Longtime U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) says he will not seek… (Charles Dharapak, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington
U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly, a Southern California political fixture for more than 25 years, on Saturday announced plans to retire from Congress at the end of his term, becoming one of the first casualties of California's new political map and further unsettling the state's congressional delegation.
"The decision to step aside at this time did not come lightly," the Simi Valley Republican said in a statement. "But in the end, [my wife] Janice and I decided now was the right time to begin the next chapter in our lives.''
Gallegly, 67, faced tough political choices. A new redistricting map, drawn for the first time by a citizens' commission instead of politicians, had placed his Simi Valley home in the same district as fellow Republican Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita, the well-funded chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Gallegly could have challenged McKeon, or he could have run in a new district, one with a slight Democratic edge. That district has already drawn at least one strong Democratic candidate, Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett.
"Redistricting was not kind to Rep. Gallegly," said California Republican political strategist Dave Gilliard. "His home was placed into another member's district, and the bulk of the district he represents is now much more competitive than he is used to."
"The good news for Republicans is that State Sen. Tony Strickland is now running," Gilliard said. "Tony is as tough of a campaigner as we have in our party, and he has proven he can win competitive seats."
Jon Fleischman, a former state GOP official who publishes a conservative blog, said a run against the popular McKeon would have been "an uphill battle."
"The reality is, with all deference to Gallegly, State Sen. Tony Strickland will be a much stronger candidate for the GOP in the newly created seat," he said. Strickland, of Moorpark, could not be reached for comment on Saturday.
Gallegly, a former mayor of Simi Valley, said he was confident he would have won reelection in November but had thought for some time that this would be his last term. His decision to step down when the current session of Congress ends in early 2013 comes only a year after he was named chairman of the House judiciary subcommittee overseeing immigration.
"It seemed like a natural time," Gallegly said in an interview Saturday. "While there's still a lot of challenges ahead … one day I realized the business is never going to be finished. There's always going to be another mountain to climb."
Among Gallegly's highest-profile measures was a 1999 law he sponsored targeting "crush videos," which typically depict women — often in spike heels — crushing small animals to death. He also sponsored legislation that created the commission planning events for last year's 100th anniversary of the birth of President Reagan.
In 2006, Gallegly announced he was retiring but was persuaded to stay in the race by Karl Rove, the top political strategist for President George W. Bush. Republicans were desperately trying to retain the majority in the House, which they lost that fall.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in registration in the Ventura County district, 41% to 35.5%, says former Republican strategist Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which tracks legislative and congressional races in the state.
But the district is very competitive, Hoffenblum said Saturday. Republican Meg Whitman edged out Democrat Jerry Brown there in the last gubernatorial race, he noted, and Republican Carly Fiorina finished slightly ahead of Democrat Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate race.
Hoffenblum said he expected Strickland to toss his hat in the ring for the seat, but knows of at least four Democrats also planning to run. They include Bennett; David Pollock, a former board member of the Moorpark Unified School District; David Cruz Thayne, a former professional tennis player and now a coach; and Esequiel "Zeke" Ruelas, a retired longshoreman.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement Saturday that the House was losing "an important voice for a stronger America and a smaller government."
The redistricting plan also has left two other Republican incumbents in California, David Dreier of San Dimas and Jerry Lewis of Redlands, facing difficult races; they too could opt to retire. It even has set up clashes between incumbent members of the same party in two Los Angeles County districts and in an Orange County-centered district.
Gallegly boasts that he has been named one of the top 10 illegal-immigration hawks in Congress by Human Events magazine, and has been inducted into the U.S. Border Control's Hall of Fame.
He was elected to the Simi Valley City Council in 1979 and became mayor in 1982. He won election to Congress in 1986, winning the primary over Tony Hope, son of comedian Bob Hope.
Times staff writer Jean Merl contributed to this report.