U.S. Sen. Larry Craig’s guilty plea to disorderly conduct, after an encounter with an undercover detective in an airport restroom, stunned members of both political parties Monday and left open the question of whether Idaho’s senior congressional member will seek re-election next year.
Craig, a conservative Republican, called it a misunderstanding, suggesting that his actions inside a toilet stall at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport were “misconstrued” by the detective as lewd behavior.
Either way, the political fallout already is starting.
The senator quickly resigned from the Idaho presidential campaign organization of Republican candidate Mitt Romney. He had been named co-chairman of the Idaho Leadership Team in May with some fanfare, which included the posting of a video clip in which Craig spoke favorably of Romney.
Monday, the Romney campaign released a two-sentence statement saying Craig “did not want to be a distraction and we accept his decision.” The video clip was pulled from YouTube.
Craig is vacationing with his family in Idaho and declining interviews, according to his spokesman, Sid Smith. But his congressional office issued a statement Monday afternoon.
In it, Craig acknowledges having been in the airport restroom June 11, but denies behaving inappropriately. He said he pleaded guilty Aug. 8 to resolve the matter quickly but now regrets having proceeded without legal representation. In exchange for his guilty plea, another misdemeanor charge, interference with privacy, was dropped.
Of particular concern for Craig, an opponent of gay rights, is that the behavior described by the undercover detective is considered a common way for men to signal others that they want to “engage in lewd conduct.”
The June 11 arrest was first reported Monday afternoon by Roll Call, a Washington, D.C. newspaper covering Capitol Hill.
According to the Roll Call article, which quoted police and court documents from Minneapolis, Craig was arrested by a detective investigating lewd conduct complaints in a public restroom in the airport. The detective, who was in one stall, said he saw someone lingering outside his stall, then enter the adjoining stall, and start tapping his foot. “I recognized this as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct,” Detective Dave Karsnia was quoted in Roll Call as reporting.
Eventually Craig moved his foot into Karsnia’s stall, then swiped his hand under the stall divider several times, Karsnia said. Karsnia showed Craig his badge and pointed toward the exit. Craig initially refused, but Karsnia told him he was under arrest, and the senator was taken to the Airport Police Operations Center where he was interviewed, fingerprinted, photographed and released after a formal complaint was filled out.
At one point, Craig produced a business card that identified him as a U.S. senator, and asked Karsnia “What do you think about that,” Roll Call said, quoting the report.
In his statement, Craig didn’t deny that the events occurred somewhat like the detective described in the Roll Call article, published a few hours earlier. But the facts were misconstrued, Craig’s spokesman said.
“Did he tap his foot? He’s not disputing that,” Smith said. “Did he reach down and pick up a piece of paper? He’s not disputing that.”
Craig is denying reaching under the wall of the stall and moving his hand back and forth, Smith said.
So why did Craig plead guilty to disorderly conduct on Aug. 8 in Hennepin County District Court?
His statement suggests he regrets that decision.
“I should have had the advice of counsel in resolving this matter,” he said. “In hindsight, I should not have pled guilty. I was trying to handle this matter myself quickly and expeditiously.”
But Smith had trouble explaining why Craig did not seek a lawyer’s advice in the nearly two months between the time of the arrest and his appearance in Hennepin County District Court.
“I don’t know what his thoughts were at the time,” Smith said.
The restroom incident comes less than a year after an Internet site claimed Craig, who is married, is a closeted homosexual and accused him of hypocrisy for his stand on issues like gay marriage. At the time, he described the claims of Mike Rogers as “absolutely ridiculous.”
On Monday, Rogers, who lists himself as the country’s top gay activist blogger, was saying Craig should seek re-election.
“Larry Craig should stand up and be honest with the citizens of Idaho about who he is,” Rogers said.
“Tonight is a historic opportunity for Sen. Craig to run for re-election as a proud gay American. What a great turning point for one of the most conservative states in the country to be represented by an openly gay Senator.”
The Idaho Statesman, citing an anonymous source, reported Monday night that Craig was involved in a similar incident in the men’s room of a Washington, D.C., train station, which was known as a meeting place for gay men. Craig denied the incident in a May interview with the Statesman and no arrests were made.
Last week, Craig told The Spokesman-Review editorial board that he expected to make a decision on whether to seek a fourth term by the end of September. Whether his conviction will affect that decision, or the timing of the announcement, is unknown.
“We haven’t really considered that,” Smith said Monday afternoon.
Jim Weatherby, Boise State University political scientist emeritus, said the airport incident makes it unlikely that Craig could successfully seek re-election.
“He did plead guilty, and he is a veteran lawmaker,” Weatherby said. “He should have understood the implications of the guilty plea.”
The restroom incident “comes at a very critical time for him, when we are anticipating in the next few weeks that he will make a statement on whether or not he is running for re-election. Now this breaking story raises questions about his future in the Senate, currently and in the future.”
If Craig steps aside, Idaho will see a hot race for an open U.S. Senate seat, Weatherby said. “It could be an extremely interesting race, with the possibility of a spirited primary campaign.”
Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, a Republican and former governor, already has said he’ll run for the