GOP will have to choose candidate to take Johnson's place on ballot
URBANA — U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, is leaving Congress at the end of his current term, sources said Wednesday.
Johnson, who is completing his sixth term in the U.S. House, is expected to make the announcement Thursday afternoon at the Urbana City Building, where he began his political career as a city council member in 1971.
Just two weeks ago, Johnson, 65, won the Republican nomination over two little-known and underfunded candidates, Frank Metzger and Michael Firsching, in the new 13th Congressional District. He got more than 68 percent of the vote in the 13-county district that arcs from Champaign-Urbana southwest to the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis.
Johnson's decision means that the Republican county chairmen in the 13th District will have to select a new GOP candidate to oppose Bloomington physician David Gill, whom Johnson had defeated in three earlier congressional elections in the old 15th Congressional District.
There are a number of possible contenders, including Johnson's former chief of staff, Jerry Clarke, who while he is chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren of Wheaton has maintained his Urbana residence.
Clarke said Wednesday he is "very interested" in succeeding Johnson in the House.
Clarke, 46, is a major in the Army Reserve and has served three tours in Iraq. He has four children, ages 7, 5, 3 and 1.
"I would assume it will be a crowded field," Clarke said Wednesday night.
Among the other possibilities are Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, whom Johnson defeated in the 2000 Republican primary; Sen. Sam McCann, R-Carlinville; former state Sen. Duane Noland of Blue Mound, the president and CEO of the Association of Illinois Electric Co-ops; former state Rep. Mike Tate, the chief operating office of the Professional Independent Insurance Agents of Illinois; and Springfield attorney Don Tracy, who ran for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor in 2010.
A number of state representatives also are considered potential candidates, including Reps. Dan Brady of Bloomington; Wayne Rosenthal of Litchfield; Bill Mitchell and Adam Brown, both of Decatur; and Dwight Kay of Edwardsville.
Reps. Chapin Rose of Mahomet and Jason Barickman of Champaign, both of whom won primary races for the state Senate last month, are considered less likely to jump into a congressional race.
"Would I be interested? Sure," Rose said. "I would have to do my due diligence. I'll have to see who else would be in there. It's a big district."
Habeeb Habeeb, who is expected to become the new chairman of the Champaign County Republican Party later this month, has the greatest number of weighted votes among the county chairmen who will choose Johnson's replacement. Habeeb could not be reached for comment Wednesday night, but Clarke said he had talked to Habeeb "a lot" on Wednesday.
He said, however, that he had not asked Habeeb for a commitment.
"I'm not there yet," said Clarke, who added he planned to start inquiring of the county chairmen on Friday.
Thursday "should be about Tim," he said.
Clarke said he is not surprised that Johnson decided to leave Congress.
"I think he's been unhappy for a while," Clarke said.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Gill, the Democratic candidate, decried Johnson's decision not to run in the November general election.
"We wish Tim Johnson the best of luck in the future," said spokesman Michael Richards, "but dropping out of the race at this point seems pretty undemocratic."
He said that Republican voters "aren't going to get a chance to choose their general election candidate; the Republican insiders will."
Gill narrowly defeated Greene County State's Attorney Matt Goetten in the March 20 Democratic Party primary.
Johnson was first elected to Congress in 2000. Previously, he had served in the Illinois House since 1976 and before that was a member of the Urbana City Council. A retirement from politics this year means that Johnson will have run in more than 20 contested electoral contests without having lost.
An Urbana native, Johnson has a bachelor's degree and a law degree from the University of Illinois. He practiced law for several years in Champaign County. He has nine children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.