After nearly two decades in office — and facing what was shaping up as the toughest re-election campaign of his career — longtime Rep. Darrell Issa announced Jan. 10 that he will retire from the House of Representatives at the end of this term.
The announcement signals the end of a chapter that began with Issa, R-Vista, entering Congress as a businessman with plans to champion patent reform and rising to national prominence as the chairman of the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee, where he was a dogged antagonist of the administration of former President Barack Obama.
“Throughout my service, I worked hard and never lost sight of the people our government is supposed to serve,” Issa, 64, said in a statement Jan. 10. “Yet with the support of my family, I have decided that I will not seek re-election in California’s 49th District.
“I am forever grateful to the people of San Diego, Orange and Riverside counties for their support and affording me the honor of serving them all these years.”
There are at least 19 members of Congress — nearly all are Republicans — who have announced they will retire at the end of their current terms. Historically the party in the White House loses seats during the first midterm elections, but President Donald Trump’s low poll numbers bring an additional challenge. It could have been particularly difficult campaign for Issa as his constituents have shown a willingness to support Democrats. In 2008 they backed Obama and in 2016 Hillary Clinton.
His looming retirement throws the race for California’s 49th District into a tailspin. The seat has been seen as increasingly competitive. After Issa defeated challenger Doug Applegate by a mere 1,651 votes in 2016 — the closest margin of any federal contest in the nation — the seat became the prime target for Democrats.
There are four Democrats running, including Doug Applegate, Mike Levin, Paul Kerr and Sara Jacobs. Republican Joshua Schoonover threw his hat in the ring on the morning of Jan. 10. Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside, and former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio have long been talked of as possible contenders that come with name recognition and a fundraising network.
“In the 49th district, Democrats are locked in what is fast becoming one of the bloodiest primaries in America. While Democrats fight with each other, Republicans will focus on fighting Democrats – and that’s how we plan to win. We look forward to facing whoever limps out of the Democrats’ battle royale — black and blue and broke,” National Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Stivers said in a statement.
An Army-veteran-turned-businessman who amassed a fortune that made him one of the wealthiest members of Congress, Issa emerged in California in 1998 when he ran for the U.S. Senate. He lost the Republican nomination, but ran for the House in 2000 to succeed Rep. Ron Packard. He has remained in office ever since.
Drew Godinich, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that the GOP agenda made it difficult for Issa.
“California Republicans clearly see the writing on the wall and realize that their party and its priorities are toxic to their re-election chances,” he said in a statement.
Issa rose to national prominence when he was the chairman of the oversight committee, a leadership position he used to investigate the Obama Administration’s handling of a bank relief program, the Internal Revenue’s Service review of conservative organizations, the Fast and Furious gun scandal, and the attack on a Untied States diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.
Revered by conservatives, Democrats criticized him and said he used his committee assignment as a launchpad for partisan attacks. Regardless, it put him into the spotlight and made him a common presence on cable news.
“As evidenced by his work as oversight chairman, Congressman Darrell Issa is a fearless protector of integrity in government. His retirement is a great loss for the institution and the American people. We are truly grateful for his service,” Stivers said.
He remains on the Oversight Committee and also belongs to the Foreign Affairs and the Judiciary Committee, the latter of which he was on track to lead.
Issa’s Vista field office has seen weekly protests organized largely by grassroots volunteers. Many are worried that a Republican president and Congress would result in the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, no action on gun control, a hardline immigration policy and tax legislation that would harm the middle-class.
Ellen Montanari, the activist who holds the permit for the rallies, said she was stunned by the announcement, particularly because she and other protesters had a mock retirement party for Issa on Tuesday, complete with a cake wishing him well. They had no idea that he would announce his departure a day later.
“I can’t think about a better last rally except for the one today at noon, when we are going to celebrate,” she said by telephone.
Montanari wasn’t previously involved in politics, but became increasingly concerned after Trump was elected. She wanted to make sure that Congress would be a diligent check on executive branch powers and policies and believed that her representative was the best chance she’d be heard in Washington. She said she found that Issa, however, wasn’t listening, despite his brush with political death in 2016.
“He’s condescening, he’s arrogant, he’s nasty. He bullied me as recently as two weeks ago,” she said.
With her anti-Issa efforts are coming to an end, Montanari said she’ll work to get a Democrat elected to the seat.
The district runs from La Jolla in San Diego, up the coast to Dana Point in southern Orange County. A total of 37.7 percent of voters are Republicans while 31 percent are Democrats, according to February records from the California Secretary of State. Progressive organizations have focused on voter registration since the 2016 primary.
Since 2016 Issa has increased his presence in his district, holding numerous townhall meetings before packed crowds.
Here is the full statement from Issa:
“Two decades ago, when I stepped away from the business I’d built to enter public service, I never could have imagined that a long-shot bid for U.S. Senate would lead to 18 years in the House of Representatives and endless opportunities to make a meaningful impact.
From the first successful recall of a sitting Governor in California history, to establishing new and stronger standards for government accountability, to protecting the Internet from harmful regulation, and enacting the nation’s first open data standards, we attempted and achieved much in the service of our nation. Together, we put an end to abusive Congressional earmarks, strengthened the Violence Against Women Act, empowered better oversight of the executive branch, and cleared the course for better intellectual property protections to stop the piracy of American ingenuity.
Throughout my service, I worked hard and never lost sight of the people our government is supposed to serve. Yet with the support of my family, I have decided that I will not seek re-election in California’s 49th District. I am forever grateful to the people of San Diego, Orange and Riverside counties for their support and affording me the honor of serving them all these years.
Most humbling for me -- and for anyone who represents this area -- has been the special privilege of representing the Marines and Sailors of Camp Pendleton and their families. On countless occasions, and in every corner of the world I met them, I was inspired by their bravery and humbled by their sacrifice to keep us all safe from harm.Representing you has been the privilege of a lifetime.
While my service to California’s 49th District will be coming to an end, I will continue advocating on behalf of the causes that are most important to me, advancing public policy where I believe I can make a true and lasting difference, and continuing the fight to make our incredible nation an even better place to call home.”
Stewart is a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune.