It was an odd exchange in front of the Charleston Rotary Club in 2008. Republican Henry Brown was answering questions alongside his opponent in the general election, local Democrat Linda Ketner.
After suggesting she would go to Washington and do things differently than liberal Dem leaders, Ketner was chided by Brown for her ambition. “I’d be remiss to think that one member of Congress would challenge Ms. Pelosi to change her way of doing business,” he said.
He’d offered a similar defeatist rant at a debate earlier in the election season when Ketner argued for changes to the TARP bailout bill. “There is some limits to what a Congressman can do,” Brown told her.
It now appears that this frustration with the business of Congress was quite genuine, as five-term Rep. Henry Brown announced last week that he not only will be retiring from public office at the end of the year, but that he was trying to get out in 2008.
“I was besieged with appeals to continue to serve because of the fact that whoever won the election, we were going to have a new president leading our country,” Brown said in a statement announcing his planned retirement. He’s looking forward to spending more time on his family farm and less time traveling.
The race against Ketner was close last year — a less than five-point difference that had national Democrats wondering if they could win the seat in 2010. Republicans also have taken the near miss as an opportunity to challenge Brown in the primary.
Much hay has been made about Brown’s GOP battle with Carroll Campbell III, the son of a popular South Carolina politician who began campaigning for the seat early in 2008. But Brown was still in a position to be competitive in the primary and likely wasn’t scared off. Like the man said, he’s just tired.
Local politicians who thought they had a good two years to consider a Congressional run woke up last week to the news and have been left with quick decisions about whether they want to go to Washington.
State Rep. Tim Scott and state Sen. Larry Grooms, both Lowcountry Republicans in other races, weighed abandoning their existing campaigns. Other Statehouse members, including East Cooper legislators Chip Limehouse and Chip Campsen, both long seen as potential Congressional candidates once Brown stepped down, were also left with the decision of whether to get in now.
“Open seats are so rare, so it does make you pause,” says Jeri Cabot, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.
Charleston County Council Vice Chairman Paul Thurmond, the son of former Sen. Strom Thurmond, was also left to ponder the decision after saying in 2009 that he wouldn’t run against Brown.
“I am sad to see we are losing the leadership of a dedicated public servant in Henry Brown,” Thurmond says. “That said, I view this as an exciting possibility that warrants serious discussion amongst family and friends.”
Brown said in his comments last week that he was announcing his exit now to “allow interested individuals adequate time to contemplate running and sufficient time to organize and launch a campaign.”
His delay is understandable considering he still had things to get done in Washington (like saving “Christmas”), but the reality is that the campaign will already be well under way by the time fresh candidates get their sea legs and, more importantly, their financing.
“If they already have fundraising experience, they can jump in now,” Cabot says of those weighing a run. “If they’re brand new to fundraising … they’ll have a hard time.”
Democratic candidates were also left wondering how this would impact their current field of three candidates.
Local pilot and military reservist Robert Burton, who entered the race in November, had flown to Washington on the day of Brown’s announcement to seek out fundraising support for his bid. Once home, he received a slew of messages about the big news.
He seems disappointed that he’ll miss a little political sparring with Brown.
“I won’t have a do-nothing Congressman to run against,” Burton says.
The candidate has charted out a busy schedule over the next few weeks as he tries to win early support from key Democrats in the district, while also speaking with local party committees and other progressive grassroots organizations.
Brown’s decision also had many asking whether Ketner would reconsider her decision to sit out of the 2010 race and look at it again in 2012.
Since Brown’s announcement, she has received over 100 voice mails and e-mails asking whether she would consider a run. “I have no plans to run but will take the time to consider it again,” Ketner says.
In the end, Brown was more than cordial in his exit, leaving the final decision on the fate of District 1 to the voters.
“Despite my many disagreements with the political and legislative direction of our country under the present administration,” he said, “I leave office with the highest faith in the people of this great nation, and in their instinctive ability to right the ship when we encounter turbulent days, as we have over the past few years.”