WASHINGTON – Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., surprised the Capitol on Monday by announcing he would resign next month, taking the unusual path of abandoning the chamber and his leadership post midterm to pursue a private sector career.
Lott, who as minority whip is second in the Republican hierarchy, cited the passage of legislation to aid the recovery of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast from the damage of Hurricane Katrina as the reason for his resignation, which he said he began contemplating in August but kept closely guarded.
“We’ve had this great experience for these 35 years, but we do think that there is time left for us to maybe do something else,” Lott said of the decision he made with his wife, Tricia. Lott, who was elected to the House in 1972 and moved to the Senate in 1988, said there were “no problems” with his health.
His sudden retirement is another blow to Republicans who already have absorbed announcements by a few veteran incumbents that they would retire next year rather than seek re-election. That has presented Democrats with several opportunities to expand their current 51-49 majority next fall.
While Democrats face an uphill battle to capture Lott’s seat, his departure is a symbolically deeper wound to Republicans. Lott has served as a member of either the House or Senate Republican leadership for 19 of the past 27 years, and he is leaving midterm after winning his fourth six-year term last November.
In the post-World War II era, only two senators have resigned midterm to pursue life in the private sector, according to the Senate Historian’s Office. David L. Boren, D-Okla., became a university president in 1994, and Albert B. “Happy” Chandler, D-Ky., left the Senate to become commissioner of Major League Baseball in 1945.
Others who left midterm moved to other public posts or were driven from office by scandal.
Lott’s departure is equally stunning because he recently completed a political rehabilitation among his colleagues after allegations of racial insensitivity drove him from the leadership. Poised to become majority leader, Lott praised Sen. Strom Thurmond’s, R-S.C., 1948 segregationist presidential campaign at a 100th birthday party and retirement celebration for Thurmond in December 2002, saying the nation would not have “all these problems” if Thurmond had been elected. Republicans banished Lott from the leadership.
Rather than resign, Lott spent four years as a back-bench Republican, burnishing his image as a behind-the-scenes dealmaker. By the end of 2005 – a year in which his mother died and his Pascagoula home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina – he planned to announce his retirement rather than seek re-election, he said.
But Lott cited the need to help his state recover from Katrina, cruised to a re-election victory and won a bid for minority whip.
“I think it was a surprise that it came right now, this soon,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. “He just sort of reached the end of the line in terms of what he can do here. It’s kind of the cumulative effect of 39 years of wear and tear.”