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Craig's fall may upstage his career

The GOP senator of Idaho officially resigns. His men's room arrest puts an end to 27 years of work in Congress.

September 02, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In 27 years as a congressman and senator representing Idaho, Larry E. Craig built a long legislative record.

He played a key role in enacting a law that shields gun makers and sellers from lawsuits over misuse of their weapons. He helped broker a deal that led to legislation aimed at helping prevent forest fires. And he steered millions of dollars to his state for projects.

But four days, 19 hours and 42 minutes after the first report of his arrest in a sex-sting operation was posted on the Internet, his political career came to an end. He now faces the prospect of being remembered not for his legislative record, but for his police record.

On Saturday, Craig announced "with sadness and deep regret" that he would resign from the Senate at the end of the month. "What is best for Idaho has always been the focus of my efforts, and it is no different today," he said.

Craig explained that he hoped to withdraw his guilty plea for disorderly conduct and said that would be an "unwarranted and unfair distraction of my job and for my Senate colleagues."

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, who joined his former congressional colleague at a Boise news conference, was expected to appoint another Republican, most likely Lt. Gov. James E. Risch, to serve the remainder of Craig's term, which ends in January 2009.

Craig, appearing with his wife and two of this three children before perhaps the largest media gathering he has faced, again apologized for the events that abruptly and ignominiously stained his legacy as one of Congress' leading voices on Western issues.

"To Idahoans I represent, to my staff, my Senate colleagues, but most importantly, to my wife and my family, I apologize for what I have caused. I am deeply sorry," he said.

It was not clear whether Craig would fly back to Washington to join his Senate colleagues when they return Tuesday from their monthlong summer recess.

Craig, 62, who served about 17 years as a senator after 10 years in the House, went into a political free-fall after his guilty plea was disclosed Monday.

In June, Craig was arrested at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport by an undercover officer investigating complaints that men were soliciting sex in a restroom. The officer said Craig tapped his foot and slid his hand under a stall divider, which the officer said indicated a desire for sex. Craig paid $575 in fines and fees last month and was given one year's probation.

At a news conference Tuesday in Boise, Craig denied doing anything inappropriate, insisted repeatedly that he was not gay, and said he regretted pleading guilty.

Craig's downfall was swift, even by Washington standards. But his guilty plea and the extensive media coverage of the incident became a headache of migraine proportions for Republicans at a time when the party is gearing up for the 2008 congressional campaign.

The party has been unable to escape the taint of scandal that contributed to its losses in the last elections. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the longest-serving Republican senator, is under investigation; and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana recently apologized for a "very serious sin" after his phone number turned up in the records of an alleged madam.

GOP colleagues in Idaho and Washington leaned heavily on Craig to give up the seat. Two Republican senators called on him to resign; others denounced his alleged behavior. The party's leadership asked for an investigation by the ethics committee and stripped Craig of his committee leadership positions.

Last week, the Republican National Committee considered issuing a statement calling on Craig to resign but held off at the request of Idaho GOP officials who wanted to meet with the senator, said a Republican aide who spoke on condition that he not be named because he was not authorized to speak about the matter.

Craig's departure is not expected to change the balance of power in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority. Idaho remains a very red state and a Republican is heavily favored to win the seat in November 2008.

Republican leaders expressed relief with Craig's decision.

A number of prominent Republicans had urged him to resign or had remained conspicuously silent. But on Saturday, they took a more sympathetic tone.

President Bush telephoned Craig to tell him he knew it was a difficult decision and to wish him well, said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel, who added that Craig "made the right decision for himself, his family, his constituents and the U.S. Senate." Bush's spokesmen had called the imbroglio "a disappointment," but the president said nothing about the matter.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a short statement that Craig made the right choice: "It is my hope he will be remembered not for this, but for his three decades of dedicated public service."

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