RICHMOND — Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.) announced Monday that he is struggling with alcoholism and will abandon his run for a second term in Congress so he can focus on recovery and his family.
Many are leaving in anticipation of a strong Democratic performance in congressional races this fall and out of frustration with partisan politics in Washington.
Garrett, 46, was facing a robust challenge from his Democratic opponent, journalist and author Leslie Cockburn, who had raised more money and had more cash on hand than he had. In recent days, unnamed former staffers had accused him and his wife of mistreating staff who worked in his congressional office.
But in a videotaped statement, Garrett, a former Virginia state senator, said his departure from politics was spurred by his addiction.
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“Any person — Republican, Democrat or independent — who has known me for any period of time and has any integrity knows two things: I am a good man and I’m an alcoholic,” Garrett said, fighting back tears. “This is the hardest statement that I have ever publicly made by far. It’s also the truth.”
His announcement caps a week of turmoil in Garrett’s Washington office, marked by the resignation of his chief of staff, Jimmy Keady; an online news report that Garrett was thinking about dropping his reelection bid; and a news conference Thursday in which he insisted he was running.
On Friday, a Politico report quoted four unidentified former staffers who accused Garrett and his wife, Flanna, of ordering staff to walk their dog, carry groceries or perform other personal tasks for the couple — a practice prohibited by House ethics rules.
In an effort to confirm those allegations, The Washington Post spoke to two former staffers, who said the couple would from time to time call upon staffers to handle personal chores.
The former staffers spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared retribution.
Garrett declined to answer questions about those allegations on Friday. In the video statement, he said: “The recent attacks on my family and myself were a series of half truths and whole lies.” He said he had been honest in every aspect of his life, save one: his drinking, which he said people close to him had cautioned him about since his early 20s.
Cockburn said she wished Garrett and his family well. “Obviously, it’s been a very, very difficult week for Tom Garrett and I think this is a great thing that he’s recognized the problem and admitted it,” she said.
Garrett is an Army veteran and former commonwealth’s attorney with a libertarian streak. He won election in his central Virginia district by 16 percentage points in 2016, outperforming President Trump by about five points. Garrett succeeded retiring Rep. Robert Hurt (R).
Garrett was officially nominated to seek another term months ago. His impending departure means the 5th Congressional District Republican Committee, which has about three dozen members, will choose a new nominee to face Cockburn.
Republican observers of Virginia politics have said possible candidates from the General Assembly could be state Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (Franklin), Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (Fauquier), Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (Spotsylvania) and Del. Robert B. Bell (Albemarle). Tech executive Michael Del Rosso and businessman and developer Jim McKelvey sought the GOP nomination in 2016 and could also be interested.
Within hours of Garrett’s announcement, distillery owner Denver Riggleman said he is running. Riggleman is a former Air Force intelligence officer who ran a short-lived populist campaign for governor last year.
Longtime GOP consultant Chris LaCivita — who ran the campaign of Hurt, Garrett’s predecessor in Congress — said a candidate without Garrett’s baggage might have an easier path to victory than Garrett would have.
“There’s going to be a command focus on holding this seat, which means that the party’s fundraising apparatus will be brought to bear,” he said.
Garrett made his announcement Sunday outside the Virginia State Capitol. Wearing a dark suit and tie on a hot, humid day, he stood by a monument to Barbara Johns, who as a teenager in 1951 led a walkout to protest poor conditions at her segregated high school in the town of Farmville, Va. Garrett has filed a bill to posthumously award the Congressional Gold Medal to her.
“Not for fear of losing or for lack of love for our great nation, today I am announcing that I will not seek reelection,” he said. “Sometimes winning means knowing where your priorities should be. My devotion to the ideals and beliefs in America has not wavered, but my commitment to be the best husband, father and friend means addressing the only truth I’ve been heretofore unwilling to tell. God has blessed America and he’s blessed me. I am not dying. I am starting anew. With work and dedication, great things can be done. This isn’t an ending for me or my values of service to my fellow man. It’s just a new beginning.”
In an interview, Garrett said that he never drank on the job.
“I never, ever, ever had a drink during the day,” he said. “I didn’t keep booze in my drawer. . . . When I knew I could drink [after work], I would drink, and I would drink to my own detriment.”
The news saddened some of his colleagues, including state Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax County), who said Garrett helped him on some legislation even though they were “polar opposites” politically.
“Tom was the kind of guy who would help you with issues that he felt deserved public debate and discussion even though politically it was not something he supported,” Marsden said. “I wish him the best. He’ll always be my friend.”
Reeves, who confirmed that he is interested in the seat, called Garrett “one of my dearest friends.”
“I know he has struggled for some time to shed himself of this affliction,” Reeves said Monday night. “He has taken a step that not many men have the courage to do — admit his weakness.”