Veteran U.S. Rep. Ron Packard, known as a leader in cutting government spending, said Wednesday that he will not seek reelection next year, opening his largely Republican district to a crush of GOP hopefuls.
Packard, 68, said he will step down in January 2001, after 18 years in Congress, to spend more time with his family.
"I've spent a lot of time in public office, [and] we need some personal time of our own again," Packard said in an interview from Washington after informing his staff Wednesday morning. "I'm at the top of my career, and that's the way I'd like to leave. I feel very good about my decision."
Talk quickly shifted to possible candidates in the March primary to replace him. Among those considering it is former Rep. Robert K. Dornan, who lost his central Orange County seat in a bitter 1996 race against Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove).
Dornan's daughter, Theresa Cobban, who managed some of her father's campaigns, said no decision has been made. "But Team Dornan is in executive session," she said Wednesday from the family's Virginia home.
Other possible Republican candidates, according to state and county GOP officials, are Darrell Issa, who lost the GOP Senate primary to Matt Fong last year; Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian (R-Encinitas; Assemblyman Steve Baldwin (R-El Cajon; and state Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside).
Morrow scheduled a press conference today to announce his plans. Packard said he does not intend to endorse a replacement.
"Clearly, Ron Packard represents a district that is part of California's Republican heartland, and we expect a vibrant debate among the Republican community as to who should replace him," said Jon Fleischman, executive director of the state GOP.
The district covers south Orange County, north San Diego County and the city of Temecula in Riverside County.
California Democrats, meanwhile, were encouraged by the prospect of another open seat, and intrigued by Dornan's interest.
"We want Bob Dornan around forever to kick," Democratic official Bob Mulholland said from Sacramento. "This could be a great race."
Colleagues Laud Packard's Legacy
Colleagues were surprised Wednesday by Packard's announcement, though rumors circulated for weeks that the nine-term congressman might make this his last.
"Ron Packard is a consummate gentleman who lends dignity, and even more importantly, scrupulous honesty to all of his dealings with other members," said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), the fifth-ranking Republican in the House and Packard's district neighbor.
Packard, who in 1982 became only the fourth person to win a House seat as a write-in candidate, has been a key figure in scaling back government budgets, Cox said. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he chairs the energy and water subcommittee and sits on the transportation subcommittee, where he has helped to send millions in highway funds to Orange County.
In a sentiment echoed throughout the day by colleagues, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said Packard "has epitomized the term 'public servant.' "
"His efforts on the appropriations committee and his tireless work on behalf of his constituents are an example to all members of Congress," Hastert said in a statement.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) called Packard "a true gentleman who conducts himself with quiet dignity, and that has worked well for his district."
Because the district is solidly Republican, Packard's retirement is unlikely to create more problems for a GOP seeking to retain its five-vote majority in the House. It is one of 19 open House seats for Republicans in the 2000 elections; Democrats so far have five open seats.
The prospect of another Dornan race, however, is guaranteed to spike interest nationally. Dornan, who served 16 years in the House, is a prodigious fund-raiser with a national support base. He lost his seat in a tight, tempestuous 1996 race to Sanchez, who solidly defeated him in his attempt last year to regain the seat.
State and county GOP leaders privately criticized Dornan's possible candidacy, saying his time in office has passed. When Dornan ran unsuccessfully in the 1998 election for his old seat, for example, the endorsement of the Lincoln Club of Orange County, an influential group of GOP donors, went to primary challenger Lisa Hughes.
"I'm confident we can find someone who can carry on the Packard legacy," said National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Jill Schroeder.
An affable dentist and mayor of Carlsbad when first elected to Congress, Packard is the dean of the Orange County delegation. His 48th District runs mainly from Laguna Hills south to Vista in north San Diego County.
He made history in 1982 when he won the newly drawn seat as a write-in candidate after barely losing a rough 18-candidate primary. Republican nominee Johnnie R. Crean ran afoul of party leaders after he paid for ads claiming an endorsement he didn't have: that of then-President Ronald Reagan.