SIOUX CITY | Even though U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Clive, stopped representing Sioux City 11 years ago, he was known as a reliable and important advocate for the region. He never stopped watching out for his former constituents.
That role is one reason Tuesday’s surprise announcement that Latham, 65, would not seek another term came as a concern to political observers in Iowa, which still is coming to terms with losing longtime U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin. Both Harkin, a Democrat, and Latham will retire in 2015, after the November 2014 elections.
Their departure from Capitol Hill means Iowa will be down a combined 60 years of experience. Those who work to convey Iowa’s interests in Washington are closely watching the exit.
"We're going to try to view the change as opportunity," said Barbara Sloniker, vice president of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce.
She said the changes will present challenges as she lobbies for transportation improvements and tax policy changes to benefit businesses. Staff members for both lawmakers provided great tips on sources for help, she said, and "were clued in on The Hill.”
Doug Gross, a longtime aide to Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and former nominee for governor, said the retirement sets up another political battle in November.
"It throws open a congressional seat in a very, very important district. I think you'll have a scrum on both sides,” he said. “I think you'll have lots of interest.”
Latham was elected in 1994 in a congressional district that at the time included Northwest Iowa. The boundaries were altered in 2002 to reflect population changes. Latham moved from Ames to Clive in 2012 when subsequent redistricting changed the boundaries again.
Ray Hoffmann, a Sioux City restaurant owner who formerly served as the Iowa Republican Party Chairman, said Latham "kept himself pretty quiet and kept his nose clean."
He served on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, which resulted in financial support to law enforcement, including a regional anti-methamphetamine police training facility in Sioux City.
Latham also delivered the final $6.5 million to finish the $12 million modernized Interstate 29 exit to Sioux Gateway Airport, which opened in 2003. He also was a close ally to House Speaker John Boehner.
Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt said that while Latham delivered money, he didn’t have a signature piece of legislation. Lawmakers like Latham aren't out to make a name for themselves -- they go about quiet nuts-and-bolts constituent service in the House, he said.
Schmidt said Latham was an astute politician, winning in three different districts in the 1990s, 2000s and 2012.
"He always fit his particular constituencies,” he said. “That's why he always won in different districts.”
Latham in a statement said he prides himself on his service and wants to spend more time with family.
“I have always been motivated by a responsibility and commitment to the people of Iowa, who elected me to faithfully work for an America that provides greater freedom and more opportunity for our children and grandchildren,” he said.
HALF AND HALF
Latham, Iowa's senior U.S. House member, also briefly was considered a contender for the Harkin seat, one of several open positions in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Instead, six other GOP contenders have entered the race, along with U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Waterloo, the only Democrat running. Harkin announced his retirement in January.
Braley is leaving his House seat to run.
All told, the various shifts mean Iowa is losing half of its congressional delegation and half of its U.S. senators. Schmidt said that’s a substantial amount of power walking out the door.
"You are losing seniority, boom, right off the top," he said.
Braley has been in the House since 2007. Harkin spent 10 years in the House before being elected to the Senate in 1985. U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, who represents Sioux City, also faces re-election against Democrat Jim Mowrer. If King wins, he would have the longest tenure in the Iowa delegation.
Drake University political science Professor Dennis Goldford said it is premature to expect any huge loss of clout for Iowa in the House, since neither Latham nor Braley holds committee chairmanships.
The bigger footprint is Harkin, a senior member and former chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. Harkin will depart after 30 years, although Iowa's other senator, Republican Chuck Grassley, has been in office 33 years and will remain a powerful resource.
The Latham announcement also comes as the GOP works to keep control of the House. Democrats need a net gain of 17 seats. Two other long-term lawmakers -- Rep. Frank Wolf, a 17-term Republican from northern Virginia, and Rep. Jim Matheson, a seven-term Utah Democrat – also announced plans to not run again on Tuesday.
Gross said the Latham surprise will impact state politics.
"It's a bombshell politically in Iowa,” he said, “because he was so strong.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.