Profiles of Effective LawmakersCongress

Building Civic Bridges with Rep. Derek Kilmer

June 12, 2024

In the realm of politics, where bipartisan cooperation often feels out of reach, Representative Derek Kilmer (D-WA) stands out as a pragmatic and compassionate young leader. With his impending departure from Congress, Future Caucus spoke to Kilmer about his strategies for transcending partisanship to build a more robust democracy and his advice to young lawmakers who wish to carry on the legacy of civic bridge-building.

“We’re not in there holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ or closing our eyes and doing trust falls,” Kilmer says of the Bipartisan Working Group, which he has co-chaired since 2017. “We stopped doing that after we dropped a guy.”

Kilmer, who plans to retire this year at the end of his sixth term in Congress, considers the working group emblematic of the opportunism and intentionality needed by lawmakers who want to transcend the polarization wracking the nation’s capital. Every week, 12 Democrats and 12 Republicans, whom Kilmer describes as “ideologically all over the map,” convene for a working breakfast where they pitch policy ideas, discuss goings-on in Congress, and engage an outside speaker on the day’s most salient issues.

“Those can be feisty conversations,” Kilmer admits, “but I’m increasingly of the belief that good democracy is like a good relationship. You have to be able to talk to each other and listen to each other and not have every interaction turn into The Jerry Springer Show.”

While the working group itself is limited to an hour each week, Kilmer is a nonstop advocate for constructive debate and dialogue not just in Congress, but in communities across America. This is the spirit of the Building Civic Bridges Act (H.R.6843), which he introduced two years ago in a bid to establish federal support for strengthening social cohesion and building bridges across lines of political, social, and religious difference in the United States. 

The bill, which is currently sitting with the House Committee on Education and Labor, was borne of the interfaith solidarity that Kilmer experienced following a spate of religious violence in Washington state, including an arson attack on the Islamic Center of Tacoma, the assault of a 68-year-old Buddhist nun outside the Khmer Theravadin Buddhist Temple, and the vandalizing of three Catholic churches in Seattle. Following the attacks, faith leaders of different religions organized an event to denounce hatred and violence. A local religious leader approached Kilmer after the event to ask how they could transform the principles evinced that day into policy. Was there federal support for such an initiative?

Some digging revealed that there was… just not in the US. Every year, the federal government spends tens of millions of dollars on social-cohesion and bridge-building efforts in other countries through the National Endowment for Democracy, which was created during the Reagan Administration to strengthen global democracy and freedom. Kilmer believed that, unlike Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O’s MTV hijinks, we should probably try this at home.

Working with organizations like Convergence, Interfaith America, and others, Kilmer developed legislation that would provide federal grants to local bridge-building programs, support academic institutions conducting research on polarization and how to counter it, and train AmeriCorps members in conflict-resolution and bridge-building skills.

Earning the buy-in of 24 bipartisan cosponsors took a lot of legwork, Kilmer remembers. This is one of his most urgent messages to young lawmakers who wish to narrow the partisan divide, rather than contribute to it: persuading colleagues across the aisle to convene on shared issues is a skill you can practice and learn.


First, listen. “Going around the room [at Bipartisan Working Group meetings] to talk about what’s going on in Congress that week, even when it’s a tough conversation, helps me understand why my colleagues are voting the way they are.”

Second, travel. Learn where people are coming from, not just figuratively, but literally. Kilmer says he’s benefited immensely both from visiting and speaking with folks in Republican-held districts, and from inviting Republican colleagues to visit his own district.

Third, have an endgame. In the early days of co-chairing the Fix Congress Caucus, Kilmer and his Republican co-chair convened a bipartisan planning retreat where they put a fundamental question to the caucus’ founding members: what does success look like?

Finally, take the wins. Finding common ground is rarely, if ever, an exercise in instant gratification. Kilmer recalls an especially poignant example following the insurrection of January 6, 2021, when the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress hosted a conflict-resolution expert to facilitate discussion among its members. Emotions were running so high, he recalls, that many members didn’t even want to attend the discussion–but they were glad they did.

“It was a hard conversation, but I had members, including those who didn’t want to participate, say, ‘I still disagree with the other side, and I’m still really angry about that day, but I’ll work with them,’” Kilmer recalls. “There’s this notion that ‘civility’ means that we’re all going to agree with each other, but that is not what it means. It means that we figure out where we can find agreement, and when we have disagreement, we disagree better.”

Rep. Sara Jacobs


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