Don Bonker's political career began in 1966 when he was elected Clark County auditor. In his eight years in the position, he attracted attention by being one of the first county officials in the state to embrace new electronic voting technology. He subsequently served as a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Washington's Third District from 1975 to 1989 and became known for his work on the environment and trade. Among other environmental accomplishments, Bonker introduced legislation that led to the creation of the Mount St. Helens Volcanic National Monument, and he helped create the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. His work with trade while in Congress included chairing the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade, heading House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill's trade task force, and serving on the President's Export Council. After leaving Congress, Bonker continued his work in trade and gained recognition nationwide as an authority on international trade policy.
Donald "Don" Leroy Bonker was born in Denver, Colorado, on March 7, 1937, the second son of Warren Joe Bonker (1917-1990) and Margaret Collier Bonker (1914-2005). His brother, Dan (1936-2018), was 11 months his senior. His father soon left the family – 1940 Census records show him living in a boarding house in Denver – and Bonker was raised by his mother. Even growing up, he was focused and goal-oriented; his brother later remarked "[he] always knew he was going to go somewhere" ("Let the Record ..."). He went to school in Westminster (roughly ten miles northwest of Denver) and upon his 1955 graduation joined the U.S. Coast Guard, rising to rank of Yeoman First Class before his discharge in 1959. He returned to Colorado, but only for a year. His father, who had been largely absent as Don grew up, contacted him and offered help pay his way through college. But the offer came with a condition: He would have to move to Vancouver, Washington (his father's home since 1946).
It was his first of several pivotal moves. Bonker arrived in Vancouver in 1960 and graduated from the city's Clark College in 1962 with an associate degree. He earned his bachelor's degree in political science from Lewis and Clark College in 1964, then attended American University in Washington, D.C. and did graduate work in public administration. He was an intern on the staff of Oregon senator Maurine Neuberger's (1907-2000) staff in 1964 and 1965, then returned to Vancouver and ran for auditor of Clark County, Washington, in 1966. He won, and his obituary states that at age 29 he was the youngest elected official in the state that year.
Clark County Auditor
In 1967 the state legislature authorized three smaller counties in the state to use electronic voting, which at that time meant punch-card voting that could be tabulated on a computer. Punch-card voting machines were new in the late 1960s, and many people were leery of them. After the legislation passed, two counties took advantage of the new technology, and Clark County was one was one of them. It proved to be an effective cost-saving measure that soon spread to other counties and brought favorable attention to the young politician. Bonker was a delegate to the state's Democratic conventions in 1968 and 1970, and he was reelected Clark County auditor in 1970.
Marriage licenses are issued by the county auditor's office in Washington state, so it no doubt pleased Bonker when he issued his own marriage license the following year. On July 10, 1971, he married Carolyn Ekern (b. 1945) in Vancouver, Washington. He later said that she agreed to marry him only after he 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 writes in his book, A Higher Calling. But he was not effusive about his faith, and he had little patience for those who were. He once compared the Moral Majority (a U.S. political organization in the 1980s that was associated with the Christian right) to an ancient sect that believed it was morally superior to its peers, and he argued it was the church, not the state, that was responsible for society's moral standards. Don and Carolyn Bonker had two children: Dawn Elyse (b. ca. 1979) and Jonathan Todd (b. 1980).
Bonker's success in the auditor's office attracted the attention of the state's Democrats, who encouraged him to run for secretary of state in 1972 against Republican incumbent Ludlow "Lud" Kramer (1932-2004). He had his work cut out for him -- Kramer was a known and respected candidate with a proven track record. Bonker prevailed in the Democratic primary and ran a better race than expected in the general election, but Kramer won by more than a 7 percent margin. However, it was only two years later that the two men faced off again, this time in the Third District congressional race.
The seat had been held by Julia Butler Hansen (1907-1988) since 1960, but she chose not to seek reelection in 1974. Hansen, a well-respected legislator, was expected to back state senator Robert (Bob) Bailey (1918-2005), who had worked for years as her field representative. Though Hansen endorsed Bailey, she did not actively campaign for him. This left an opening for Bonker, who mounted an effective primary campaign against Bailey in the sprawling, 12-county district. (In 1974, the Third District covered a larger area in southern and western Washington than it does today , stretching from North Bend to Port Angeles.) Bonker beat Bailey in the September primary by more than 2 percent of the vote, and he was 5 percent ahead of the Republican primary winner, Lud Kramer.
One of the more memorable mistakes of the general campaign came when Kramer tried to mock Bonker's name with the campaign slogan "don't get bonked." To this day it's ridiculed as one of the state's worst-ever campaign slogans, but Kramer had bigger problems. First, at the time, the Third District was a Democratic district. Second, it was the autumn of 1974. President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) had resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal the preceding August. Voters were furious and not inclined to vote Republican, and Kramer was seen as standoffish and out of touch by some of his constituents. In contrast, Bonker was seen as engaged and honest, a fresh face for a constituency that was looking for one.
Congressman Don Bonker
Bonker won the race with more than 60 percent of the vote, focusing on his signature issue of log exports – plenty of trees were being cut down in the state, but they were being milled and processed elsewhere – and he argued against exporting unmilled logs from the state's public lands. He favored an expansion of health insurance and a moratorium on new nuclear plants. But he was no burning liberal – he also advocated for reductions in federal spending, as well as a balanced federal budget, issues usually favored by Republicans. The Seattle Times described him as a "moderately liberal Democrat" in a 1974 article ("Bonker Wins ...").
