By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007 6:04 PM
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Aug. 31 -- John William Warner, who entered the Senate 28 years ago best known for marrying actress Elizabeth Taylor and who grew into an elder statesman and Republican maverick highly regarded for his expertise in defense matters, announced his retirement Friday.
Warner, 80, chose the north steps of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, where he studied law a half-century ago, to reveal his widely anticipated decision not to seek a sixth term next year.
"So I say that my work and service to Virginia as a senator . . . will conclude upon the 6th of January, 2009, when I finish . . . my career of . . . 30 years in the United States Senate," Warner said. The former Navy secretary and past chairman of the Armed Services Committee said he wrestled with the question, coming to closure only "in the last day or two." He postponed a decision, he said, until completing a trip to Iraq last week. Warner has been a leading GOP critic of the Bush White House's war policy.
The rigors of Senate service as he enters his 80s and the importance of letting the next generation of Senate leaders step up drove his choice, he said.
"I'm going to quietly step aside," he said as his third wife, Jeanne, stood at his side.
Warner's departure triggers a round of political jockeying that will change the political landscape nationally and in Virginia.
It represents more bad news for Republicans, who already face the prospect of defending 22 Senate seats and who seek a net gain of one to control of the chamber, which Democrats hold, 51-49. Democrats, emboldened by Sen. James Webb's victory over incumbent Republican George Allen last year, see Virginia as a prime target of opportunity.
"It's a loss for the Republican Party because it's going to be a tough seat to hold," said Mark J. Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University. "What was a solid conservative Republican state is now a two-party state."
Party leaders have been encouraging former governor Mark R. Warner (not related to the senator), who came within five percentage points of defeating Senator Warner in 1996, to make the race. Rep. Robert C. Scott (D), the state's only black congressman, who has strong support within the Democratic base, was also mentioned Friday by political insiders. Republicans known to be interested include Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Fairfax County and former governor James S. Gilmore III, who said Friday, "We're interested in the race."
Davis and Mark Warner were careful not to upstage the senator, issuing brief statements praising him for his service. "He's more than earned a victory lap," Davis said. "An announcement of my future plans can wait another day."
"Today, it's about John, not Mark," the former governor told reporters on the Alexandria waterfront. "My family and I will talk about it now. We have talked about it already," he said with a smile.
But the state Democratic Party was not so decorous -- within an hour of Warner's conference, it issued a statement slamming Davis for his vote against raising the minimum wage.
Mark Warner met with his kitchen cabinet Thursday morning at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, assembling close longtime friends and advisers. Several said Warner did not disclose whether he plans to run for John Warner's seat but instead discussed the plusses and minuses of different political directions.
John Warner stayed out of partisan politics Friday, declining to say whom he might favor as a successor. He did, however, deliver an indirect but unmistakable shout-out to Davis, saying congressional experience would be important for anyone succeeding him. "That's the type of experience I hope will come forward to win this election," he said.
Warner's departure will also help sort out the 2009 Virginia governor's race. Allen, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell could be GOP candidates if Davis and Gilmore run for Senate.
"What you have here in both parties are what you might call political heavyweights who have been elected at least one time to statewide office thinking about where they're going to reenter," said Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. "And you have folks who are holding lower-level offices wanting to move up. Everybody is calculating where to make that decision."
The senator's retirement introduces a new element of uncertainty in Fairfax. Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), a candidate for a second term in November, is known to be interested in Davis's seat in the 11th District, which is rapidly turning Democratic. Former Democratic representative Leslie L. Byrne of Fairfax is another possible contender.
Connolly, who has declined to commit to serving a full term if reelected, said Friday he is focused on the chairman's job. Republicans said Friday that they are urging Connolly's GOP opponent this fall, attorney Gary H. Baise, to make Connolly's intentions a campaign issue. The possibility of an open chairman's seat further scrambles the local political picture.
"The good senator's departure ignites a political powder keg," Fairfax Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) said. "It's certainly rare for a congressional seat to open up. But to have a Senate seat, a congressional seat and the chairmanship all basically open up at once is unprecedented."
Friday's announcement is another sign of the political and cultural shift underway in Virginia, which in recent years has elected two consecutive Democratic governors and a Democratic senator. The departure of the courtly, theatrical Warner, who relished the role of elder statesman and Virginia gentleman farmer, also signals the end of an era. His penchant for bipartisan collaboration earned him lasting friendships on both sides of the aisle in Washington.
"At a time when our political climate is as partisan and divisive as ever, John Warner embodies bipartisanship, courtesy and generosity," Webb said.
"He will have a successor, but not a replacement," said another Democrat, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.
Warner's exit will complete a remarkable personal passage for a man once derided by critics at the start of his Senate career as a shallow, social climbing dilettante who married money (heiress Barbara Mellon) and then fame (Taylor) to make his political mark.
But Warner dug in and mastered defense and national security issues, diligently delivering for the state's military bases and defense contractors, especially in the Newport News area. Local officials praised his work on behalf of major transportation projects such as the Woodrow Wilson Bridge replacement.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va) said most Virginians probably aren't aware of how many issues Warner was involved in over the years. "Someone who moved here in 1992, they don't know how much he did before then. The entire Metro system, I-66, Wolf Trap -- he did it all."
Warner also established himself as a politician willing to buck party orthodoxy. He drew scorn from the party's conservatives for opposing Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and for rejecting 1994 Senate candidate Oliver North as unfit for office because of North's role in the Iran-contra scandal.
But his outlook also earned him the trust and respect of Virginia voters. "The approach he took was one I hope will be emulated by others,"' said former governor Gerald L. Baliles (D). "He listened, he reflected on his options and made his decision with a great deal of courage."
The setting Friday was sentimental for Warner, whose pursuit of a law degree at U-Va. was interrupted by his Marine service in the Korean War. He went out with a flourish, invoking Shakespeare and Jefferson. "There is a fullness of time when men should go and not occupy too long the ground to which others have the right to advance," he said, quoting Jefferson.
"I have decided to follow this sage, fair wisdom," Warner said, "and yield the right to others to advance."
Staff writers Daniella Deane, Amy Gardner, Anita Kumar, Michael D. Shear and Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.