Miss. Sen. Trent Lott resigns, ending a 35-year career in Congress filled with ups and downs

Published 4:40 pm Tuesday, November 27, 2007

In many ways, Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott is living proof that there can be second acts in politics.

Lott was ousted as Republican Senate leader in 2002 over controversial remarks, only to rebound last year, winning re-election to a fourth term and the party’s No. 2 post.

There apparently will be no third act. Lott announced Monday he will leave a 35-year career in Congress, becoming the sixth Senate Republican this year to announce retirement.

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Lott, 66, said he wants to spend more time with his family and to pursue other job opportunities, possibly teaching. He ruled out any health concerns, but said it’s time for a younger voice to represent Mississippi in the Senate.

“I don’t know what the future holds for us,” he said on behalf of himself and his wife Tricia. “A lot of options, hopefully, will be available.”

He was first elected to Congress on the coattails of Richard Nixon’s re-election landslide in 1972 — with 78 percent of the vote in Mississippi. He won election to the Senate in 1988, succeeding retiring veteran Democrat John Stennis.

His decision to retire by year’s end occurred five years after he triggered an uproar with comments interpreted as endorsing segregation during a 100th birthday party for retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond.

At the party, he said voters of his state were proud to have supported the South Carolinian when he ran for president as a segregationist in 1948, and added, “If the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.”

Lott apologized numerous times, but President Bush did not stand behind Lott, increasing pressure on the lawmaker to step down as minority leader.

Lott said he had notified President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Gov. Haley Barbour on Sunday about his plans to retire. Asked about his conversation with the president, Lott said: “He was very kind in his remarks. Over the years we’ve had our ups and downs, good times and bad times, both of us.”

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert also made his retirement official Monday. Hastert, R-Ill., made a farewell speech to House colleagues 11 days ago.

Hastert, 65, was the longest serving Republican speaker in history, assuming the post in 1999 and losing it last January when Democrats regained control of the House after the 2006 elections.

Lott rebounded a year ago, winning re-election to a fourth term in the Senate and narrowly defeating Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander for the party’s No. 2 post lining up and counting votes as GOP whip behind Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Lott said he had not planned to run for re-election in 2006, but he changed his mind after Hurricane Katrina devastated Mississippi’s Gulf Coast and demolished his beachfront home in Pascagoula. “They didn’t quit, so I couldn’t quit,” he said of his neighbors.

Barbour, the Republican governor, will name someone to temporarily replace Lott and announced a special election for Nov. 4, 2008. Lott’s term runs through 2012.

His soon-to-be-vacant seat is likely to remain Republican. GOP Rep. Chip Pickering of Mississippi, a former Lott aide who recently announced his retirement from the House, is widely seen as a potential successor.

Former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who served one term before being defeated by Barbour in 2003, said Monday that he is considering running for the seat.

Republican Rep. Roger Wicker and Democratic former state Attorney General Mike Moore also are possible contenders for the Senate seat.