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Woolsey Eyes Exit; 2012 Looms

Rep. Lynn Woolsey is considering retirement, giving several contenders a chance to represent the safe Democratic district in California. Woolsey, who would be 75 by Election Day in 2012, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat last month that she wanted to make it known early so potential successors could begin introducing themselves to the Bay Area district.

Woolsey, who led the Congressional Progressive Caucus for the past several years, will make her decision in June, spokesman Carl Rauscher told Roll Call on Tuesday.

“She really has not made up her mind,” Rauscher said of his boss, who begins a 10th term today.

Early retirement indications help potential candidates get organized, and Woolsey’s looming deadline was set with that in mind.

Woolsey represents heavily Democratic Marin and Sonoma counties, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from the  San Francisco district of incoming Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D). Elbowing will begin early with the rare opening of a safe seat.

State Assemblyman Jared Huffman has already made known his plans to run should Woolsey retire and has opened an exploratory committee.

“The feeling here in the North Bay is that this probably is not a drill,” Huffman told Roll Call. “So that’s why I’m not being coy at all. I am opening my committee, I am seeking support and funds, and am off and running.”

Huffman said he’s “sure it will be a crowded field.”

The Press Democrat reported that other potential candidates include state Sen. Noreen Evans, Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane and Petaluma Mayor Pam Torliatt. California voters just approved a measure that would implement an open primary system, allowing the top two finishers from either party to advance to the general election.

With the party now in the minority, Woolsey will be one of many Democrats on retirement watch. A combination of age, re-election vulnerability and lack of desire to serve in the minority again could prompt retirement decisions, while an added and important variable this cycle is redistricting.

Not counting those who sought other offices, about two dozen Republicans did not seek re-election in 2008 after Democrats won the majority in the 2006 midterm elections. In 2008, Democrats went on to increase their majorities in the House and Senate and to win the White House.

Unlike those Republicans in 2008, some Democrats this year could actually see light at the end of the tunnel since the GOP returned to the majority after just four years. With President Barack Obama back on the ticket in 2012, some could hold off on retirement talk for another term to see whether things turn around.

Thomas Mann, a Congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the number of Democratic retirements “will depend heavily on prospects for the party regaining control of the House and retaining the Senate.”

“An improving economy and successful encounters with Congressional Republicans in 2011, as well as tolerable boundaries in the redrawing of their House districts, could lead many potential Democratic retirees to stick around,” Mann said. “If all three factors turn south, expect a rush to the door.”

Facing a daunting 2010 midterm election cycle, several Democrats in tough Southern districts retired rather than engage in a potentially brutal fight. The question now is whether more will be on the way after Republicans stormed back to control.

Reps. Barney Frank (Mass.), Louise Slaughter (N.Y.) and John Conyers (Mich.), three long-serving Democrats who will be losing their committee chairmanships with a move back to the minority, told Roll Call last month that the change in power has not yet led them to think about retirement.

Likewise, a spokesman for Rep. Edolphus Towns, the outgoing chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Tuesday that the 15-term Brooklyn Democrat was not thinking about retirement at this point.

However, redistricting likely will have an effect on retirements in some states, including Massachusetts. Democrats hold all 10 seats in the Bay State, which will lose a district in reapportionment, forcing one Member out.

The loss of districts in New York, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio and others could also pinch Members from either party not willing to put up a fight in a new district.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), whose district could be one of two that the state is losing in reapportionment, spelled out the concern in an e-mail to supporters last week: “The question will not be: Who is my opponent? The question will be: Where is my district?”

On the Republican side, the ages of several Members have led to rumors of potential retirements, including Reps. Ralph Hall (Texas), Howard Coble (N.C.), Jerry Lewis (Calif.) and Bill Young (Fla.), though none have publicly indicated their thinking. Hall will be chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in the 112th Congress. Young has said he expects to be named chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

Ambition will be another leading factor in GOP retirements, with Reps. Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Dean Heller (Nev.) and Mike Pence (Ind.) among those believed to be considering bids for higher office.

Rep. Charlie Rangel hinted last month that this could be his last term. The New York Democrat, who has served in the House for half his life, told the New York Daily News, “I do realize that I’m 80 years old.”

Rangel was censured last month for ethics violations and previously lost his seat at the head of the Ways and Means Committee while under investigation.

Like Woolsey, Rangel’s district is in no danger of going Republican. But if he is on his way out, Rangel indicated he would like some say in who comes next, mentioning three names to the Daily News: state Assemblyman Keith Wright and state Sens. Adriano Espaillat and Robert Rodriguez.

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