serving House member in Oregon history and the 65th longest in U.S. history. He was a guest on this week's episode of "Straight Talk" to reflect on his congressional career and his plans for retirement.

Still a lot of work to do

Before he retires, DeFazio said there's a lot of work to do. He heads up the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. 

As the Chair and an undisputed leader on transportation issues, DeFazio helped craft the bipartisan infrastructure bill and shepherded it through the House. Key provisions were stripped out in the Senate version but he said the Biden administration is looking at ways to still implement some of them.

RELATED: Oregon Rep. DeFazio calls Biden's infrastructure plan the biggest thing in 100 years

"Now the administration is going to attempt to plug those things back in as they give grants and distribute the funds... I am going to be working very closely with them on how this money gets spent and try to get back in some of the things I had in my version of the bill," he said.

Build Back Better and the midterm elections

In addition, he believes it's critical for Democrats to get a version of President Biden's "Build Back Better" bill passed. The bill, now stalled in the Senate, includes funding for social programs, something President Biden has called "human infrastructure" and also includes funds to reduce the effects of climate change.

RELATED: 'I can't vote for it': Sen. Joe Manchin rejects Dems' $2T bill, potentially dooming it

Credit: AP
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio, right, speaks during a news conference with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., center, and Richmond (Va.) Mayor Levar Stoney, left, Wednesday, May 12, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

"We need to get a version of "Build Back Better" over the finish line and to the President's desk. It's very ambitious in terms of the proposals that would touch every American," he said.

DeFazio said eventual passage will be important to Democrats' chances of retaining majority control in Congress. There's wide speculation Democrats could lose their slim majority in both chambers of Congress in the midterm elections in November. DeFazio thinks Republicans shouldn't celebrate too soon.

"I think the Republicans are measuring the drapes way too early. And I love their over-confidence. I've got to tell you, they're not going to get my district," he said.

DeFazio endorses Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle in 4th District Race

DeFazio faced one of his career's toughest races in 2020 against Republican opponent, Alek Skarlatos. 

It became the most expensive Congressional campaign in Oregon history. DeFazio ended up winning that race by close to 6 percentage points and after redistricting, the fourth district is expected to be more favorable for Democratic candidates. 

RELATED: DeFazio v. Skarlatos: Oregon's most expensive US House race ever goes down to the wire

This week, DeFazio endorsed Oregon Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle to succeed him in the 4th District. But he said the race will be tough.

"It's not a slam dunk for anybody and we need someone who can win in that fight... I've endorsed Val Hoyle, our Labor Commissioner, and she is going to keep the district," DeFazio said.

Several other Democrats have filed to run in the Democratic primary and Alek Skarlatos is running again in the Republican primary.

The time was right

DeFazio said the time was right for him to retire. After he helped get the bipartisan infrastructure bill to the President's desk and signed into law, he felt he'd accomplished one of his most important goals.

"I got my last major objective that escaped me since the Obama administration done this year. Not exactly in the form I wanted but we got it done," he said.

Credit: AP
House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis Kathy Castor, D-Fla., left, and House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., walk through the Hall of Columns at the Capitol as House Democratic chairs gather for a meeting with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., in Washington, Wednesday, March 27, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

He pointed to two other accomplishments that signaled to him it was the right time to step away. He was able to set up the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund to protect Oregon coastal communities, something he'd worked on for decades; and completed the investigation into Boeing following two deadly crashes.

"Most everything I've been looking to get done I got done and it just seemed a good time," he said.

DeFazio’s Congressional pay increases went to scholarships

When asked about accomplishments he's proud of during his more than three decades in Congress, he highlighted helping his constituents. DeFazio consistently refused to accept congressional pay increases and instead used them to benefit Oregonians.

"It's not a legislative accomplishment but I've given nearly 300 scholarships to workers getting retrained, trying to get a leg up, going to community colleges," he said.

Beyond that, he said he has a long list of accomplishments some that will live on long after he's left Congress but most of all he's grateful to have served Oregonians.

"I appreciate having had the privilege of serving Oregon and Oregon's 4th Congressional District for 36 years. Thank you all," he said.

DeFazio also talked about the effort to pass voting rights legislation, his failed fight against the Wall Street bailout and his opposition to free trade agreements.

Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 6 p.m., and Sunday at 9:30 p.m.

Straight Talk is also available as a podcast.

WATCH: Rep. Earl Blumenauer talks COP26 climate summit in Glasgow

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