Peter DeFazio speaks at a podium in front of the U.S. Capitol Building.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio, right, speaks during a news conference with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., center, and Richmond (Va.) Mayor Levar Stoney, left, Wednesday, May 12, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio is retiring.

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After more than three decades as a mainstay in Oregon politics, the state’s longest-tenured U.S. House member announced Wednesday that he won’t seek a 19th term. The 4th Congressional District DeFazio represents spans Oregon’s southwest corner, stretching from the California border to Albany.

“With humility and gratitude I am announcing that I will not seek re-election next year,” DeFazio, 74, said in a statement. “It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve as Congressman for the Fourth District of Oregon.”

The decision means Oregon will lose one of its most influential voices in Washington, D.C. DeFazio, known for a quirky personality and, at times, a short temper, is the influential chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure – a role that allowed him to help shape a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package passed in November.

DeFazio, who has pushed for a major infrastructure spending bill for years, haled the bill as an achievement, even as he has complained that the plan did not include investments he favored in things like climate change and high-speed rail. He plans to spend his remaining year in office working to ensure those priorities are addressed.

“He’s one of the most influential members of Congress on infrastructure, and I think I know a little something about that,” U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a longtime friend and transportation wonk in his own right, said Wednesday. “It will be a tremendous loss to lose the longest-serving member of Congress in Oregon’s history.”

DeFazio is also retiring just as he has reason to believe his path to reelection would be easier. The Fourth District is expected to be more favorable to Democratic candidates beginning next year, after Democratic lawmakers successfully passed a new redistricting plan. Members of both parties had expected DeFazio to cruise to victory, despite a potential rematch with a Republican candidate, Alek Skarlatos, who had proven competitive in 2020.

In fact, the new map actually helped the congressman’s decision to retire after decades of a grueling commute that often saw DeFazio flying cross-country to Portland then driving back to his Springfield home. He told reporters Wednesday he had “the longest commute in the lower 48″ and said he’d spent the equivalent of 435, 40-hour workweeks traveling back and forth while in Congress.

DeFazio said he needed back surgery earlier this year, as a partial consequence of spending extended periods on planes.

“There comes a time when you need to pass the torch,” DeFazio said. “My district now has been improved. It’s now winnable by another Democrat.”

Had the district remained a potential swing seat after redistricting, he said, “I would have felt more obligation to run again.”

Of course, even if a Democrat does take the seat, there’s no guarantee that they will be in the majority. The 2022 elections are expected to favor Republicans nationally, and the GOP might take control of the House. DeFazio downplayed that possibility Wednesday, saying Republicans “are measuring the curtains a little too early.”

DeFazio said he is not endorsing a candidate to take his place, but that he’ll “be watching very closely,” to see who emerges.

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That field began to come into clearer view hours after the congressman’s announcement. Oregon Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, who lives in the district, announced her intention to run for the seat.

“I have always been focused on getting the job done, not on who gets the credit,” Hoyle said in a statement. “Nobody can fill Peter DeFazio’s shoes. But I am determined to do all I can to ensure that his dedication to our people and communities, his strong and principled leadership, and his track record of putting the needs of hard-working Oregonians first will continue.”

Hoyle had been planning to run for reelection as labor commissioner next year. That seat will be open as she pursues Congress.

State Sen, Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, said Wednesday she is “carefully weighing her options” and a potential House run in light of DeFazio’s announcement.

DeFazio was first elected to Congress in 1986. At the time he was a 39-year-old Lane County commissioner, who’d formerly worked as a staffer for Oregon Congressman Jim Weaver

Through his 35 years in the House, DeFazio cultivated a distinct populist view that resonated with voters disenchanted with the political establishment. Before Donald Trump launched his own battles against free trade, DeFazio voted against every major trade agreement to come before Congress. DeFazio parted ways with fellow Democrats in supporting a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. And he opposed President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill, saying it didn’t include enough money for infrastructure spending.

DeFazio often talked about battling “idiots,” as when he told a TV station in Eugene in 2011 that there was a shortage of federal money for needed dam repairs in Oregon because of “some of the idiots I’m working within Washington.”

DeFazio’s disillusionment with the political gamesmanship in D.C. has only grown since then. On Wednesday, he railed against House Republican leadership for threatening to punish 13 GOP members who voted in favor of the bipartisan infrastructure package.

“He is frustrated that he is spending a lot of time in committee with Republicans just complaining,” Blumenauer said. “They’re not involved in any constructive efforts. Peter’s instincts are to get things done.”

But DeFazio trumpeted plenty of accomplishments in announcing his retirement. They included more than $1 billion in extra transportation funding he says he’s been able to bring back to Oregon through his advocacy and newly unlocked money that will go toward dredging and maintenance of the nation’s ports.

“A lot of the things I got done are going to stand,” he said. “My focus has been on Oregon. I’m proud of the legacy.”

News of his impending retirement drew praise for DeFazio from many in his party.

“Peter DeFazio blends all the best qualities of a top-notch legislator – he’s an effective, passionate and powerful advocate who always puts the best interests of his constituents first,” U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden said in a statement. “Thanks to Peter DeFazio, roads, bridges and transportation systems in Oregon and nationwide are stronger, last longer and are cleaner and greener.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a statement called DeFazio “an absolutely force for progress, whose 36 years of effective leadership in the House will leave a legacy that will benefit the Congress and Country for decades to come.”

“Our Democratic Caucus will miss a trusted voice and valued friend,” Pelosi said.

DeFazio said Wednesday he plans to spend retirement largely in Oregon, including visiting wilderness areas he’s helped to protect. But he’s got work in mind, too: A book that will offer a dim view of the chances of salvaging democracy in the United States.

“I want to write that,” DeFazio said. “For years I gave a speech called, ‘Can American democracy survive?’ Even before Trump, it was pessimistic. The challenges are even greater now.”

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