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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Don Bonker, former Southwest Washington congressional representative, dead at 86

Democrat served Wash.’s 3rd District from 1975 to 1988

By Carlos Fuentes, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 31, 2023, 7:16pm
5 Photos
Former Congressman Don Bonker, center, and Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer speak after a recognition reception for the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Act on Aug. 13, 2011, at Skamania Lodge.
Former Congressman Don Bonker, center, and Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer speak after a recognition reception for the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Act on Aug. 13, 2011, at Skamania Lodge. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Don Bonker, who represented Southwest Washington in Congress for 14 years, yet rarely missed his children’s phone calls or baseball games, died Tuesday in Silverdale. He was 86 years old and had been diagnosed with cancer of the gall bladder last week.

While representing Washington’s 3rd District from 1975 until 1988, Bonker helped establish the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge and the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. He served as a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

A Democrat, Bonker served on the President’s Export Council and helped pass the 1988 Omnibus Trade Act, as well as the Export Trading Company Act and the Export Administration Act. In Clark County, where he had served two terms as county auditor, he helped the city of Vancouver acquire Officers Row from the federal government.

“He had a great gift of bringing people together for common purposes and common good,” said his wife of more than 50 years, Carolyn Bonker. “I had a private name for him — he was my Energizer Bunny because he was just always charging off trying to figure out how to help.”

Born March 7, 1937, in Denver, Bonker was raised by a single mother. After high school, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard, serving as a yeoman first class from 1955 to 1959 before coming to the Pacific Northwest to pursue his education.

He received his associate of arts degree from Clark College in 1962 and his bachelor of arts from Lewis & Clark College in 1964 before launching into the world of politics.

A natural politician

Bonker was elected Clark County auditor in 1966, before his 30th birthday, and re-elected in 1970.

“He was amazing. He changed the county auditor’s office,” said Ron Dotzauer, a close friend who met Bonker during his 1972 campaign for secretary of state. “He talked me into running. Everybody in Clark County wanted to be county auditor because of Don Bonker.”

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Bonker was a natural politician, Dotzhauer said, who could command the energy of a room simply by walking into it. His acumen and wit attracted others toward him, helping to launch the career of several politicians, Dotzhauer said.

Bonker lost his bid for secretary of state but decided to run for Congress in 1974. He received 60 percent of the vote.

“He was the kind of politician that we rarely see today. He believed in honorable behavior. He believed in honorable politics, and he believed in compromise,” said Betty Sue Morris, Bonker’s 1982 campaign manager.

Neither Dotzhauer nor Morris could recall ever seeing Bonker angry, though Morris remarked, “He hated when people were late.” Bonker’s family said he was an optimist and rarely got angry at anything or anyone.

“Just the computer,” said his son, Jonathan Bonker.

While in Congress, Bonker became an expert in international trade and economics, serving as a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade.

“I admired Congressman Bonker for taking a leading role on international trade and helping establish the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge and the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement. “Our state is more prosperous and our natural places better protected thanks to the legacy of Congressman Bonker.”

The Bonkers had two children, Jonathan and Dawn, who said their father never let his accomplishments outshine their own.

“It didn’t matter if he was walking the halls of Congress or with an ambassador of this or that,” Dawn Bonker said. “What mattered to him was his family and his relationships, his commitment to people and building community.”

After serving seven terms in the House of Representatives, Bonker decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 1992. He lost to another first-time Senate candidate: Patty Murray.

A fast-paced life

After leaving political office, Bonker remained fascinated by international trade, leading him to become president of the International Management and Development Institute, a nonprofit that brought foreign officials together to discuss foreign issues. In 1989, he became a member of APCO Worldwide’s International Advisory Council, where he eventually served as executive director.

Later in life, Bonker was able to focus on the things that made him happy: golfing, spending time with friends, reading, and writing books about foreign trade and economics.

“My own achievements on international trade, human rights, preserving our natural resources happened only because of bipartisan support,” Bonker wrote in his 2020 autobiography, “A Higher Calling: Faith and Politics in the Public Square.”

“Not so today. In the Halls of Congress and beyond (social media), it is more about radical partisanship and the special interests that reigns amok over our political system — a traumatized Congress, verifying what we don’t want to hear: this is democracy at its worst.”

Memorial arrangements are pending.

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Columbian staff writer