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Hyde Retirement Decision Looms

With House Republicans seeking to keep retirements to a minimum, GOP leaders in Illinois and on Capitol Hill are anxiously awaiting a decision from Rep. Henry Hyde on whether the veteran lawmaker will seek a 17th term in 2006.

Although GOP insiders stress that the 80-year-old International Relations chairman has not revealed his plans to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), there is little expectation in Republican circles that Hyde will run for re-election.

He is likely to make a decision sometime in early summer, but in the meantime both parties are preparing for a competitive race to succeed him.

Hyde will be forced to relinquish his gavel at the end of this Congress — barring an unlikely waiver from Hastert — and he is not in line for any other chairmanship. He previously chaired the Judiciary Committee and rose to national prominence when he served as chief House manager of the Clinton impeachment proceedings.

Hyde’s health has also declined in recent years, and he has appeared on retirement watch lists for at least the past three cycles. He is the second-oldest Member of the House behind Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), who is 81.

“There’s considerable speculation that Mr. Hyde will retire at the end of his term, which will create a significant battle for an important open seat,” said one Illinois GOP operative.

A spokeswoman for Hyde said her boss continues to enjoy his job and that he has yet to indicate anything other than his desire to remain in Congress.

“Something he’s always told me is that he plans to continue serving as long as the people allow him to continue serving,” Hyde spokeswoman Jennifer Palmer said.

Palmer added: “I think he really takes it one day at a time and tries to not get too far ahead of himself because he’s got so many things on his plate to worry about.”

But back in Hyde’s suburban Chicago 6th district, would-be successors are already quietly feeling out support in the event Hyde does decide to forgo another term. The 6th district is made up mostly of DuPage County but also takes in portions of suburban Cook County.

Among Republicans, state Sens. Dan Cronin and Peter Roskam are viewed as the leading contenders in the event Hyde vacates the seat.

Cronin, 45, appears most likely to get the support of the GOP establishment and Hyde’s organization, if the Congressman decides to endorse in the race. State Sen. Kirk Dillard, chairman of the DuPage County GOP, and DuPage County Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom will also likely back Cronin.

Cronin, a leader on education issues, has faced tough battles before, having defeated three incumbents over the course of his state legislative career.

Roskam, meanwhile, is a favorite of religious conservatives. As a state Representative he ran for an open seat in Congress in 1998, losing the GOP primary to now-Rep. Judy Biggert.

Other Republicans who have put out feelers and are considering running to replace Hyde are Elmhurst Mayor Tom Marcucci, Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson and state Sen. Carole Pankau.

Hyde’s endorsement would likely be highly influential in a crowded GOP primary, considering the cost-prohibitive Chicago media market. Cook County GOP Chairman Gary Skoien said he would not be surprised if Hyde does decide to endorse a successor, much the same way that outgoing Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.) backed now-Rep. Mark Kirk (R) in a multicandidate 2000 primary. Skoien also argued that Kirk’s primary battle made him a stronger candidate in the hotly contested general election.

“This is going to be a competitive race like the Kirk seat,” Skoien said. “A primary may not be the worst thing to happen.”

Democrats, encouraged by evidence that the district is trending their way politically, are vowing to make the race competitive.

Christine Cegelis (D), an information technology consultant who lost to Hyde by 11 points in 2004, is preparing to run again regardless of what the Congressman does.

Despite the fact that Cegelis was underfunded and got little notice from national Democrats, Hyde won 56 percent of the vote, a dramatic drop from the 65 percent he garnered in 2002. It was only the second time since first winning in 1974 that he has dipped below 60 percent of the vote.

Cegelis is looking to freshman Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.), who defeated 17-term Rep. Phil Crane (R) in the neighboring, GOP-leaning 8th district, as a role model. But Republicans warn against drawing undue parallels between the two districts and their circumstances.

“Congressman Hyde is very different from Congressman Phil Crane in the fact that Henry continues to make every event that he can in his district and Henry is a leader and very active Member of the U.S. Congress,” said Dillard, the DuPage GOP chairman. “His situation both in the district and in the nation’s capital is very different from Phil Crane.”

Addison Township Chairman Pat Durante, a longtime employee in Hyde’s district office, concurred, adding that his boss is more visible than many local office holders in the district.

“People think Henry is their Alderman instead of their Congressman,” he said.

Hyde remains a well-respected figure in the House even after being forced to admit a decades-old affair during Clinton’s impeachment. Durante held out the possibility that he might decide to stick around for another term, despite the loss of his gavel.

“Henry Hyde is an extremely influential individual; there is no way that Henry Hyde is going to be sitting in the dark, back in his office, without Members calling up and asking him how he’s going to vote,” Durante said. “I don’t think you necessarily have to be a chairman if you’re Henry Hyde.”

Durante said Hyde has indicated he will make a decision about his future by May or June.

Illinois’ December 2005 filing deadline is the earliest in the country. Candidates can begin collecting petition signatures as early as October for the March 2006 primary.

Both Dillard and Durante acknowledged they have had meetings and conversations with Republicans interested in succeeding Hyde, although all want to be respectful of his timetable.

“Henry is such a revered figure he should be able to go out any way he wants to,” Dillard said. “Whether it’s two years from now, or four years from now, or six years from now.”

But if Hyde does decide to exit in 2006, Durante said he’ll walk out “with his head up.”

“He’ll say, ‘I came, I saw, I conquered,’” he added.

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