Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) caused a bit of a stir when he announced he was not seeking re-election. Frank, a high-visibility member of Congress for more than 30 years, is in one of the safest Democratic districts in the nation. Yet he is not alone: there are several other Barney Franks fleeing the 112th Congress. Eight other veteran House Democrats who reside in safe congressional seats are throwing in the towel.
The problem isn’t merely in the House. Just this week, U.S. Senator Ben Nelson from Nebraska announced he won’t seek re-election this coming November. Nelson is one of seven Senate Democrats who have decided to “voluntarily” retire ahead of the 2012 elections. This is a repeat of the 2010 elections when a flood of Democrats decided to retire rather than face certain defeat.
The retirement of rank-and-file Democrats is an especially bad sign for the Democrats if they have any hope of retaking the U.S. House. The nine House retirements are even more notable because each ranks high in seniority for key House committees — if the House returned to Democratic rule, they would be in line to assume chairmanships. Chairmanships are great perks, offering hideaway offices in the Capitol building and less restrained power and authority. Voluntarily walking away from Hill leadership is uncommon: House members can sit for twenty years on the Hill and never get close to a chairmanship.
To Democratic Party faithful, the nine retiring congressmen present a dramatic picture of the hostile environment Democrats are facing as the 2012 election begins. Some of the retirees had easily won re-election with 60-70% majorities. Their stampede for the exit is yet another admission that the Democrats face a potential “wave” election, and of course, it portends considerable trouble for Barack Obama.
The accelerating House retirements come on the heels of last September’s special election in New York, where an unknown Republican defeated a popular Queens Democrat to take Anthony Weiner’s seat. The New York congressional district was Democratic for 80 years — registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans by a three-to-one margin.
Barney Frank is, of course, the headliner of this group: he is one of the best-known and most powerful Democrats outside of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), serving 16 uninterrupted terms. When the Democrats held the House during the first two years of the Obama administration, the Massachusetts Democrat served as the undisputed power at the House Financial Services Committee, muscling through many regulations that pummeled banks. His name is on the Dodd-Frank law, which threatens to impose new regulations on all financial institutions. The law is so complicated that, two years after its enactment, administration regulators still have failed to issue rules for methods of enforcement.
Including Frank, the departing group represents a wealth of experience that will not be easy to replace: The nine have served in office for a combined 172 years.
Most are like Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI), a House member for a whopping 18 terms. Kildee won office in 1977, the same year Jimmy Carter won the presidency. He is the second most senior member on the House Natural Resources Committee, sitting only behind vocal global warming advocate Ed Markey (D-MA). Kildee has always won election with at least 70% of the vote.
Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL) originally won office in 1988 with just 51% of the vote. Since then, he has garnered at least 60% each election. He was an early supporter of Barack Obama, and was a candidate to be his secretary of transportation. Costello is the second most senior member of the influential Science, Space and Technology Committee.
Rep. John Olver (D-MA) has served a congressional district with a Cook Partisan Voting Index of D+14. (The most Democratic state in the country is Vermont, which Cook cites as D+13.) He hails from Frank’s state of Massachusetts, and has been a reliable member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, following the lead of hardened progressive and former House Chairman David Obey (D-MI).
Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-TX) comes from an ultra-liberal San Antonio political dynasty that was headed up by his father, Rep. Henry Gonzalez. His father was far left-leaning and was once famously accused of being a communist, though he reportedly punched the accuser in the jaw for the remark. (A court exonerated the congressman.)
Gonzalez carefully groomed his son Charlie to succeed him in office. When Henry retired in 1988, Charlie easily won election and followed in the footsteps of his father.