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Central Valley Congressman to Retire in '04

The Democrat, active in a coalition that has challenged the party's liberal positions, will not seek reelection.

September 03, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Rep. Calvin M. Dooley of Hanford, a Democrat from the Central Valley who has tried to push his party toward the political center, announced Tuesday he would not seek reelection to Congress in 2004.

Dooley, surprising many supporters, said he would retire after seven terms in the House to pursue a new career and to make way for fresh talent in the district as he turns 50 in January.

"It is time to allow others to serve," Dooley said. "Our institutions of government are enhanced by the influx of new people with different experiences, new perspectives and new vigor."

Dooley's departure will cut into the already-thin ranks of centrist Democrats in an increasingly polarized House. He was a founding member of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of lawmakers who have challenged the party's liberal orthodoxy on a range of issues.

The coalition's heyday came during the presidency of Bill Clinton, a longtime leader in promoting more moderate views among Democrats. Now the group's influence seems on the wane as many of the Democratic presidential candidates -- especially former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean -- argue that the party needs to more clearly differentiate itself from the Bush administration.

"The politics that dominated the Democratic Party in the 1990s is shifting and we're moving into another era," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network, a political fund-raising organization.

Dooley, first elected in 1990, said he was worried by that trend. "I'm concerned that a lot of the rhetoric the majority of the Democratic presidential candidates are using is that of the old liberal Democratic mantra," he said. "That's a prescription for disaster."

Dooley most often found himself at odds with his party on international trade issues. Reflecting the interests of his farm-based district, he strongly supported efforts to promote free trade with other countries. For instance, he was one of 25 Democrats to vote last year for increased presidential power in negotiating trade agreements.

Also, in House votes in 2001 and '02, he sided with President Bush's position more often than any other Democrat from a western state, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Quarterly.

Dooley, whose district stretches from Fresno to Bakersfield, has been a maverick within the California congressional delegation as well as within his party. He was one of only two of the state's House Democrats who did not immediately back Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) in her successful bid late last year to become House minority leader.

Earlier this summer, he was among the first prominent Democrats to call for the party to line up behind an alternative in case Gov. Gray Davis fails to survive the Oct. 7 recall election. In late August, Democratic members of the state's House delegation endorsed the candidacy of Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante as a backup.

Dooley's House district was redrawn after the 2000 census to increase its number of Democrats, and party officials in Washington expressed confidence they could hold the seat next year.

"We are not worried about the seat," said Kori Bernards, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Dooley won reelection last year with more than 63% of the vote. In the 2000 vote, before the district was redrawn, he was held to 52%.

Democrats mentioned as potential successors include Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes and former state Sen. Jim Costa, both of Fresno. Dooley is encouraging his longtime chief of staff, Lisa Quigley, to run.

Republicans say they will not let the seat go uncontested -- especially since only a handful of House incumbents nationwide are expected not to seek reelection next year.

Targeting Dooley's district "is clearly something we're going to take a long look at," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the GOP's National Congressional Campaign Committee.

With Dooley's announcement, California will have at least two open seats among its 53 House districts. Earlier this year, Rep. Doug Ose (R-Sacramento) said he would retire.

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