Paxon Ends Political Career
By Gebe Martinez
Rep. Bill Paxon, the New York Republican who was forced to give up his party leadership position after abetting a failed attempt to topple House Speaker Newt Gingrich last year, announced Wednesday that he will retire from Congress to devote more time to his family.
Once considered an "heir apparent" to Gingrich until last summer's political drama, Paxon had recently set his sights on the second-highest House post now occupied by House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey of Texas.
But after receiving hints from fellow Republicans that he did not have enough support to challenge Armey next January, Paxon instead decided to give up politics altogether.
"I will never run for office again. Never. Not even for dog warden," Paxon told reporters.
In a letter distributed to his colleagues early Wednesday, Paxon said that he and his wife, former Rep. Susan Molinari, wanted to "expand" their family in the future, and "the priority of family must now take precedence over politics."
As the latest member to leave Congress, Paxon's decision makes his New York seat the 39th open seat in this year's congressional elections.
Though many of Paxon's GOP colleagues expressed shock and surprise about his decision, Gingrich said he and Paxon discussed this option a few weeks ago.
"Our friendship has grown over time and been strengthened by adversity," Gingrich said in a statement. At a later news conference, the Speaker resisted discussing the rancor that developed last summer.
"This is a time to look to the future. I have a very good relationship with Bill Paxon. I think he's a terrific guy. I think he had a great future in the House. I hope he has a great future in the private sector. I don't think there's anything to be gained going back to worrying about the summer of 1997," Gingrich said.
The Speaker also said that had Paxon decided to run for a leadership position, "he would have been very formidable." Concerned only with his own race to remain Speaker, Gingrich added, "It's fair to say that I seem to have a very substantial majority" support.
Paxon, the field commander who guided the GOP's 1994 campaign strategy that led to his party's historic take-over of the House, fell from Gingrich's grace after the aborted coup attempt seven months ago. In the aftermath, amid speculation that he hoped to take over the Speaker's office, Gingrich stripped Paxon of his appointed leadership post.
However, the five-term congressman remained on the political pundits' list of those who might run for Speaker or some other high position in the House. Only recently, during a GOP retreat in Virginia, did Paxon pledge to Gingrich that he would support his re-election as Speaker.
But then Paxon flirted with the idea of challenging Armey, who had Gingrich's official support.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Armey said: "Bill Paxon has had a career he can be proud of. He was one of the key people who built the Republican majority. I wish him well in the future..." At a news conference on Tuesday, Armey indicated he was not letting the Paxon threat occupy most of his time, nor was he ignoring it.
"I have spoken to a few members. It would be imprudent for me not to," Armey said. "I think it was prudent for me to just demonstrate to people that I have good solid footing."
Paxon's political setbacks made him a "casualty of some internal warfare," said a House aide whose boss supported Paxon. "It's sad."
"He was the guy Democrats feared the most," said the staffer, noting Paxon's choir boy looks made him a favorite GOP spokesman on the Sunday morning television news talk shows. "You cannot demonize a face like that, you cannot demonize a person like that."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee characterized Paxon's departure as his "fleeing" a Republican Congress that is "increasingly dominated by right-wing conservatives."
"Realizing he was becoming obsolete in an increasingly extreme Republican caucus, Bill Paxon has opted out," the Democratic committee leadership said in a statement.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Tex., who also was implicated in the coup attempt against Gingrich, said in a statement that Paxon had "many supporters" in the GOP conference. "I know that he will continue to be a leader in the country, no matter what he decides to do."
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., called Paxon's retirement "America's great loss. He's a great guy. I'm really disappointed." Had Paxon challenged Armey, "I would have listened to the debate," Bartlett said.
Though there was never any clear vote count of an Armey-Paxon race at this early stage, California Rep. David Dreier, a Gingrich ally, said, "I was supporting Dick Armey and I think most of my friends were supporting Dick Armey."
Paxon's inability to move quickly enough up the leadership ladder was frustrating to him, said an aide to a senior New York Republican.
"He had to decide whether he wanted to spend another four or six years building a strong base" for a leadership run, the staffer said. "He's never been a legislative person, but he's always been a political person."
One member of the leadership team, Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., said that while he has not heard of anyone else preparing to challenge Armey, "my guess is that we will have a normal complement of members running for leadership."
With House rules requiring that committee chairmen will be term-limited out of their positions in 2000, Cox predicted there will be "an awful lot of people who expect to run for a leadership position."
Gingrich, who can remain as Speaker until 2002, has hinted he may leave the post before that deadline to run for president.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company