Times Union, Albany, NY

Solomon to leave the House

Dan Freedman and Judy Holland
Times Union Washington Bureau

(04/28/98, Copyright © 1998)

Citing family, health and financial issues, Rep. Gerald B. Solomon surprised Capitol Hill Monday by announcing that he will leave Congress this year, ending two decades of service.

"I'm for term limits, and 20 years is enough," joked the Queensbury Republican, who rose to become the powerful chairman of the House Rules Committee.

At a news conference in the Capitol, Solomon, 67, said, "I've literally loved every minute of the 20 years that I've spent here in this body, even those years of being persecuted in the minority."

Solomon, who has represented upstate New York in the House since 1978, said he and his wife, Freda, had decided in recent days that running for re-election would be too grueling. He noted that his schedule over Congress' recent 15-day spring break was so hectic that he had no time for his family.

He also cited a battle with prostate and bladder cancer in recent years that had left him with some heart damage. He said his wife felt he should no longer work in the "volatile atmosphere" of Congress. "I feel I can work 18 hours a day, but my wife doesn't," he said.

Solomon confessed that he was "embarrassed" to realize that he had taken only five days of vacation with his wife during all his years in Congress.

He also said he wants to return to a career in business so he can leave a decent inheritance for his five children and six grandchildren. He noted that he left his Warren County real estate, insurance and stock brokerage business in 1978 in the hands of junior partners, "all of whom are now millionaires."

Solomon said he could very well become a political consultant or lobbyist in Washington, but has not yet made up his mind.

He added that he had not discussed his resignation with House Speaker Newt Gingrich or others such as Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., his longtime Democratic counterpart on the committee who has been his sparring and joking partner for years.

At the news conference, Solomon repeatedly described himself as a "doctrinaire conservative." He reminisced about how, during his first campaign for Congress in 1978, he spoke out for a strong national defense, welfare reform, less government and lower taxes. He recalled arriving in Washington in 1979 on the cusp of the "revolution" of President Ronald Reagan, who was elected the following year. Among those in Solomon's freshman class in the House was another unknown named Newt Gingrich.

Solomon said that thanks to 12 years of Reagan and then George Bush in the White House and to Republican control of Congress since 1995, "I feel we accomplished what we set out to do. . . . A lot of my work is really done."

Solomon challenged Gingrich for the speakership in 1995 after the Republicans took control of Capitol Hill. The upstate New York congressman lost to the Georgian, but Gingrich made him chairman of the Rules Committee, essentially putting him in charge of which legislation gets to the House floor and how extensively it can be amended.

In Congress, Solomon has been a strong advocate of a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning.

"In a society as pluralistic and diverse as our own . . . it is all the more important to protect the most important symbol of unity in our country," he said.

He also was in the forefront of unsuccessful efforts to deny normal trade relations with China after Beijing's 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. He has sought to document his concerns about the relationship between China and Democratic Party fund-raisers.

The former Marine has been called by his colleagues "the pit bull of the House." Through his long career he occasionally asked Democratic opponents to "step outside" when floor debate got hot, although no such confrontation resulted in fisticuffs.

He suggested as much to Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., when the two clashed over gun control.

"You may not agree with Jerry Solomon, but you know where he stands," he said of his reputation."I do not believe in holding in my feelings."

He has not only been a close ally of Gingrich, he also has led the way on several high-profile fights in Congress: repealing a ban on assault weapons, requiring adoption of English-only as a requirement for Puerto Rico statehood, balancing the budget and banning federal loans to college students with drug convictions.

He also has said he believes homosexuality is an "illness," that property rights take precedence over environmental regulations and that the United States should take a tougher stand with human rights violators such as China, and he has fought for improved veterans care.

During his years in Washington, Solomon has separated himself from his party's line infrequently, most notably in support of labor and dairy issues. Both matter deeply to voters in his district, which includes much of the upper Hudson River Valley beyond New York City's northernmost suburbs.

Solomon launched his political career as town supervisor in Queensbury, and later served in the Warren County Legislature and New York state Assembly.

His seat has never been seriously threatened since he won his first election for Congress.

He is the second Republican to announce plans to retire in three days. Rep. Wes Watkins of Oklahoma made his announcement over the weekend. His retirement, due to a painful back condition, gives the Democrats a good opportunity to pick up a House seat in the quest for a majority in 1998.

One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said House GOP leaders were attempting to persuade Watkins to change his mind and run again.

At the news conference, Solomon said he was concerned that if he waited until 2000 to depart, New York's Legislature might target his district for elimination if the U.S. census that year dictated that the state should lose a congressional seat.

"I just can't let that happen to the people I represent," he said.

By leaving this year, he said, he would give his successor enoughtime to establish a reputation and ward off attempts to merge the district with another one.

Solomon expressed confidence that Republicans will retain control of the House and Senate in this year's elections. He also virtually endorsed Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, calling him a "true Reaganite" who is "extremely electable."

The departure of Solomon and another powerful New York Republican, Rep. Bill Paxon, will leave the New York delegation with diminished GOP strength next year. Solomon referred to his and Paxon's departures as well as that of Paxon's wife, Rep. Susan Molinari, R-N.Y., last year.

"That's a lot of clout," he said. "Unfortunately, all three of us (are) going now. That's the one real concern I have."

He declined to name whom he might endorse as his successor, but expressed hope that the nominee also would be "the same kind of doctrinaire conservative I am."

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