Craig exits; who’ll step in?
BOISE – Embattled Sen. Larry Craig announced his resignation from the U.S. Senate on Saturday, after a week of intense pressure over his involvement in an airport restroom sex-solicitation scandal that made him the butt of jokes on late-night TV and brought resignation calls from his own national party leaders.
“To the Idahoans I represent, to my staff, my Senate colleagues and, most importantly, my wife and our family, I apologize for what I have caused. I am deeply sorry,” Craig told a huge crowd of media, supporters, detractors and citizens gathered in front of Boise’s historic train depot.
Craig, who has maintained he did nothing wrong despite a guilty plea to misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges, said he’ll resign effective Sept. 30. “I hope to allow for a smooth and orderly transition for my loyal staff and for the person appointed to take my place,” he said.
Gov. Butch Otter, who stood behind Craig as he made the announcement, will appoint Craig’s replacement. Otter disputed reports that he has decided to appoint Lt. Gov. Jim Risch to the seat and said no decision has been made. Other possible choices for the position include 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson, top Craig aide Sandy Patano and former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.
Idaho Democrats have been calling on Otter to name “a statesman” to serve out Craig’s term, rather than a candidate – like Risch or Simpson – who likely would run for the seat in the next election, saying such a move would prevent Craig’s downfall from being used for political gain.
But Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, responded, “Did anybody ask them how we’re supposed to be nonpolitical about a national political office? It strikes me as one of the strangest things I’ve ever heard.”
Craig was flanked by GOP leaders including Otter, state Republican Party Chairman J. Kirk Sullivan, state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna and U.S. Rep. Bill Sali as he announced his resignation. But Senate GOP leaders and the national Republican Party haven’t been as supportive and pushed hard all week for the longtime senator and congressman to step down.
On Tuesday, Senate GOP leaders called for an ethics investigation, just before Craig held a Boise press conference to deny wrongdoing. On Wednesday, they stripped Craig of his ranking Republican status on three key Senate committees. On Thursday, the Republican National Committee drafted a statement calling on Craig to resign, but officials then decided not to issue it after being assured Craig would step down on his own.
President Bush called Craig from the White House after Saturday’s announcement and told him he knew it was a difficult decision to make, said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. “Senator Craig made the right decision for himself, for his family, his constituents and the United States Senate,” Stanzel said.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell said Craig “made a difficult decision, but the right one.”
Craig said in his announcement, “I chose to serve because I truly love Idaho. What is best for Idaho has always been the focus of my efforts, and it is no different today.”
He said he intends to pursue legal options to clear his name, but that effort “would be an unwanted and unfair distraction from my job and for my Senate colleagues.” He added, “The people of Idaho deserve a senator who can devote 100 percent of his time and effort to critical state and national issues.”
Sandy Patano, who is Craig’s district director in Coeur d’Alene, attended the announcement in Boise. “Larry Craig is one of the most honorable men I’ve ever known,” she said. “I’ve worked for him for 25 years, and he has never asked me to cover up anything in my entire career. He has always been about truth and honesty.”
Patano said that for the next month, Craig’s staff will “do what we’ve always done and what he’s always done – work for Idaho.”
Craig said he hasn’t yet determined whether he’ll be in Washington when the Senate reconvenes Tuesday or take part in votes and hearings in the coming month.
The Rev. Bryan Fischer, of the conservative Idaho Values Alliance, said he welcomed the resignation. “Character is an important qualification for public service,” he said. “No one put the senator in the Minneapolis bathroom. That was the senator’s choice.”
Craig has insisted he is not gay and said police misconstrued his actions in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport men’s room. Craig was one of 40 men arrested there in a four-month undercover operation that came in response to complaints of lewd conduct in the restroom.
He was arrested June 11 and signed a negotiated plea agreement Aug. 1 that was mailed in and recorded on Aug. 8. He told no one until a Washington, D.C., newspaper, Roll Call, reported the incident Monday. As part of the plea agreement, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct charges, and a more serious gross misdemeanor charge of interference with privacy was dropped.
Craig said on Tuesday that pleading guilty was a mistake, and he did so in part because of stress from a Boise newspaper’s investigation into his sexual history. His critics accused him of hypocrisy, noting his opposition to gay rights.
When Craig said Saturday that he intended to resign, there was applause – but also a shout of “we love you, Larry.”
As he was leaving after the press conference, a member of the crowded shouted, “I will never vote Republican again.”
Mike Tracy, Craig’s former communications director, watched the announcement sadly in the sunshine at the train depot.
“I think he is a great public servant, and he did, I think, what he had to do today,” Tracy said. “I think the state is going to miss him dearly.”