Larry Craig

Staff departures may hinder Craig's effectiveness in the U.S. Senate

Staffers have been trickling out of Sen. Larry Craig's office since news of his arrest and guilty plea in a men's room sex sting, and more may be looking to leave.

The losses could further damage Craig's effectiveness, which took a hit when Senate leaders stripped him of his leadership posts after his arrest became public, said Jasper LiCalzi, chairman of the Department of Political Economy at The College of Idaho.

"The real expert in many areas, policy areas, in the senator's office is the staff, not the senator," LiCalzi said.

The latest casualty of Craig's legal woes is Jeff Schrade, who lost his job as the senator's spokesman for the Veterans Affairs Committee when Craig lost his position as ranking member.

Before Schrade, natural resources adviser Michael Freese and legislative assistant Chelsey Penrod Hickman left Craig's office.

Other staffers are looking for new jobs, but that's in part because Craig is not seeking re-election and will leave office when his term expires in January 2009, said Schrade, who worked for Craig for 12 years.

Schrade also said the number of staffers who have stayed is a testament to Craig being a "wonderful man to work for."

"I think it reflects that those people who know Senator Craig the best are loyal to him and appreciate the things he's done for the state and them personally," Schrade said.

Senators often are stretched thin by committee assignments, and staffers do much of their research, bill writing and negotiating with other senators' offices, LiCalzi said.

It's going to be hard for Craig to find quality people as staff members leave, since he has so little time left in office, LiCalzi said.

Craig was arrested June 11 at the Minneapolis Airport after an undercover police officer said Craig had solicited sex from him. Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.

News of the arrest didn't surface until late August. The senator says he is innocent and is fighting to overturn his guilty plea. After initially saying he would resign, triggering a search for a replacement, Craig reversed his decision and said he would complete his term.

While searching for a new senator to appoint in September, Gov. Butch Otter praised Craig's staff, saying its members helped look out for Idaho issues.

Otter's spokesman, Jon Hanian, declined to comment on the departures.

"I think we've said enough on Larry Craig, and I don't think there's any more (to say)," he said.

Neither Craig's current staff nor Hickman returned phone calls. The staff has made it a policy not to speak to the Statesman since news of Craig's arrest became public.

Since the initial shock of Craig's arrest passed, staffers have become more upbeat, Schrade said. He wouldn't say if staff members believe Craig's contention that he did nothing wrong.

"I'm not going into that," he said. "At this point it doesn't really matter - he's made a decision to stay and so has the (remaining) staff."

Unlike Hickman and Freese, who left voluntarily, Schrade was forced from his job because of Craig's conviction. Schrade said Craig is helping him find a new job, and he harbors no bitterness toward his former boss.

"It's a tumultuous business and things change," he said.

Heath Druzin: 373-6617

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