Rep. John Doolittle announces his retirement from Congress |

Rep. John Doolittle announces his retirement from Congress

ROSEVILLE (AP) — Republican Rep. John Doolittle announced his retirement Thursday after a 17-year congressional career that took him from crusading conservative idealist to the top ranks of the House GOP.

It was there he got caught up in the scandal that would end his career.

Doolittle told supporters he would serve the remainder of his ninth term in the House but would drop his re-election bid for a 10th because he no longer loved his job.

After more than three years of maintaining his innocence while under federal criminal investigation in the Jack Abramoff lobbying probe, Doolittle said he realized within the past month that he did not want to serve in the House any more. His wife, Julie, also has been swept up in the investigation.

“Julie and I had a conversation, and I said to her, ‘You know, I don’t mind risking losing an election because we’ve taken that risk on various occasions in these nearly 28 years. But I really don’t like the idea of winning an election and then being obligated to serve two more years as a representative,’ ” Doolittle said during a news conference at a community center after telling supporters of his plans to retire.

“Once that came out of my mouth, which was a revelation to me at that point, I knew the decision was easy. I needed to not run again.”

Doolittle, 57, was facing mounting political pressure from fellow Republicans eager to cleanse themselves of the ethics clouds some blame for the loss of their House majority in 2006.

Many also worried that after a near-loss in his 2006 re-election campaign, Doolittle would not be able to hang onto his seat in November — even though it’s among the most conservative in California.

“John’s decision was made in the best interests of his family, his constituents and the House, and I appreciate his years of service in Congress,” House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement. “My prayers remain with John and Julie, and I wish them the best as they work to bring this difficult process to a resolution.”

Doolittle is contesting grand jury subpoenas for his congressional records as part of a larger dispute between Congress and the Justice Department over the scope of criminal investigations of lawmakers. That made it unlikely that his legal situation would be resolved before November’s election.

The status of the investigation hasn’t changed, and there have been no developments in the case that prompted Doolittle’s retirement, said his attorney, David Barger. Justice Department spokesman Paul Bresson declined comment.

Doolittle’s departure marks the end of an era in his far-flung district, which is mostly rural but also includes well-to-do suburbs surrounding the state capital. It opens the door to a fierce contest to replace him in a seat that was drawn to elect Republicans.

Former state Sen. Rico Oller, who has been a Doolittle supporter, immediately announced his candidacy for the June GOP primary.

“This is a very conservative Republican seat. It’s pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, and I suit this district very, very well,” Oller said.

Former GOP Rep. Doug Ose said he would consider whether to run.

“I’m not going to dance on John’s grave, so it’s going to take me some time to work through it,” he said.

Oller and Ose are independently wealthy and have been loyal to Doolittle, who said he would not make an endorsement.

Also in the race are Eric Egland, an Air Force reservist and political newcomer, and former Auburn Mayor Mike Holmes. State Assemblyman Ted Gaines of Granite Bay has formed an exploratory committee.

The eventual Republican victor likely will face Democrat Charlie Brown, who came close to beating Doolittle in 2006 and was sitting on a war chest of nearly $400,000 as of Sept. 30. That amount is about 10 times what Doolittle had available.

“I believe John did the right thing today for his family, for the 4th District and for America,” Brown said in a statement. “Now is the time to unite as Americans, heal our wounds and move forward.”

For years, Doolittle has served as the foremost political kingmaker in his district, which stretches from Sacramento’s suburbs through Placer County and the Sierra to border Oregon on the north and Nevada on the east.

He also has been chief dispenser of federal largesse from his seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which he was forced to give up after the FBI raided his Virginia home last April. Agents were looking for information about event-planning work his wife did for Abramoff.

“It’s a bit of a blow. For literally a generation, John Doolittle has been the backbone of the Placer County Republican Party,” said county Republican chairman Tom Hudson, a Doolittle supporter. “At every level, he’s had his hand on things.”

Yet even apart from his ties to Abramoff, the jailed GOP lobbyist whom Doolittle considered a good friend, some in his district had grown disenchanted with their representative.

Doolittle arrived on Capitol Hill from the California Legislature as a brash young conservative in 1991, joining the “Gang of Seven” Republican freshmen who broke open a House banking scandal.

He ran for a second term in 1992 on the slogan “Taking on Congress,” and complained that “the system … has lulled people into unethical conduct.”

In those years, Doolittle railed against “earmarks,” the pork-barrel federal projects lawmakers direct to their districts with little scrutiny.

But especially after joining the Appropriations Committee in 2001, he boasted of getting as many of them as he could for his district. He pushed money for highways, bridges and a controversial dam proposed for the American River at Auburn that, with Doolittle’s departure, is almost certain never to get built.

That push for federal spending led a top backer, former Placer GOP chairman Ken Campbell, to withdraw his support, accusing Doolittle of betraying his conservative roots.

“He’s changed,” Campbell said Thursday. “I think he came in there as a young idealist and he was going to change Congress. And really, Congress changed him.”

Doolittle became a close ally of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and a member of the House GOP leadership.

He met Abramoff after Republicans retook the House majority in 1994 and praised him as “a hard-charging conservative Republican.” Abramoff is cooperating with the government after admitting to bilking his Indian tribe clients out of millions of dollars.

Doolittle’s ties to Abramoff include interceding on behalf of the lobbyist’s tribal clients and accepting tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money from Abramoff and his clients, money that unlike other lawmakers he never got rid of it.

Abramoff’s firm employed Julie Doolittle for event planning work from September 2002 to February 2004, paying her a total of $66,690. Doolittle has said prosecutors seem focused on whether his wife did real work to earn the money. The fundraiser she was hired to plan ended up getting canceled after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

The Abramoff investigation already has led to a dozen convictions, including a guilty plea from now imprisoned former Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio.

— Samantha Young reported from Roseville, Calif., and Erica Werner from Washington, D.C.

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