LANSING, Mich. — U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, who has represented his working-class hometown of Flint and the surrounding area in Congress for 34 years, said Friday that he's retiring when his current term expires next year, confident that his seat will remain in Democratic hands.
In a written statement, the 81-year-old Kildee said he intends to spend more time with his wife, three children and 10 grandchildren. The 5th District, which takes in Genesee, Tuscola and parts of Bay and Saginaw counties in east-central Michigan, was changed by the Republican-controlled Legislature during recent redistricting. But the changes merely made the new district more Democratic by adding more of Bay County.
"Now that the new congressional maps have been approved by the Michigan State Legislature, I am confident that the 5th District will remain in Democratic hands and that it is an appropriate time to announce my retirement," Kildee said. "While I know I would be able to win re-election in the new 5th district, I've decided that after 36 years in Congress it is time to retire."
Kildee, who is in his 18th term in Congress, is the eighth House Democrat to announce their retirement after the 2012 election. Five Republicans also have said they won't seek re-election next year.
Kildee has been in elected office for most of his life, having served in the Michigan House from 1965 through 1974, when he was elected to the state Senate. In 1976, he ran for Congress and won by a wide margin, and the following January assumed the seat he still holds.
He missed very few votes during his lengthy congressional career, and has long been a champion for Flint, the struggling industrial city where he was born and where he taught Latin to high school students before entering politics. He also taught in Detroit.
Two possible contenders for the seat are Kildee's nephew, Dan Kildee, a former Genesee County official who oversaw many of his uncle's campaigns, and Jim Barcia, who served 10 years in Congress and then in the Michigan Legislature. Dan Kildee now heads the Center for Community Progress, a national land use nonprofit organization that has offices in Flint and Washington, D.C.
Michigan Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer on Friday thanked Dale Kildee for his service, adding that Dan Kildee "would be a tremendous candidate and a great member of Congress if he decides to run."
The Kildee name is practically synonymous with area of once-sprawling auto plants and strong unions that encompassed Flint and the industrial areas along Saginaw Bay. Kildee remained a reliable supporter of labor unions and automakers even as some of the factories closed and unemployment surged over the past decade. But the area is experiencing something of a comeback, with General Motors Co. poised to invest millions in its Flint truck assembly plant.
The co-chairman of the House Auto Caucus backed federal loans for GM and Chrysler in 2008 and 2009 and frequently called for extending unemployment benefits. He also was leader on education issues, pushing to extend Head Start and calling for more accountability in schools.
The former divinity student – he once considered becoming a priest – opposed abortion rights, leaving him out of step with many of his Democratic colleagues. But several of Michigan's other longtime Democratic congressmen were quick to praise Kildee Friday.
"In all the many years I have known and worked with Dale in the state Legislature and the Congress, he has never wavered in his commitment to making the American dream a reality for everyone," said Rep. Sander Levin, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.
The House's longest currently serving member, Rep. John Dingell, said Kildee "has served the people of Michigan with honor and dignity ... (and) worked to ensure every child has access to a quality education."
President Barack Obama also issued a statement, saying: "As a teacher, state legislator and congressman, Dale made fighting for the families he represents his top priority and worked to improve education in Michigan and across the nation."
Kildee has been a fixture in Michigan Democratic circles for decades and usually won by wide margins. In at least three contests he got 70 percent of the vote or more, and in 2002 no Republican ran against him.