URBANA — U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson plans to retire at the end of his current term and return to practicing law, and possibly teaching and participating in local government.
Johnson, an Urbana Republican, told The News-Gazette on Wednesday that he is leaving Congress after six terms to spend more time with his family of nine children, 11 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
He made his public announcement Thursday. WDWS has audio of the announcement here.
"This is 100 percent, nothing more nothing less, than a personal, family decision," he said. "In the course of my 44 years — and it has been 44 years since I was elected a precinct committeeman in 1968 — I've missed baseball games and wedding receptions and births and high points and low points. I have a wonderful, supportive family that has been such a blessing to me and I've reached a stage in my life — I'm almost 66 years old — where I need to smell the coffee."
At the time of his retirement in January, Johnson will have served in either the Illinois General Assembly or the Congress for 36 consecutive years.
"I need to make sure that I'm with them when they need me, and maybe in some cases where they don't need me. And I want to enjoy time with them that, quite frankly, I have had to neglect in particular over the last 12 years because you're in Washington all of the time," said Johnson. "I love them all. They've been incredibly supportive in every respect and I just want to be able, while I'm still at what I think are my peak years, to be able to spend time with the people I care about."
Johnson said he is not retiring now to anoint his successor.
"I can tell you who it won't be," he said. "It won't be Mark (Shelden, his chief of staff and former Champaign County Clerk), or Phil (Bloomer, his spokesman) or Tom (Johnson, his brother who is a member of the Illinois Pollution Control Board) or Buzz (his 35-year-old son who has been working on Johnson's reelection campaign)," Johnson said. "I want to see who comes to the surface as candidates.
"I certainly would have some preference in that regard. But in terms of making an endorsement or coming down and saying, 'I'm retiring and here's my successor,' I'm not doing that."
Johnson also said he would not return to Washington as a paid lobbyist.
"I think something like 79 percent of ex-congressmen become lobbyists," he said. "Under no circumstances am I going to become a lobbyist. Under no circumstances. To be quite honest I don't think that, except to see my son Chris, who is at Georgetown (University), I doubt I'll ever be in D.C."
Johnson, who grew up in Urbana, attended the University of Illinois and began his political career as a member of the Urbana City Council and later practiced law in Champaign County, said "it is a virtual certainty" that he would resume practicing law.
"I'm going to associate with a law firm and that will be my way of staying in touch with people," he said.
He also would like to teach, he said.
"I would consider some part-time teaching. I want to keep my mind active and to play a role in public discourse and keep my visibility without being a politician," Johnson said.
Or he might return to local government, he said.
"I think local government is the root of good government and if it so happens that people want me to run for local office I would consider it," said Johnson, who was elected to the Urbana City Council in 1971.
Johnson won last month's 13th Congressional District Republican primary election over two little-known candidates, attracting about 68 percent of the vote.
His general election foe appears to be Bloomington emergency room physician David Gill — for the fourth time. Johnson easily defeated Gill in 2004, 2006 and 2010, but would have faced him this time in a new congressional district that is projected to be slightly more Democratic than Republican.
Johnson insisted, though, that he isn't afraid of Gill.
"David Gill is an honorable liberal, an honorable would-be public servant. But the operative word is liberal," Johnson said. "This district is not a liberal district and I'm convinced that his positions are sufficiently out of the mainstream that not only me but any Republican candidate is going to be far more able to be able to adapt to the nuances of the district than he is.
"I like him. I respect him. I think he really took on the establishment like I like had to do. I did that in 2000 when I ran against Speaker (Dennis) Hastert (who had endorsed Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady in the GOP primary). And I really respect David Gill for doing that. Durbin and all the Washington politicians got involved but at the end of the day David Gill beat them and he gets a lot of respect from me for doing that. But no, I beat him three other times. This is a little different district, but at the end of the day I don't have even the remotest thought that it would be a close election."
Johnson said his decision to retire now could benefit the Republican Party.
"The good news for the party, if you want to look at it that way, is that this avoids a divisive and costly primary that inevitably would have occurred if I had not pulled the plug," he said. "It probably deterred an even stronger Democratic opposition and we wound up with David Gill, who is running for the fourth time. If I felt we were not going to win the election it would cause me a lot more angst about my decision."