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Dooley Exit a Trend?

House Democratic leaders insist they’re confident that Rep. Cal Dooley’s (Calif.) surprise retirement Tuesday does not herald a host of other departures this cycle for a party that’s facing an uphill climb to overcome its minority status.

Democrats have thus far held onto their incumbents, even though they are 12 seats from the majority and lost ground in the 2002 election. In addition to Dooley, just two other Members have announced plans to leave the chamber in 2004, including presidential candidate Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and Senate hopeful Rep. Joe Hoeffel (Pa.).

Leaders say while they did not anticipate Dooley’s retirement, they are not expecting his decision to spark a wave of exits. While some House Democrats are eyeing a run at another office, most of the senior Members have insisted they are sticking around, including Reps. David Obey (Wis.) and John Dingell (Mich.).

“We’re not worried, but we’re certainly going to keep our eye on it,” said Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I have been talking to Members, and I’m sensing most of them will stay.”

House Democrats are especially concerned about incumbent departures given the already-large gulf they have to take back the chamber. Any open seat puts them at risk to fall even further behind.

“We’re always surprised when a young Member wants to retire,” Matsui said. But he added that the 49-year-old Dooley has “another 20-plus years of good work ahead” and understandably wanted to seek new challenges.

Dooley shocked many in the Caucus when he announced Tuesday he was leaving the House at the end of his seventh term. The centrist Member known for working with both sides of the aisle was a founder of the New Democrat Coalition who carved out a niche on technology and trade issues.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Dooley called him Monday night to inform him of his decision to leave, which he said was not indicative of a trend among Democrats.

“I think he just decided it was time to do something else in his life,” Hoyer said. “It was a personal decision. I don’t think we are going to have many Members fall into that category.”

Members praised Dooley for his hard work, intellect and commitment to developing public policy.

“Cal Dooley has served his constituents, our country and the Democratic Party with distinction for almost 14 years,” Hoyer said. “His retirement will be a loss for the Democratic Caucus and the House as a whole.”

House Democrats are confident Dooley’s Central Valley seat will remain in their column, considering that a majority of voters in the district are Democrats and that in 2000 the Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore carried 56 percent of the vote. While the district is considered safe for Democrats, Republicans held Dooley to just 52 percent of the vote in 2000, but that was before the district lines were drawn to the Democrats’ benefit.

Dooley said he recognized the importance of announcing his intentions early to allow a viable Democratic candidate to get in the race. Already three Democratic names are being floated to replace Dooley, including his Chief of Staff Lisa Quigley, state Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes and former state Sen. Jim Costa.

Quigley has worked for Dooley since he entered Congress in 1991 and is also a former aide to then-Rep. Tony Coehlo (D-Calif.), who represented an adjoining district.

“Cal’s encouraged me to run and I’m examining that right now,” Quigley said Tuesday. “I’m putting together the elements of the campaign and I’ll have more to say in a few days.”

Quigley comes from a politically active family in the Central Valley. Her father is a former mayor of Merced, and her mother was president of the local school board. Quigley, who has two young children, is married to Larry Harrington, who was a director of the Inter-American Development Bank under former President Bill Clinton.

Although Quigley is registered to vote in California, she is not a resident of the 20th district — a fact that Reyes, who has represented half of the Congressional district in the Legislature for six years, was already pointing out on Tuesday.

“Nobody knows who she is,” said Reyes, who was a college administrator and local TV reporter before entering politics.

Reyes said she would also announce her decision about running for the seat in a few days and is already calling local party leaders and national interest groups.

Costa, who spent 16 years in the Assembly and eight years in the state Senate before retiring in 2002, did not respond to telephone messages Tuesday. He is currently a director of the Maddy Institute of Public Affairs at Fresno State University.

Dooley said if Quigley jumped in the race “I would be supportive” of her candidacy, but also praised the other would-be contenders.

“I think any of these three would assure Democrats maintain the seat,” Dooley said.

Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the open seat could be appealing to the GOP.

“They made it a little better for Democrats in redistricting, but it’s still a fairly moderate district, and if they run someone who’s too liberal we could be competitive there,” he said.

Political timing aside, Dooley said his decision to leave in 2004 “was almost entirely driven by personal considerations.”

“I had the opportunity to be a farmer for 14 years prior to my election to Congress and I’ve been honored to serve in Congress for the last 14 years,” Dooley said in a phone interview. “I can imagine no greater honor or opportunity than the past 14 years, but I’m also interested and excited about starting a third career at the end of this term.”

Insiders speculate Dooley will move into the private sector, though he does not yet have a job lined up. They also suggested Dooley may ultimately seek statewide office in California or land a position in a Democratic White House.

“Reading between the lines, it sounds like he wants to make more money,” said one Democratic leadership aide.

Several Democratic Caucus sources said Dooley’s closest friends expected the retirement, given he stepped down as co-chairman of the New Democratic Coalition in 2002. Those same sources also speculated Dooley may have wanted to move on after never landing a slot on an exclusive or top-tier committee, and failing at an attempt to become Caucus vice chairman in 1998.

“Those people around him who knew him were not surprised,” said one senior Democratic staffer.

One of Dooley’s close allies and a fellow New Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), called him a “terrific Member and a terrific leader.”

“I think I speak for all the Members of the New Democrat Coalition when I say that he will be missed,” Smith said. “However, Cal has been passionately committed to good public policy throughout his time in Congress and I am confident he will continue to be active in some capacity even after he retires.”

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