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Former 3rd District Rep. Don Bonker decries lack of moral leadership, courage in politics

More than 30 years later, Democrat revisits 14 years as member of Congress in political memoir, ‘A Higher Calling’

By , Columbian staff reporter
2 Photos
Former Congressman Don Bonker, center, and his daughter, Dawn Elyse Bonker, talk with Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon in August 2011 at a dedication ceremony for the Nancy Russell Overlook at Cape Horn in the Columbia River Gorge. Bonker cites former U.S. senator and Washington Gov. Dan Evans, a Republican, as someone who showed political leadership and courage with his support of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act.
Former Congressman Don Bonker, center, and his daughter, Dawn Elyse Bonker, talk with Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon in August 2011 at a dedication ceremony for the Nancy Russell Overlook at Cape Horn in the Columbia River Gorge. Bonker cites former U.S. senator and Washington Gov. Dan Evans, a Republican, as someone who showed political leadership and courage with his support of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

When former Congressman Don Bonker scans the political landscape, he sees a lack of decorum, courage and moral leadership.

It’s been more than 30 years since the Democrat represented Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, from 1975 to 1989. He gave up his House seat to run, unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Senate in 1988, followed by another unsuccessful Senate bid in 1992.

“When I served, it was a time of civility among the congressional leaders,” Bonker, 82, said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., where he continues to work for the APCO Worldwide consulting firm. “There was trust and respect. They had their differences, but they realized they had to work together for the best interests of the country.”

He traces political polarization to the 1994 election, when Republicans scored huge wins and gained control of both the House and Senate. Democrat Tom Foley of Spokane was the first House speaker in 132 years to lose a re-election campaign, and Republican Newt Gingrich of Georgia replaced him.

“He (Gingrich) made it clear he was not interested in bipartisanship,” Bonker said. “He just laid the groundwork, and it has gotten much more worse in the last three years.”

Bonker, who recently wrote his political memoir, “A Higher Calling,” splits his time between Washington, D.C., and a home on Bainbridge Island.

In his book, Bonker highlights 10 people he worked with during a political and business career that started when he was elected Clark County auditor in 1966 at age 29. One of those selected for his “profiles of character” was Foley, whom Bonker describes as “my mentor and also role model that inspired me to do more and serve with honor.”

Another is Doug Coe, who presided over the National Prayer Breakfast for 50 years. Coe was widely respected for bringing people together from different political beliefs and religious faiths, Bonker said.

“No one had more influence on my life than Doug Coe,” he wrote. “He had no position, no title, never became a household name, yet Doug was well known and highly regarded by 10 U.S. presidents, congressional leaders, foreign dignitaries, prominent American and international businessmen.”

Bonker attended Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast and heard President Donald Trump use the nonpartisan religious event to attack political opponents and question their faith, one day after the Senate acquitted him in the nation’s third presidential impeachment trial.

“As everybody knows, my family, our great country and your president have been put through a terrible ordeal by some very dishonest and corrupt people,” Trump said during the prayer breakfast. “They have done everything possible to destroy us and, by so doing, very badly hurt our nation.”

“I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” Trump added. “Nor do I like people who say, ‘I pray for you,’ when they know that’s not so.”

Coe, who died in February 2017, represented “the spirit of reconciliation,” Bonker said.

“What we experienced today was not only something different but disheartening,” he said hours after the event. “Doug Coe, he was a very forgiving person, but he would have felt some betrayal in terms of his vision.”

Denver to Vancouver

Bonker was born and grew up in Denver, raised by a single mother after his father walked out on the family. “A Higher Calling” traces portions of his life, starting after his return to Colorado following a four-year stint in the U.S. Coast Guard.

A pivotal change came when Bonker was contacted by his father, a man he barely knew, who offered to help put him through college if he moved to Vancouver. He first attended Clark College, then Lewis and Clark College in Portland.

His future took another turn when he was selected to become a research intern in Washington, D.C., for Sen. Maurine Neuberger, D-Ore., who later encouraged Bonker to pursue his plan to run for Clark County auditor.

Bonker was anything but a shoo-in. David Lasher, the county Democratic chairman and father of future Clark County Treasurer Doug Lasher, told him the Democrats already had a candidate and sternly warned him to back off or “your career will be over before it is started.”

