Health care law in place, California’s Rep. Miller says he’ll retire

Michael DoyleMcClatchy Newspapers

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., announced his retirement Monday, ending a 40-year congressional run that reshaped California water, public lands and politics.

An old-fashioned liberal who followed his father’s footsteps into public life, the 68-year-old Miller surprised Capitol Hill with the decision that he said has been percolating since the 2010 passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“When we passed the Affordable Care Act, it was such a big part of why I came to Congress in the first place,” Miller said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. “I started to think, ‘What do you do to top this?’”

While stressing he was in good health, Miller also pointedly noted that he has “flown five million miles” during a congressional career in which he has effectively commuted cross-country between the East Coast and his San Francisco Bay Area congressional district, where his family has remained.

“My kids have been telling me a long time to come home,” Miller said.

The veteran congressman alerted House Minority Nancy Pelosi last week to his retirement decision, and on Monday he began informing other House colleagues. He elaborated on his decision-making in a press conference Monday morning conducted at his congressional district office in Richmond, the East Bay city he was born in and has long represented.

Since his initial election to the House in 1974, as part of the post-Watergate class of reform-minded Democrats, Miller learned to manipulate the levers of power as he ascended in seniority. As chair of the House Natural Resources Committee in the early 1990s, he won praise from environmentalists and infuriated farmers, while he redirected California water use through passage of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. The law steered more water to fish and wildlife protection, tightened irrigation deliveries and spawned myriad lawsuits.

Allied with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Miller also successfully pushed an ambitious 1994 California desert protection act that designated the 3.3 million-acre Death Valley National Park and the 790,000-acre Joshua Tree National Park, among other provisions.

Later, as a senior member of the House education panel, Miller worked closely with Republicans to pass the No Child Left Behind education law revisions during the George W. Bush administration. The work earned him his own presidential nickname – Bush dubbed the former high school football player “Big George” – as well as the regard of some GOP partisans.

“No one would confuse me and George Miller for ideological soul mates, but during our years serving together…we got things done on behalf of the American people thanks in no small part to his dedication and willingness to work for the greater good,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement.

Boehner’s praise was particularly telling because of Miller’s own partisan role as a top lieutenant to Pelosi. Miller has worked closely with the San Francisco Democrat since she first arrived in Congress in 1987. She later hired as her chief of staff John Lawrence, who served as Miller’s top staffer for three decades.

“He has been a close friend since my first days in the House," Pelosi said of Miller in a statement, calling her ally “the model of the serious, substantive and successful legislator.”

Miller’s voting record has also marked him as one of the House’s most consistent liberals, as he has earned 100 percent vote scores from NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Education Association and Defenders of Wildlife, and 0 percent scores from groups further to the political right, such as the National Rifle Association. He is known, at times, to express his views vehemently and with escalating volume.

“George is a great progressive voice who made it his life’s work to fight for policies that benefit children and families,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who was also first elected to the House in 1974.

A long-time liberal like Miller, Harkin has also announced his retirement.

Only four other current House members have served in Congress longer than Miller, and there’s only one other remaining member of the class of 1974 – Rep. Henry Waxman, a Los Angeles Democrat and fellow liberal.

The son of George P. Miller, a former state senator, Miller graduated from San Francisco State University and the law school at the University of California, Davis. Married, and the father of two sons, Miller has also gained some Capitol Hill repute for the row house he shares during the week with several other Democratic members of Congress. It is, as the New York Times once put it, “inelegantly decorated.”

Miller said he would “like to continue to pursue the education reform agenda” once he departs the House at the end of this year, and indicated that he anticipates “exploring other venues” for pursuing his interests. As of last September, his campaign treasury reported having $349,073 on hand.

State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, followed Miller’s announcement by saying he expected to seek his 11th Congressional District.

“George is a really good friend,” DeSaulnier said. “I wish him well and I would love to replace him in Congress. “It was always my intention to run.”

Christopher Cadelago of The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.

By Michael Doyle
McClatchy Washington Bureau