Craig to announce resignation on Saturday

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comAugust 31, 2007 

A restroom-sex scandal will drive Sen. Larry Craig from office Saturday, bringing an anguished end to the Idaho Republican's 27-year career in Congress.

Craig's office said late Friday that he would reveal his plans at 10:30 a.m. at the Boise Depot. Republican officials told the Idaho Statesman and the Associated Press that Craig will resign.

Gov. Butch Otter will name a Republican to complete Craig's term, which ends in January 2009. The contest for a full six-year term will be held in 2008. Craig's decision closes a surreal week that began Monday with news of Craig pleading guilty to disorderly conduct and made his woes the top news story in the country.

"I can't think of anything comparable in my years of watching Idaho politics," said Jim Weatherby, professor emeritus at Boise State University, "both in how quickly he fell and in the role, apparently, of national party leadership in just cutting him off."

Craig, 62, was felled by his conviction in connection with his June 11 arrest in a men's room at a Minnesota airport. A police officer investigating homosexual conduct alleged Craig solicited him for sex. Craig, in a tape of the police interview broadcast repeatedly on national TV, told the officer, "You solicited me." He also accused the officer of entrapment. Craig told the officer he wasn't gay. Yet he didn't fight prosecution. A more serious charge, interference with privacy, was dropped and Craig pleaded guilty Aug. 8 to misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

Craig reversed course Tuesday, saying he regretted his plea, and had hired a lawyer to explore his options. "I chose to plead guilty to a lesser charge in hopes of making it go away," Craig told a national audience watching live. He vowed to stay on the job.

Craig also blamed the Idaho Statesman, which spent five months investigating Craig's repeated denials of homosexual acts. The rumors of hypocrisy were rooted in Craig's pre-emptive denial in 1982 that he had sex with underage male pages on Capitol Hill, and revived by a gay activist blogger last fall.

On Monday, Craig's conviction was reported in a Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call. On Tuesday, the Statesman published its findings. The 3,800-word Statesman story included the account of an unnamed 40-year-old Washington, D.C., man who said he had sex with Craig in a men's room at a Washington rail station. Two other unnamed men said Craig made sexual advances toward them, one in 1967 and another in 1994. Craig told the Statesman the allegations of the three men were false and that he had never engaged in or solicited sex with a man.

Craig said the Statesman "relentlessly and viciously harassed" him and his family, clouding his judgment and prompting his guilty plea. Craig said he told no one -- not his lawyer, not a colleague, not a friend, not his wife -- about the arrest and conviction until Roll Call unearthed court and police files.

Despite that explanation, the support Craig needed to survive didn't follow. Idaho Republicans said they felt for Craig and his family, but were careful not to defend his conduct.

National Republican leaders swiftly abandoned Craig, making resignation his only option. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called Craig's actions in Minnesota "unforgivable." Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, who heads the Senate GOP's 2008 re-election effort, said it would be best for Craig to go.

Mitt Romney, who had named Craig a co-chairman of his presidential campaign, condemned Craig¹s behavior and stripped any mention of Craig from his Web site, including a video of Craig saying he supported Romney because of family values. President Bush expressed disappointment. On Friday, the Republican National Committee was prepared to issue a statement calling for Craig's resignation, but relented after "party leaders received an indication that Craig was going to step down," a GOP source told McClatchy Newspapers.

The loud consensus among political analysts was that Craig had become a dead weight on GOP hopes for retaining the White House and reclaiming Congress in 2008.

In Idaho, however, his imprint was historic. Only one other Idahoan, Republican Sen. William Borah, for whom the state's highest peak is named, represented Idaho longer.

Craig rose from modest beginnings on a family cattle and hay ranch 24 miles up a hill-country road from Midvale. The ground was homesteaded by his grandfather in 1899. Craig attended the one-room South Crane School, became a champion orator, national vice president of the Future Farmers of America, and student body president at the University of Idaho. He worked on former Gov. Bob Smylie's failed campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1972, but rebounded in 1974, when, at age 29, he was elected to the first of three terms in the Idaho Senate. Craig tried ranching, but an ambition ignited in high school drew him to national office.

He won election to the U.S. House in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected president, marking a rise of conservative Western politicians in Washington. Craig won four more terms before replacing another giant of Idaho politics in 1990, Republican Sen. Jim McClure.

In the Senate, Craig was the youngest-ever leader of the Republican Steering Committee, a conservative policy group. He held the No. 4 GOP Senate leadership position from 1997 to 2002. Until Democrats took over the Senate in January, he chaired the Veterans Affairs Committee and a subcommittee controlling federal land policy, vital to Idaho agriculture, timber, mining and recreation.

As a member of the Appropriations Committee, he delivered tens of millions of dollars for Idaho projects, from research on wine grapes and sheep to backing for a new nuclear reactor at the Idaho National Lab and a new museum at the Discovery Center of Idaho. He was a director of the National Rifle Association and beat back efforts by environmentalists to breach dams on the Lower Snake River and decommission the Port of Lewiston.

He also was a reliable foe of gay rights, opposing gays in the military, extension of civil rights protections in the workplace and campaigning for the 2006 amendment to the Idaho Constitution that bans both gay marriage and civil unions.

Recently, Craig became a target of opponents of compromise immigration reform. His AgJobs bill, which would allow undocumented workers to remain and follow a path to citizenship, made him a pariah among those seeking to deport millions of non-citizens from the country. Among his allies was President Bush, but Craig will leave office without a solution he believed vital to the long-term success of American agriculture.

Craig has been enormously popular with Idaho voters. In eight congressional elections, his poorest showings were 54-46 percent victories in 1980 and 1982. In 2002, he won by a sweeping 133,240-vote margin, carrying 65 percent of the vote. Absent this week's wreckage, most observers predicted Craig could have cruised to re-election and surpassed Borah as the longest-serving Idahoan ever.

But in recent months, for the first time in his 33 years in office, Larry Craig revealed a conflicted mind. He said he wasn't sure he could stomach a ninth campaign for national office.

"I'll tell you right now the politics of our world has changed," Craig told the Statesman on May 14, during an interview in which he denied any homosexual conduct, ever.

"It's all about self-destruction and destroying the individual based on his or her presence politically than it is about issues," Craig said, blaming Democrats and Republicans alike. "This personality thing has become very, very vicious."

Craig said he loved his job, but he missed life in Idaho, his wife, three children, nine grandchildren, and a lovely garden at his home in Eagle where he gets his hands dirty on weekends.

On Aug. 9, the day after his guilty plea was entered in Hennepin County, Minn., Craig told the Statesman he would reveal his plans for 2008 in mid-September. Even though a group of former staffers had started a "Draft Craig" committee and solicited postcards urging Craig to run, he still didn't know his mind. Standing at 9th and Bannock streets in Boise, near his office, he shook his head and said he was neither sure where he would announce his plans nor what he would say.

Perhaps that indecision was founded in his private knowledge of the guilty plea he had mailed to Minnesota the week before. Craig said he handled the arrest quietly and alone in the hope of "making it go away."

Instead, he is departing having pushed the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the dog-fighting conviction of NFL star Michael Vick off the front pages. More tellingly, Craig became what no successful politician can be -- the butt of mean-spirited jokes on Leno and Letterman.

Craig's resignation is a sad finale. But his stepping down doesn't erase the fact he realized his youthful dream and had lasting influence on public policy in Idaho and the nation.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438

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