Bonker was ready to heed his advice, until he returned home and saw that his father had spent the day painting “Don Bonker for County Auditor” signs in the backyard.

Faith and politics

Bonker also had a different introduction to The Columbian. Don Campbell, the paper’s publisher at the time and father of current Publisher Scott Campbell, wanted to meet the young candidate. The first question he blurted out was, “Are you a homosexual?”

Bonker, embarrassed by the question, replied that he was not. The incumbent auditor, Republican Bruce Worthington, was gay and was being pressured to give up his office.

“The Republicans kind of pushed him out,” Bonker said in the phone interview. “And because I was single, it was circulated that ‘he must be another’ — they didn’t even use the word gay then.”

Campbell told Bonker that he had heard speculation about his sexual orientation at the Royal Oaks Country Club. He said he would push back on these rumors, but he also advised Bonker to have a woman by his side during campaign appearances.

Five years later, Bonker married Carolyn Ekern, who has been his wife for nearly 49 years. She said yes to his proposal only after Bonker made a personal commitment to God.

“My decision not only affirmed my proposal to Carolyn, but it implanted a faith that became central in my life going forward,” Bonker wrote. “That faith is at the core of all decisions.”

Bonker, who was re-elected county auditor in 1970, challenged Republican Secretary of State Ludlow Kramer in 1972 but lost. He soon had another opportunity to move up the political ladder when Congresswoman Julia Butler Hansen unexpectedly announced her retirement.

Riding a pro-Democratic wave after President Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, defeated Kramer in a rematch. At age 37, he was part of a big incoming class of freshman Democrats.

Political risk

In “A Higher Calling,” Bonker pays tribute to Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., a man he believes could have been president when he arrived in Congress in 1975. Hatfield, who had spent eight years as Oregon governor before winning a Senate election in 1966, was considered a rising GOP star and a strong candidate to be Nixon’s running mate in 1968.

There was one problem: Hatfield, an avowed pacifist, was vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War.

Bonker, in the phone interview, said Hatfield was approached to see if would reverse his position on Vietnam or at least tone down his opposition.

“Hatfield felt so strongly about this issue that he couldn’t go along,” he said.

Instead, Nixon chose Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew, who resigned in 1973 after pleading no contest to income tax invasion following an investigation into contractor kickbacks Agnew had pocketed earlier in his political career. Nixon selected House Minority Leader Gerald Ford of Michigan to replace Agnew, and Ford became president nine months later after the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign.

Another politician Bonker singles out in his book is former U.S. Sen. and Washington Gov. Dan Evans. Evans’ Republican base was solidly anti-environment, but that didn’t prevent Evans from supporting the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act, the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Act and other landmark efforts, Bonker said.

“To me, that was political leadership,” he said. “Courage and accomplishing the best, at political risk.”

Bonker sees relatively few people today willing to put their political futures on the line as Republicans jettison long-held positions on trade, Russia and moral values to align themselves with Trump.

“Trump has changed everything on the Republican side,” he said. “They have abandoned their own party’s doctrine to follow Trump’s lead.”

Pillars of democracy

Bonker said he is most concerned about “undermining the pillars of our democracy” and listed three “that are starting to crumble”:

• An independent press that holds elected officials accountable.

• Fair elections and respect for the process so losing candidates do not contest the outcome.

• Rule of law and independent judges with integrity.

“Today, President Trump is nominating political operatives who have law degrees because he sees the judicial system not as independent but something he can control,” Bonker said.

Despite a rather gloomy assessment, Bonker sees hope. He praised Republican John Kasich, the former Ohio governor who ran against Trump for his party’s nomination in 2016, and Democrat Carolyn Long, who is making her second try this year to defeat Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, for Bonker’s former congressional seat.

During his time in Congress, Bonker said he could raise most of his campaign money within the 3rd Congressional District. Representatives today face enormous pressure from lobbyists, political operatives and fundraisers who reward those who fall in line and punish those who don’t.

“I am hopeful the book will be an inspiration for younger people who want to go into politics and public service, that they really feel they have a sense of values and principles that will give them the moral leadership,” he said.

Columbian staff reporter