GOP senator says he won't seek a third term

Democrats in Colo. set sights on Campbell's seat

March 04, 2004|By Elizabeth Shogren and David Kelly | Elizabeth Shogren and David Kelly,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, who has been battling health problems and an ethical scandal involving his Senate staff, said yesterday he has canceled his plans to seek a third term in November.

Campbell, 70, had been engaged in a vigorous re-election bid even though he was recovering from prostate cancer. But after checking into a hospital for the second time in a week with mild chest pains and other health concerns, he announced that he will not run.

"I am honored to have represented the people of Colorado ... and I know that there is no greater job than to serve my fellow citizens in the U.S. Senate, but I feel the time has come to pass that duty on to another and return to my ranch with my family that I love," he said in statement. "After spending another night in the hospital, I realize that deteriorating health may hamper my ability to serve."

Democrats, delighted that Campbell -- who switched parties in 1995 -- would not seek re-election, said it was the evolving scandal that forced him out.

Campbell, who was born in California but adopted Colorado as his home state, has been a distinctive figure on Capitol Hill with his long gray pony tail, motorcycles and Western-cut suits. The only American Indian currently serving in the Senate -- his father was a Northern Cheyenne and his mother a Portuguese immigrant -- he made a name for himself not only in politics but as an Olympic judo athlete, a jewelry designer and a horse trainer.

Campbell was first elected to the Colorado Legislature in 1982 and later served the state in the House of Representatives. He joined the U.S. Senate in 1992 as a Democrat, switched parties three years later, and was re-elected as a Republican in 1998.

Campbell's decision to drop out of the race brings to three the number of Senate Republicans who have decided not to seek re-election. Five Democrats have taken the same course. There are 51 Republicans in the Senate, 48 Democrats and one independent.

For Democrats, Campbell's announcement means that instead of having to go against a popular incumbent, they now can vie for an open seat in a state that swings between Republicans and Democrats.

"It's huge," said Chris Gates, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party. "A political tsunami has washed over the Colorado political scene today."

Gates called Campbell's statement about his reasons for retiring "disingenuous."

Campbell's chief of staff, Ginnie Kontnik, resigned two weeks ago after The Denver Post disclosed that she admitted orchestrating a kickback. She told the newspaper that she inflated an aide's salary and then the aide returned $2,000 in cash. She said the senator had given his approval.

Campbell referred the allegation to the Senate Ethics Committee, and the Justice Department reportedly also was considering an investigation.

After Campbell's announcement, names mentioned as possible contenders on the Democratic side included Rep. Mark Udall and former presidential candidate and senator Gary Hart.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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