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Mapmaking Stalls Retirement Plans

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Don’t believe it when  House Members insist they’re seeking re-election this cycle — at least until the ink is dry on their new districts.

Several lawmakers proclaimed that, of course, they would be back. But just days after his state’s map was signed, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) on Monday shocked his colleagues by announcing his retirement. Similarly in Texas, Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D) announced his retirement on Friday evening — just a few days after a federal court salvaged his 20th district on the proposed map.

The result? Surprises and potential headaches for party committees looking to avoid costly open-seat races. Nonetheless, many tenured Members are opting to wait until their new district is drawn to call it quits — much to the chagrin of their party colleagues. 

“I find in redistricting, Members tend to look after No. 1,” former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis (Va.) told Roll Call. “They rarely take one for the team.”

Party operatives expect many more retirements than the nine House Democrats and no House Republicans who so far announced they’re leaving after this Congress. Additionally, eight Democrats and seven Republicans are leaving the House after this Congress to seek another office.

Even if a Member has vehemently ruled out retirement, that could change once he or she first campaigns in a redrawn district.

It’s no coincidence Frank announced retirement one week after Gov. Deval Patrick signed the new Massachusetts map into law. Frank signaled he’d seek re-election back in February, but on Monday, he said the 325,000 new constituents in his district caused him to reconsider.

“This decision was precipitated by Congressional redistricting, not entirely caused by it,” Frank, 71, told reporters at a Massachusetts news conference. “I was torn. But then the new district came out.”

Frank’s acerbic wit and sharp debating skills have gone hand-in-hand with his high-level legislating. His exit was mourned by Capitol Hill Democrats and by President Barack Obama who called Frank a “fierce advocate” for the voiceless and credited him with the passage of the financial reform law bearing his name.

Massachusetts lost one seat in reapportionment, which would have forced one House Democrat into retirement if the entire delegation sought re-election. Rep. John Olver’s October retirement announcement made redistricting easier for mapmakers, who released their plan in November. But there’s little doubt the new Massachusetts map would look differently if Frank announced his intentions before his South Coast district was drawn.

In Texas, the federal court struck down a Republican-drawn map that dismantled Gonzalez’s San Antonio-based district and instead kept the 20th district largely intact in their interim plan.

Gonzalez protested the GOP’s original map and testified against it in court, only after which he said he seriously considered retirement.

“I wasn’t going to do anything until the court made its ruling on the interim map,” Gonzalez said in a phone interview. “Working real hard to maintain the 20th district wasn’t about Charlie Gonzalez, it was about the voters in the 20th district.”

At least two other Democrats made the same call to vacate Congress after this cycle, leaving their competitive districts wide open following their state’s redraw.

As dean of Illinois’ Congressional delegation, Rep. Jerry Costello (D) played a leading role in crafting his state’s new, aggressive House map. But five months after Illinois Democrats released it, Costello announced that he’s not seeking another term.

Costello leaves behind a competitive district, as well as a potential problem for House Democrats. National Democrats are still looking for a candidate to run in Costello’s stead against Jason Plummer, the GOP’s nominee for lieutenant governor last year, in that southwestern Illinois district.

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) pulled a similar stunt earlier this year. He lobbied state lawmakers to move his district into a new media market in the state’s northwestern corner as part of his groundwork for a potential gubernatorial bid. His district became more competitive in the process, putting Democrats in a pickle when Ross announced his retirement in July.

There’s no question that Democrats would have an easier time holding these districts — especially the competitive seats held by Costello and Ross — if they knew earlier this year that these Members were stepping down.

“The thing about retirements is you always have to expect the unexpected,” one senior Democratic aide said. “Because for all the planning that you do, there’s always going to be something you didn’t plan for.”

That’s why party officials are planning for a deluge of retirement announcements in the coming weeks. Traditionally, many Members announce their retirement after they’ve spent time with their families over the Thanksgiving recess and before the December holidays.

What’s more, finished maps in most states will force many Members to make decisions about their political futures.

The new Missouri map forces Rep. Russ Carnahan (D) to run either in a new, Republican-leaning district or on his own turf against Rep. William Lacy Clay (D) in a predominantly black district. Carnahan, 53, has not yet declared his plans, but he’s young enough to retire this cycle, save his campaign cash and run again when another seat opens.

Several North Carolina Democrats top the retirement watch list after a GOP-led redraw moved them into Republican districts or set them up to face each other in primaries. For that reason, Democrats are watching Reps. Heath Shuler, Larry Kissell and Mike McIntyre.

But two Tar Heel Republicans with lackluster fundraising could also be eyeing the exit — Reps. Howard Coble and Walter Jones Jr.

Republicans might also see more retirements in California after an independent redistricting commission overhauled the Congressional map. Reps. Jerry Lewis, David Dreier and Elton Gallegly top that list.

In Maryland, 85-year-old Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R) could retire instead of seeking re-election in a redrawn, heavily Democratic district. The GOP would rather give up the seat than try to fight for Bartlett in a hopeless effort.

Finally, Democrats are on the lookout for a potential retirement from Rep. John Conyers (Mich.) after Republicans dismantled his current district in their redraw earlier this year. Conyers has said he’ll mount a bid for another term, but also gave one of his political allies his blessing to challenge him in the 13th district primary.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans wish some of the older Members would step aside before the new maps are finished in Florida, New York and Pennsylvania.

If Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) retires, Republican mapmakers in the state Legislature could carve up his district to shore up nearby Rep. Gus Bilirakis’ (R) seat or make Rep. Kathy Castor’s (D) district more competitive.

The Empire State will lose two House seats following reapportionment, putting Congressional cartographers in a tough position unless someone in the New York delegation retires. Democratic Reps. Maurice Hinchey or Louise Slaughter could ease the burden on mapmakers.

Pennsylvania Republicans would benefit if Rep. Joe Pitts (R) retired. State Republicans are attempting to shore up GOP voters in two competitive districts bordering Pitts’ seat. But Pitts, the dean of the state’s delegation, insisted he does not want to give up much of his home territory to his colleagues.

“I think you’re going to see between now and the first of the year, a number of people announce retirement,” Davis said. “You get a new map, you get new constituents. It’s a lot of work to get to know this new area.”

Joshua Miller contributed to this report.

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