Idaho Sen. Larry Craig now says he’s not quitting the U.S. Senate – at least not yet.
Craig had pledged to step down Sept. 30 – Sunday – unless he could clear his name by that date, after being caught up in a restroom sex-solicitation sting over the summer.
But after a Minnesota judge said Wednesday he wouldn’t rule in Craig’s case before the end of next week, Craig issued a statement saying, “Today was a major step in the legal effort to clear my name. The court has not issued a ruling on my motion to withdraw my guilty plea. For now, I will continue my work in the United States Senate for Idaho.”
The indefinite delay in Craig’s plans comes a month into Idaho residents’ wait to learn what’s next at the top of the state’s political hierarchy.
Craig, a Republican, has served Idaho in the Senate for 17 years. He served 10 years in the House before that, as well as six years in the state Senate. Gov. Butch Otter had cleared much of his calendar Tuesday and Wednesday to finish interviewing candidates to replace Craig.
“If and when we receive a letter of resignation, I think the governor will be prepared to act,” Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, said Wednesday. “That hasn’t happened, obviously – it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen today.”
Jim Weatherby, political scientist emeritus at Boise State University, said, “It leaves us all puzzling over the future of our senior senator, and leaves Idaho politics in general disarray as to who will be serving in the United States Senate in that position over the next several months.”
Top candidates include Lt. Gov. Jim Risch and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. Otter has put out a list of nearly 30 possible contenders, and hinted he may be considering others.
Democrat Larry LaRocco, who has been running for the seat for months, has reported an uptick in fundraising and attention since Craig’s scandal began dominating political news.
Senate GOP leaders have made no secret of their desire to push Craig out, stripping him of his leadership posts on several key committees and launching an ethics investigation into his conduct.
Greg Smith, an Idaho pollster and political consultant who once served as Craig’s regional director, said, “He technically is not breaking his word, but it is kind of strange that Sept. 30 will have come and gone and he’s going to stay put. I’m a little surprised by that.”
Craig – and Idaho – have become the butt of jokes since news surfaced of the GOP senator’s arrest in a men’s room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in June. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct in August, after an undercover officer said Craig stared at him through a gap and then made foot and hand gestures under the stall walls that signaled an attempt to solicit sex. When news of the conviction came out nearly a month later, Craig said he’d done nothing wrong and that the guilty plea was a mistake.
He then hired a top-notch legal defense team, headed by Washington, D.C., lawyer Billy Martin, who also represents suspended Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and previously represented White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Martin argued in a Minnesota courtroom Wednesday that Craig should be permitted to withdraw his guilty plea in part because his gestures weren’t in themselves criminal. Prosecutors countered that, saying such a rare legal move was unjustified and the guilty plea should stand.
The court hearing lasted about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, Craig was in Washington, D.C., where he attended part of a Senate committee hearing on geothermal energy and took part in several meetings with staffers and constituents.
Craig’s communications director, Dan Whiting, said Craig decided to skip the hearing “just on the advice of his counsel – I think he’s learned that lesson, to take the advice of counsel.”
One of Craig’s arguments for withdrawing his guilty plea was that he hadn’t consulted with an attorney. Arrested June 11, Craig signed a plea agreement Aug. 1 in which he admitted to disorderly conduct, and a more serious gross misdemeanor charge of interference with privacy was dismissed. He paid a fine and received a stayed jail term and unsupervised probation.
Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, joined the prosecutors to give a brief statement to reporters after the court hearing. Hogan said Craig knowingly pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct, and that prosecutors’ arguments showed there’s no legal basis for reversing the plea.
“The defendant received due process under the law and had more than eight weeks … in which to consider his legal options,” Hogan said. “After careful consideration, the defendant calculatingly entered a plea of guilty.”
Martin, Craig’s lead attorney, told reporters outside the hearing that he hopes District Judge Charles Porter will rule that what Craig did in the airport bathroom wasn’t a crime, even though an undercover police officer said it was consistent with actions soliciting sex.
“He had no purpose other than to go to the bathroom,” Martin said.
Martin also said he wasn’t concerned that the judge closely questioned defense attorneys as they made their arguments.
“He’s a very experienced judge, he knows the law in Minnesota, and he was very engaged,” he said. Martin added, “The facts of this case are very confusing as to whether they constitute a crime.”
That call, he said, is up to the judge.
Martin said if his client is permitted to withdraw his guilty plea, he’ll plead innocent and go to trial on the original charges.