Gramm, top GOP senator, says he won't run again

Goals accomplished, Texas politician says

September 05, 2001|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Sen. Phil Gramm, a renegade Democrat who became one of the leading conservative Republicans in Congress, announced yesterday that he won't run for re-election next year.

Gramm's decision brings to three the number of Senate veterans - all Republicans - who have announced they are retiring.

Democrats hold a one-seat edge in the Senate, and control of the chamber is the top prize in the 2002 elections. But Gramm's retirement, which had long been rumored, might only marginally improve Democrats' chances of picking up his seat.

Gramm, 59, who was a heavy favorite to win re-election, said he was leaving "with absolute confidence" that his successor would be a Republican.

Texas has become an increasingly Republican state in past decades, through the work of Gramm and others. It has not sent a new Democratic senator to Washington since 1970, when Lloyd Bentsen was first elected.

Several friends said Gramm's decision to quit was prompted by his party's loss of majority control of the Senate this year. That shift forced him to relinquish chairmanship of the Senate Banking Committee to Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland.

But Gramm insisted that his return to minority status had "made no difference whatsoever."

A crowded field of Republicans, including at least two congressmen and several state officials, are expected to jockey for his seat in the primary next year.

On the Democratic side, former Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, who turned down a chance to challenge Gramm in the 1980s, is among those being mentioned. But he indicated last month that he wouldn't run.

"We're looking for another Lloyd Bentsen," said Sen. Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader. Ken Bentsen, a Democratic congressman from Houston and the former senator's nephew, is a possible candidate.

In a statement, President Bush praised Gramm as "a close friend and valued adviser" and said the Senate was losing "a principled leader" of "uncommon courage." In reality, the fiercely ambitious and independent Gramm was not particularly close to Bush or to Bush's father, the former president.

Gramm ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, having waited until his fellow Texan, Bush senior, had left the scene.

Gramm said he is quitting the Senate, "after a long and difficult period of soul-searching," because the conservative goals he fought for when he came to Congress 23 years ago had been achieved.

"What better time to call it a career than when you've finished the work that you were initially sent to Washington to do?" said Gramm, an economist by training who made his mark as co-author of the Gramm-Rudman law, which required budget cuts to help reduce the federal deficit.

His eyes red-rimmed, Gramm choked up as he read a prepared statement thanking his family and longtime aides for their support. The man once described as "too mean to be president" acknowledged in a barely audible voice that he had "missed a lot of things" over the years in the lives of his two grown sons.

A prodigious fund-raiser, Gramm famously boasted near the start of his ill-fated presidential drive six years ago that he had "the most reliable friend that you can have in American politics, and that's ready money." Even with a $21 million bankroll, however, his campaign fizzled during the primary season.

But in his adopted home state of Texas, Gramm, a Georgia native, set vote-getting records.

Elected to Congress as a conservative Democrat in 1978, he left the party in 1983 after House Speaker Tip O'Neill booted him off the House Budget Committee for passing party secrets to the Reagan White House. Gramm resigned his seat, won it back in a special election as a Republican, then moved to the Senate the next year.

Gramm, who can be brashly partisan and blunt-spoken, has often rubbed colleagues the wrong way. His insatiable hunger for publicity became known as "Gramm-standing," and it was said, only partly in jest, that the most dangerous place to be in Washington was between Phil Gramm and a TV camera.

He had raised $3.3 million toward his re-election next year - $1.25 million of it during the first six months of this year.

Gramm said he would not endorse a candidate in the Republican primary but added that his party has "a very deep bench" of potential candidates. Among them: Reps. Henry Bonilla and Joe L. Barton, state Attorney General John Cornyn, and state Land Commissioner David Dewhurst.

On the Democratic side, Ed Cunningham, a political novice, is the only announced candidate. Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk has said he intends to run, and former Attorney General Dan Morales is another likely candidate.

Gramm, whose wife, Wendy Lee Gramm, stood impassively by his side as he made his announcement, said he did not know what he would do next. The Gramms said they intended to return to Texas in 2003.

One possibility would be a top administrative job at Texas A&M University, where he taught economics for 12 years.

Another scenario has Gramm resigning before his term ends to accept an appointment by the president, perhaps to the Federal Reserve's board of governors. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, would then name Bonilla, a telegenic Hispanic, to fill Gramm's term, in line with Bush's efforts to improve his party's image among Hispanic voters.

But Gramm said he intends to serve out the remaining 15 months of his term.

Besides Gramm, Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina are also retiring after next year's election.

There has been speculation that at least one other Republican senator, Fred Thompson of Tennessee, might retire when his current term ends.

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