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Nunn Decides Against Seeking Reelection in '96

October 10, 1995|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Dealing a heavy blow to his party's efforts to regain power on Capitol Hill, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) announced Monday that he will end a legislative career that has spanned a quarter-century of change in the Democratic Party, in the South and in the Senate as an institution.

Nunn, a leading voice for conservative Democrats and his party's premier spokesman on defense issues, joins a stampede of Democrats--mostly moderates and Southerners--leaving Congress next year. More than half of the Senate Democrats up for reelection in 1996 have announced plans to retire, many of them from seats that will be hard for their party to hold.

Nunn's retirement marks the passing of an era, as he prepares to leave a political world far different from the one that first sent him to the Senate in 1972, when the South reliably elected Democrats, when Congress was less partisan, when the seniority system rewarded men like Nunn who moved cautiously to secure their power bases and legislative niches.

But the 57-year-old senator portrayed his decision to retire as a personal one, not as a product of disillusionment with the changed political world. "I know in my heart it is time to follow a new course," Nunn said during a press conference in Atlanta. "Today I look forward to more freedom, to more flexibility, more time with my family."

Nunn did not discuss his specific plans for life after the Senate, but said that he hopes to remain active in public policy. He did not rule out a future run for political office.

"At this point in time, I think this will be the end of my legislative career," Nunn said, "but I do not in any way foreclose on some other endeavor in political life at some point in time."

Nunn told reporters that he does not want to stay in the Senate "until called back by the grim voter or the Grim Reaper. I wanted to make sure I don't stay beyond the time that I can approach every day with the zest and enthusiasm that's required to do the job."

Indeed, while Nunn remains one of the most respected members of the Senate, some analysts said that he may have passed the peak of his influence within the Senate and the Democratic Party. The defense issues that are his stock in trade have faded in importance since the end of the Cold War. While Nunn was frequently rumored to be a candidate for top Cabinet posts and even for President, he never pursued those paths to greater prominence.

"Democrats like to point to him as someone who had respect but they certainly weren't ready to follow him," said Thomas Mann, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution think tank here.

In the wake of his retirement announcement, Nunn drew praise from Democrats and Republicans alike.

"Although Sam and I did not agree on every issue," said Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), "we were able to reach across party lines on many occasions in the interest of a stronger and safer America."

Although Nunn was not always in sync with the Clinton Administration--he opposed the effort to lift the ban on gays in the military, for example--the President responded to Nunn's announcement with praise. Clinton cited Nunn's efforts "to move beyond established political rhetoric to new policies that reward responsibility and work to strengthen families and communities."

After months of private agonizing about his future, Nunn had been expected to announce his decision to retire last Tuesday, the same day that the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced. But with the personal encouragement of Clinton, Nunn postponed his press conference rather than compete for attention in the post-verdict media onslaught.

His decision brings the number of Senate Democratic retirements to eight--more than half of the 15 Democrats whose terms expire after this Congress. The Democratic retirees include only two traditional liberals, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island and Paul Simon of Illinois. The others are all Southerners or moderates: Bill Bradley of New Jersey, J. James Exon of Nebraska, Howell Heflin of Alabama, J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and David Pryor of Arkansas.

Like many of the other retiring Senate Democrats, Nunn leaves a seat that was considered safe for the Democrats only because he held it. Many analysts predicted that Nunn's seat will go the way of so many other seats in the Georgia delegation, which has seen a dramatic shift in favor of the GOP in recent years. Among the Republicans seen as possible candidates for the seat are Johnny Isakson, a state senator; Guy Millner, a businessman who narrowly lost a race against Gov. Zell Miller in 1994, and three congressmen--Mac Collins, Jack Kingston and John Linder.

Among Democrats, Georgia Secretary of State Max Cleland, a former head of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, is considered a likely candidate, although some Democrats may lean on Miller to run.

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