Rep. LaTourette retires, says the partisan ‘toll’ is growing too heavy

Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) lamented the demise of bipartisanship in Congress as he announced his retirement on Tuesday, saying the acrimony in Washington had come to outweigh the benefits of being a congressman.

The nine-term lawmaker, a close ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), presented himself as the latest casualty of a toxic political environment that has driven other centrist members out of the Capitol in recent years.

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In a press conference in his home district, LaTourette said the partisan environment “no longer encouraged the finding of common ground.” Compromise, he said, had become “a dirty word” in Washington.

“The time has come for not only good politics, but good policy,” he said.

LaTourette retires at the end of his current term as one of the last remaining centrists in the conservative House Republican Conference. He had become increasingly disenchanted with the GOP’s hard-line position on taxes, speaking out on the need for a “grand bargain” on the deficit and disavowing Grover Norquist’s pledge against tax increases, which he had signed when he first ran for the House in 1994. He was also the rare Republican strongly supportive of labor unions.

A onetime senior member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, LaTourette denied reports that he quit over a dispute with the Republican leadership over committee assignments. “That really is a red herring,” he said. He added that even if his friend Boehner had offered him the chairmanship of the committee “on a silver platter,” he would have come to the same decision.

But LaTourette did not hide his displeasure over the failure of Congress to pass a five-year transportation bill earlier in 2012.

“I was horribly disappointed by how the transportation reauthorization went,” he said. LaTourette had worked with Boehner to achieve significant reforms in a far-reaching highway bill, but when the legislation came out of committee, he emerged as one of its most vocal critics, citing cuts to mass-transit funding and other provisions favored by conservatives.

The bill ultimately never got off the House floor, and House Republicans were forced to agree to a two-year transportation bill that closely resembled a version passed by the Senate.

The outcome, LaTourette said Tuesday, “was an embarrassment to the House of Representatives.”

LaTourette also decried the politics that go into selecting committee chairmen and party leaders, where fundraising and partisan loyalty are rewarded. He said one unnamed colleague told him that if a member wants to move up the ranks, “you’ve got to give them your wallet and your voting card.

“I’m not interested in giving them my wallet or my voting card,” he said.

Still, LaTourette said, it was the toll of the job and the growing polarization — and not the committee post — that caused him to retire. “It may not be as exciting as a fight with John Boehner or palace intrigue or something like that, but that’s what it is,” he said.

In a statement after LaTourette’s announcement, Boehner said, “Steve LaTourette is a close friend and an effective legislator who has served the people of Ohio with passion and unrivaled wit for nearly 20 years. As dean of the Ohio delegation and a key voice on matters of spending and infrastructure, Steve has fought for common-sense reforms to eliminate duplicative programs, cut red tape and help create a better environment for private-sector job growth.”

Boehner said Republicans were “in good position to hold this seat.”

LaTourette said his phone “rang off the hook” on Monday night after his decision leaked to the press, and that Boehner was one of the callers. He said many people urged him to reconsider his retirement and stay in Congress, but that ultimately they understood his reasons.

“It makes you feel good on a very tough day,” LaTourette said.

He said he had a narrow window to make the decision and allow Republicans to replace him on the ballot, and quipped, “I’ve decided to jump out the window.”

Democrats held up LaTourette’s departure as a validation of their claims that a Tea Party-infused GOP is purging itself of moderates.

“The Tea Party Republican majority now has a sign outside their meeting room — ‘No moderates allowed,’ ” said a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Jesse Ferguson, in a statement. “Even Republicans in Speaker Boehner’s own delegation are jumping ship because of this extreme agenda that forces out moderates, embraces radicalism and bans common sense.”

LaTourette’s retirement came as a surprise to Democrats and Republicans alike, and prompted statements of praise from across the political spectrum. Rep.

Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), the liberal stalwart in a neighboring district, said LaTourette had been his “partner on almost every significant issue facing northern Ohio.”

“Steve LaTourette is a congressman, but more important, he is my friend,” Kucinich said.

Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett predicted the GOP would hold the seat this election, especially if perennial candidate Dale Blanchard (D) remained the Democratic nominee.

The state has already held its congressional primary, so county chairmen will choose the GOP nominee. Bennett rattled off a half-dozen possible candidates: Judge Tim Grendell, former Ohio state Rep. Matt Dolan (R), Ohio state Sen. Frank LaRose (R), U.S. Marshal Pete Elliott (R) and former state Rep. Jamie Callendar (R).

A senior Democratic strategist said the party was “assessing the situation” in the district and it was unclear whether it could find another nominee and convince Blanchard to drop out.

Blanchard said he would definitely remain a candidate — and that he hadn’t heard from Democratic leaders either in Ohio or in Washington, D.C.

“If they ever ask me [to drop out] I’ll become a Republican; I’ll be that angry. I’ve always been a Democrat, and I don’t understand why they’d ask me to do that,” he said. “A big N-O to that. There’s no way I’m dropping out. If there was a better candidate, they should’ve run, don’t you think? Where were they? I would not surrender the position I have if asked.”

Blanchard said he’d “obviously be grateful” for any assistance national Democrats could provide but said if help weren’t forthcoming, “we’ll keep pressing on.”

Bennett predicted the goal of the GOP county party chairmen would be to pick someone who could hold onto the district in future elections.

“It’s a competitive district that leans slightly Republican, but it’s no 70 percent district; it’s barely a 50 percent district for us,” he said. “Prior political electability within the area will weigh on it.”