Craig's political free-fall is over

Senator from Idaho resigns amid furor over sex-sting arrest

September 02, 2007|By Richard Simon

WASHINGTON -- In 27 years as a congressman and senator representing Idaho, Larry E. Craig built a long legislative record.

He played a key role in enacting a law that shields gun makers and sellers from lawsuits over misuse of their weapons. He helped broker a deal that led to legislation aimed at preventing forest fires. And he steered millions of dollars to his state for projects.

But just four days, 19 hours and 42 minutes after the first report of his arrest in a sex sting operation was posted on the Internet, his political career came to an end. He faces the prospect of being remembered, not for his legislative record, but for his police record.

Craig announced "with sadness and deep regret" yesterday that he will resign from the Senate at the end of the month. "What is best for Idaho has always been the focus of my efforts, and it is no different today," he said.

Craig explained that he hopes to withdraw his guilty plea for disorderly conduct and said that would be an "unwarranted and unfair distraction of my job and for my Senate colleagues."

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, who joined his former congressional colleague at a news conference in Boise, is expected to appoint another Republican, most likely Lt. Gov. James E. Risch, to serve the remainder of Craig's term, which ends in January 2009. Craig, appearing with his wife and two of his three children, before perhaps the largest media gathering he has faced, again apologized for the events that abruptly and ignominiously stained his legacy as one of Congress' leading voices on Western issues.

"To Idahoans I represent, to my staff, my Senate colleagues, but most importantly, to my wife and my family, I apologize for what I have caused. I am deeply sorry," he said.

It was not clear whether Craig would fly back to Washington to join his Senate colleagues when they return Tuesday from their monthlong summer recess.

Craig, 62, who served 17 years as a senator after 10 years in the House, went into a political free fall after his guilty plea was disclosed Monday.

In June, Craig was arrested at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport by an undercover officer investigating complaints that men were soliciting sex in a restroom. The officer said Craig tapped his foot and slid his hand under a stall divider, which the officer said indicated a desire for sex. Craig paid $575 in fines and fees in early August and was given one year's probation.

At a news conference Tuesday in Boise, the state capital, Craig denied doing anything inappropriate, insisted repeatedly that he was not gay and said he regretted pleading guilty.

Craig's downfall was swift, even by Washington standards. But his guilty plea and the extensive media coverage of the incident became a headache of migraine proportions for Republicans at a time when the party is gearing up for the 2008 congressional campaign.

The party has been unable to escape the taint of scandal that contributed to its losses in the last elections. Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican senator, is under investigation; and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter recently apologized for a "very serious sin" after his phone number turned up in the records of an alleged madam.

GOP colleagues in Idaho and Washington leaned heavily on Craig to give up the seat. Two Republican senators called on him to resign; others denounced his alleged behavior. The party's leadership asked for an investigation by the ethics committee and stripped Craig of his committee positions.

Craig's departure is not expected to change the balance of power in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority. Idaho remains a conservative state, and a Republican is heavily favored to win the seat in November 2008.

Republican leaders expressed relief over Craig's decision.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a short statement, "It is my hope he will be remembered not for this, but for his three decades of dedicated public service."

Craig, who showed no emotion at what might have been his last news conference as a senator, said he would seek to clear his name. "I have little control over what people choose to believe," he said, "but clearly my name is important to me, and my family is so very important also."

Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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