A Marshall scholar who went on to get his Ph.D. in comparative social policy at Oxford, Kilmer is now a Washington state senator who has not completely shed his academic past — in February 2011, he starred in a five-minute educational YouTube video for the state senate Democrats about infrastructure.
Now he is running for the House of Representatives in Washington state’s sixth district. For Kilmer, the run is the latest manifestation of a lifelong effort to help struggling industrial towns like the one in which he was born.
Port Angeles, Wash., has been heavily reliant upon the timber industry for generations. This dependency gave Kilmer quite a different upbringing than that of most other Princeton students, said J.J. Balaban ’96, Kilmer’s roommate in college who now creates television ads for the Democratic Party.
“It was just culturally, fundamentally different from other people we went to college with,” Balaban said. To say he grew up from the area around Seattle “would be like someone saying they grew up in New York City when they really grew up outside Binghamton.”
According to Kilmer, the timber industry “took it on the chin” during his high school years. He saw his parents and many of his neighbors lose their jobs as a result.
This experience shaped Kilmer’s ambitions as a student, he explained. “The main reason I chose to go to Princeton was so I could study public policy,” he said. He was one of the few people in his town to study out of state.
College friends said they remember Kilmer as being generous and warm and note that he was also a hard worker with a clear focus on his studies.
“There wasn’t a ton of fooling around,” said Jonathan Goldman ’96, a lawyer who was Kilmer’s roommate and good friend. “We’d go to Hoagie Haven and get hoagies and hang out and just talk.”
On occasion they would go to the eating clubs, where Kilmer was known to do “goofy dances,” Goldman said.
Kilmer was involved in student government as the president of his junior class and the vice president of his freshman, sophomore and senior classes. He was also a coordinator for Urban Action (now Community Action), a participant in Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week and a bassist in the pit orchestra for the Princeton University Players. He won the prestigious Pyne Prize his senior year.
While he always had an interest in politics, Kilmer was not an active participant in the various political organizations on campus.
“He wasn’t like a political hack or anything,” Goldman said. “It’s not an academic exercise or a platform for him.”
Kilmer wrote his senior thesis — titled “Recovering From the Addiction: The Social and Economic Impacts of the Pacific Northwest Timber Crisis” — about his hometown and its economic state.
One of his main goals of the paper was to determine how to diversify the economies of cities such as Port Angeles.
“It’s really hard for a one-legged stool to stand,” Kilmer said. “That leg is the natural-resources industry, and while it’s important for that leg to be strong, you need more legs.”
Goldman said that as Kilmer’s roommate he would overhear Kilmer interviewing members of the timber industry over the phone to do research for his thesis. The conversations would go on for hours and, to Goldman’s amusement, often end with Kilmer turning down spontaneous offers of employment.
Despite his passion for policy, Kilmer — who worked as a consultant at a non-profit focusing on economic development after graduate school before running for the state senate — was not always sure he wanted to go into national politics.
“I don’t know that I always wanted to run for office,” Kilmer said. “I knew that I wanted to make a difference and help people get back to work.”
The decision to run for Congress came after some deliberation and what Kilmer calls “the most serious dinner conversation of our marriage” with his wife. There, in good policy-wonk fashion, they weighed the pros and the cons.
On the one hand, Kilmer said he felt he had something to offer in bad economic times. On the other hand, he added that he thought Congress was “a total mess” and questioned his ability to implement change in that system. On top of that, he has two daughters, Tess and Sophie, whom he did not want to abandon for a 3,000-mile commute.
Ultimately, it was those daughters who swayed his decision.
“Maybe those are the reasons to do it. Congress is a mess, and we have two little kids. We were worried about what kind of country they’d grow up in,” Kilmer said.
Balaban said he was not surprised by Kilmer’s decision to run.
“The idea of running for Congress is an outgrowth for what his day job was at the economic development board in Pierce County,” Balaban said.
Kilmer is currently running against Bill Driscoll, a descendent of the Weyerhaeuser timber family who made news recently by putting $1 million of his own money into his campaign. The most recent polls show Kilmer with a 15-point lead in the race.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/24/31622/