Bonker was sworn into the House on January 3, 1975, one of 92 new House members that he later said "represent a new mood, 'a government that is more responsive to the people'" ("Bonker Assures ..."). He served seven consecutive terms between 1975 and 1989, and had little trouble being reelected in each of his biennial campaigns. He proved to be a hardworking and effective legislator. One of his earliest assignments was the House Select Committee on Aging, a new committee formed in 1975 in part to provide solutions for housing and care alternatives to senior citizens. He eventually chaired the committee.
He became better known for his work on other issues, and one of them was the environment. He helped establish the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge in Hoquiam, and successfully argued to add Point of Arches and Shi Shi Beach, located on the Pacific Coast in northwestern Washington, to Olympic National Park. He helped preserve an old-growth red-cedar forest, Cedar Grove, which is located on Long Island in Willapa Bay in southwestern Washington. (One of the island's hiking trails is named after Bonker.) In 1982 he introduced a bill that led to the creation of the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. And he played a leading role in the creation of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, an 80-mile-long stretch of canyon where the Columbia River forms the boundary between Washington and Oregon.
Bonker went on to other, more powerful, assignments. He became a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and he chaired the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight (a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, now known as the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations). However, Bonker is best remembered for his work on trade. He served as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade, and eventually became an authority on U.S. trade policy. He headed House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill's (1912-1994) Trade Task Force, which led to the passage of the 1988 Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act. He also served on the President's Export Council, which serves as the principal advisory committee to the president on international trade and government policies and programs affecting U.S. trade performance. He became so interested in trade that he wrote a book while he was still in Congress titled America's Trade Crisis: The Making of the U.S. Trade Deficit, published in 1988.
Bonker did not seek reelection to the House in 1988, and instead sought the U.S. Senate seat that was being vacated by former governor Dan Evans (b. 1925). He faced off in the Democratic primary that September against Mike Lowry (1939-2017), a former King County councilman who had also served in the U.S. House of Representatives. (He later served as Washington's 20th governor.) In many ways the two men were similar, but the bombastic Lowry was better known in the state. Though Bonker's work on trade issues had brought him national recognition, this had not trickled down to state recognition; in a poll taken shortly after the primary, 30 percent of those who said they voted against him said they did so because they didn't know him, despite his 14 years in the House. This lack of name recognition contributed to his loss to Lowry by 6 percent in the primary.
Politics and Trade
Bonker left Congress in 1989 and joined the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials Worldwide (APCO) International Advisory Council, a public-affairs company, where he served as vice president and executive director. He also became president and CEO of the International Management and Development Institute, a nonprofit organization that focused on bringing officials from around the globe together to discuss worldwide issues and share ideas. He remained interested in politics, and in 1992 he again ran for U.S. Senate when the incumbent, Brock Adams (1927-2004), chose not to seek reelection after allegations of sexual misconduct.
Bonker ran in the Democratic primary against a newcomer, Patricia "Patty" Murray (b. 1950), who had only recently arrived on the political scene after being elected to the state senate in 1988. Initially championing herself as the "mom in tennis shoes," she quickly became a serious candidate while maintaining her rapport with the voters. Bonker was less successful in connecting. While his competence and integrity were not questioned, his studied approach hurt him with his constituents in two ways: He continued to have a problem with name recognition in the state, and some who did not know him well viewed his public restraint and his willingness to compromise with his opponents as aloofness and indecisiveness. Though lacking the fervor of the 1974 election, the 1992 election also was one in which voters were looking for change. Now Bonker was the establishment candidate, and Murray was the fresh face. He lost by nearly 10 percentage points in the primary that September.
Bonker continued at APCO through the 1990s, where he worked to help transition into a market economy the newly formed governments that followed the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, including the new Russian Federation. He also carried on his work at the International Management and Development Institute. By 2000, he was considered one of the country's top trade experts.
In 2000, Bonker once again ran for secretary of state. He comfortably won the primary in a field of five candidates and went into the autumn election with campaign themes of election-system reform and the promotion of export trade. He favored an open primary, where voters were not required to declare their party affiliation. He also argued that voting by mail (which was just beginning to gain acceptance in 2000) had been successful and should be encouraged. But his success in trade again did not translate into success at the polls. Both the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times endorsed his Republican opponent, Thurston County Auditor Sam Reed (b. 1941), and for similar reasons: Though recognizing Bonker's experience in trade and international relations, both papers suggested the next secretary of state should be more focused on issues directly affecting the state.
The election was on November 7, but it took more than two weeks to determine the outcome. The lead changed hands between the two candidates several times, but Reed was declared the winner on November 22, with a lead of slightly less than one-half of 1 percent of the vote, just within the margin required to trigger an automatic recount pursuant to state law. Bonker nonetheless conceded before the recount began, and the final result confirmed Reed's narrow victory.
Bonker returned to his home on Bainbridge Island. He continued to work as a consultant for APCO and served on the Columbia River Gorge Commission (dedicated to protecting the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic area) for years before retiring in 2019. Always something of a scribe, he continued writing for publications such as the Wall Street Journal and The Seattle Times, for which he wrote an op-ed just a year before his death. He also wrote his memoir, A Higher Calling, published in 2020. In the book he bemoans the loss of bipartisanship and civility in politics, and adds a cautionary note: "[Today] 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" ("Don Bonker, Former Southwest Washington ...").
He remained engaged until the end of his life, and a diagnosis of advanced gall bladder cancer in May 2023 was a surprise. Don Bonker died a week later, on May 30, 2023, in Silverdale.