Freshman snubs Hill for county board

Greg Nash

Could local politics now be more appealing than Capitol Hill? For Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Calif.), the answer is yes. 

The freshman congresswoman was one of two lawmakers who announced their retirements Tuesday, the latest reminder that life in the House has lost considerable prestige, especially with Democrats likely stuck in the minority after 2014. 

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Negrete McLeod said she was leaving to run for a seat on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors — where she would actually represent more people than in Congress — while longtime Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) announced Tuesday he’d leave Congress at the end of his term after losing a Senate special election last fall.

Both Democrats’ decisions underscore a frustration with how Congress is operating and a belief that neither the partisan divide nor GOP control will end anytime soon. 

Election to Congress may have once been seen as the pinnacle of a career, but for her and others, it’s often a stepping stone to more desirable jobs.

For Negrete McLeod, the difference in influence as one of just five supervisors in the populous county of more than 2 million versus one of 200 Democratic members stuck in the minority would be considerable. 

“I just feel I can be more useful here locally,” Negrete McLeod told The Hill Tuesday afternoon. “My influence will be a little bit bigger.”

While Republicans say the retirements are further evidence of unrest in the minority, Democrats argue there are still more House Republicans retiring than their own members. But they admit many feel a sense of frustration serving in a chamber seen as hyperpartisan and on the verge of dysfunction.

“There’s absolutely frustration on both sides of the aisle that nothing’s getting done in Congress,” said one senior Democratic House strategist. “This is a terrible job. Why would you stay? It’s so awful; nothing gets done. I think it’s about not being able to get anything done.” 

There are 11 Republicans and eight Democrats retiring from Congress. Ten other Republicans are running for office, compared to seven Democrats. 

The number of exits isn’t necessarily unusual. So far, 19 House members have said they won’t run again, and if history is a guide, that will continue to rise. In 2012, 25 members retired; in 2010, there were 32 who didn’t seek reelection, and in 2008, 27 members of Congress chose the exit. 

But some of the short-timers who have exited have raised eyebrows. While Negrete McLeod is the only retiring freshman, sophomore Reps. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) and Bill Owens (D-N.Y.) have announced their retirements.

Many Democrats privately acknowledge the House is unlikely to flip, underscored by retirements of senior lawmakers and former committee chairmen like Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and George Miller (D-Calif.) 

“The Waxmans and Holts of the world are leaving because it’s not a nice place to be, and that’s not going to change anytime soon for Democrats,” said one senior Democratic strategist. “If Henry Waxman thought he was going to be chairman, he would have fought to the death to still be there. ... It would take something catastrophic [on the Republican side] for us to win.”

Both Holt and Negrete McLeod faced unique situations. Holt had already sought, and failed, to win higher office, and with Democrats facing an uphill battle for the 17 seats they need for House control, he is unlikely to get a chairmanship anytime soon.

Vic Fazio, a former California Democratic congressman and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman in the 1990s, said Holt could have better options than Congress. The New Jersey Democrat is a rocket scientist and even defeated the computer Watson on “Jeopardy!” 

“He’s an erudite guy. There are probably a lot of things he could do out there in the nonprofit world that would be more intellectually stimulating [than Congress],” he told The Hill.

Fazio said Holt was representative of a wider problem facing lawmakers of both parties: dissatisfaction with the job.

“Nothing’s getting done; there’s no real willingness to try to find common ground,” he said. “You came to do policy, and all you do is politics.”

Negrete McLeod, on the other hand, had a long career in California politics — including a number of local positions — before challenging Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) in 2012. She and Baca have a decades-old mutual animosity, and some believe that’s what fueled her to run in the first place. With Baca defeated and a six-hour one-way trip to and from Washington, D.C., every week, it was little surprise the 72-year-old freshman might have found Congress less appealing.

“It’s a different beast out there in California. I’m not a fan of the six-hour flight, and I don’t know anyone who is, and being able to stay in your state with your kids and grandkids is a factor,” said Democratic strategist Travis Lowe. “I wouldn’t want to fly 12 hours a week to deal with John Boehner and that nonsense every week either.”

“San Bernardino is a very substantial county,” said professor Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College, which is near her congressional district east of Los Angeles. “In a position like that, you can see concrete results in a way you can’t as a minority member of the House. From her perspective the choice was face daily frustration and humiliation thousands of miles away or actually accomplish something for the people and sleep in your own bed at night.”

Republicans are beginning to crow that the retirements are the latest sign Democrats have given up on winning back the House.

“Clearly President Obama’s sales pitch at the Democrats’ retreat last week was a swing and a miss,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said. “Why would these Democrats retire if they’re really going to win back the majority?”

Former NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) said every member’s decision reflected a different reality — but Democrats’ slim chances at the majority are likely playing a role in some retirement decisions.

“It’s an individual decision. With some it’s frustration with Congress. With some, it’s that their chairmanship is up. With some, it’s ‘for all the things I have to do to go win this seat again, it’s hard to get motivated;’ we’re seeing those retirements.”

He also said politics have grown more brutal in recent years, likening it to professional football’s switch to faster artificial turf and the increased injuries it led to.

“Politics in Congress today is like playing on artificial turf versus grass. Sometimes in the contact sport of politics today, it shortens the tenure of one’s stay there,” he said. “A generation ago, where both sides stayed a complete generation, we’re now seeing people come and stay less time.”

 

Ben Goad and Alexandra Jaffe contributed.