Democrats Resist Retirement Pull

Posted December 3, 2010 at 6:35pm

Several veteran House Democrats insist that a return to the minority won’t push them into retirement, even though historical trends suggest a wave of Democrats won’t seek re-election in 2012.

After the GOP lost the majority in 2006, 27 Republican House Members retired or sought other office in the next two years. During that same time, only three Democrats retired. The question now is whether Democrats, after surrendering 63 seats on Election Day, will have the same problem.

“Democrats should be braced for a significant number of Members to retire,” a senior Democratic aide said.

“When the reality of being in the minority sets in, I think Democrats need to be prepared for a very aggressive effort to keep Members here,” the aide said.

But many veteran Members insist they have no plans to leave, including Rep. John Dingell, who in February 2009 became the longest-serving House Member in history. Asked last week about his plans, the 84-year-old Michigan Democrat, who was just re-elected to his 28th full term, said, “work like hell, protect the health bill, look out for consumers, protect Social Security, protect Medicare from the Republicans who want to privatize both and look after the people of my district, see to it that we get first-class consumer services.”

Rep. Louise Slaughter, who turned 81 this summer, said becoming the ranking member on the Rules Committee again after four years in the majority was not making her think about tossing in the towel.

“Listen, I’ve got work to do, and it doesn’t matter where I’m sitting,” the New York Democrat said. “It matters that I can help my constituents and represent them. … No, I’m not going away mad.”

Other lawmakers, such as Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), dismissed the question entirely. The 70-year-old Democrat, who was just elected to his 16th term, said that it was too early to think about retirements.

Rep. John Conyers, who is expected to take on the ranking member role on the Judiciary Committee, agreed. The 81-year-old Michigan Democrat, who faces personal issues, including his wife being sentenced to three years in prison after being convicted on bribery charges, was recently elected to his 24th term.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Conyers said in answer to the question.

Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra predicted there will not be a big wave of Democratic retirements.

“If you take a look at the membership, we have a lot of folks who are still very active, I think, still have quite a bit to give to the country,” said the California Democrat, who at age 52 is a decade younger than the next youngest member of elected Democratic leadership, Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.). “I don’t think anyone who really believes that they still have some fuel in the tank is going to say, ‘no.’ I think folks came back ready to do some more work.”

Still, Larson acknowledged in an interview that there is concern about a swell of retirements going into the minority.

“Every cycle you worry about that,” Larson said, but he noted that the Democrats who made it through the last election cycle have “proven to be durable.”

This cycle’s retirement season could also be complicated by redistricting.

Rep. Dale Kildee, who may be affected by redistricting in Michigan, said there is always heightened concern every 10 years.

“There’s a certain awareness when your district is going to change,” Kildee said.

But the 17-term Michigan Democrat, who turned 81 this fall, said he doesn’t have his eye on retirement.

“I have no plans now,” Kildee said. “I just won my re-election. I’m more focused on my election that was just a month ago.”

The average age of Democrats in the next Congress skews slightly older than Republicans (59.1 for Democrats to 53.6 for Republicans), but there are nearly twice as many septuagenarians and octogenarians in the Democrats’ ranks, raising questions about whether some of those folks might soon head for the exits. Democrats will have 29 Members older than 70 in the next Congress. Republicans will have 15.

The top three members of Democratic leadership — Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Steny Hoyer (Md.) and James Clyburn (S.C.) — are all in the 70-and-over club and are significantly older than Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio), who celebrated his 61st birthday last month. Boehner’s two top lieutenants — incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and presumptive Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) — are 47 and 45 years old, respectively.

The senior Democratic aide predicted that even some members of the Democratic leadership might ponder retirement but pointed out that many of the remaining older Democrats are in politically safe districts, a factor that could work in Democrats’ favor. Some of the Democrats in conservative-leaning districts who might have been open to retirement considerations as members of the minority — Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton and South Carolina Rep. John Spratt — will already be gone. Both lost their re-election bids on Nov. 2.

Returning Democrats in competitive districts will likely face pressure to commit to running again by late summer or early fall, if not sooner.

“I doubt it will be immediate, but I do think — if they are sitting in a seat that would at all be competitive — they would want to give the committee time to recruit a good replacement,” the senior Democratic aide said.

Republicans say they are less worried about a rush of Members leaving, but there still are some potential retirees, according to Republican aides and K Streeters. Their watch list includes Reps. Ralph Hall (Texas), Bill Young (Fla.) and Don Young (Alaska).

Don Young has already publicly stated that he intends to run for re-election in 2012, and Bill Young, 80, said that although he has had health problems over the past year, he still has work to do.

And Hall, who will be the oldest House Member in the 112th Congress at age 87, still views his retirement day as far in the future.

“Someday. I never say never,” Hall said. “I’m campaigning right now for the election in two years.”

“I have stamina,” he added. “I can outwork most anyone here.”

Amanda Allen contributed to this report.