GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Vern Ehlers announced he would not seek a 9th fullterm in the US Congress this November, closing his long politicalcareer but opening a potentially wild race for the seat torepresent Michigan's 3rd District.
Ehlers confirmed his plans to 24 Hour News 8.
"I don't want to stay in office so long that people will say youshould have left five years ago," Ehlers said.
On Saturday, Ehlers celebrated his 76th birthday. "I don't havea savior complex. I don't believe I'm the only one who can do thisjob. I believe in the opportunity for others to serve and leavetheir imprint." He added, "I want to be sure I never stay beyondthe point of being useful."
Ehlers' wife, Jo, recently suffered a mild heart attack. Ehlerstold us she's doing well and denied that her health problem is thereason he's retiring. When asked, he said his health is fine.
Ehlers was first elected to Congress in 1993 in a specialelection to complete the term of Congressman Paul Henry who died in office. Nine otherRepublicans were running against him. Michigan's 3rd Districtcovers Kent, Ionia, and Barry counties.
He said lawmakers on Capitol Hill still call it "Jerry Ford'sseat." Ford held the office for 25 years, giving up the seat whenhe became Vice President.
The night he was elected, Ehlers received a phone call fromformer President Ford, who told Ehlers, "It's a great victory andI'm very proud of you."
When asked if he knew of other Republicans planning to run thisyear, Ehlers told 24 Hour News 8, "A couple candidates have beentalking about it. I think five or six will run. But I never worriedabout that."
There is already one Republican seeking the nomination forCongress . Justin Amash , currently the staterepresentative from the 72nd District, announced his intentionsTuesday. Michael Van Kleeck, a Kentwood construction workerand college student, will also run.
Ehlers "was somewhat suprised" by the Amash announcement. He hadnot contacted anyone in the Amash campaign prior to theannouncement, but said Amash called him Tuesday.
In a statement released shortly after the Ehlers announcement,former State Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema said, “Those who have served inthis seat in congress – Jerry Ford, Hal Sawyer, Paul Henry,and Vern Ehlers – leave a rich legacy. The next to hold thisseat will have big shoes to fill. Many have already approached measking that I run. I am honored and giving a run strongconsideration. However, this day belongs to Vern. There will beplenty of time in the days ahead to speculate on who will and whowon’t run to replace him.”
Ehlers never faced a Republican primary challenger once he wasin Congress. Back in 1993, he beat stiff competition frompoliticians and community leaders still well known, including MargeByington, Glenn Steil, and Ken Sikkema.
When asked if the Republican Party or his financial backerssuggested he retire, Ehlers said "No." He said constituents andothers have encouraged him to run again.
The question of retirement is one that first surfaced a dozenyears ago, during the campaign of 1998. Ehlers, then nearly 65years old, told 24 Hour News 8, "I don't think that's an issue. Asmy staff tells me, they can't keep up with me now. They can'timagine anyone who could run faster than I can at getting the jobdone. I regularly put in 80 to 90 hours a week, no problem. I thinkthat was a false issue."
Ehlers said he still works 80 hours a week and that he's "nottired, not disillusioned" with the job.
"I'm not straightly aligned with the right or the left," Ehlerssaid. "I've worked without selling my soul politically. I feel verycomfortable with what I've accomplished."
Being a Congressman is "unique, very hard work, very busy. Butwhen you get something useful done, it's immensely rewarding."
Inquiring about what he would want his successor to know, Ehlersresponded, "It is a different Congress. You can't prescribe what'sbest for the job. The first thing you have to do is gain therespect of your colleagues."
He added, "There are so many dynamics of Congress. It's anever-ending job."
Vern Ehlers’ first foray into politics was in 1975 as aKent County Commissioner. The nuclear physicist was teachingphysics at Calvin College at the time. He served eight years on thecommission, part of that time as chairman of the board.
In 1983, he was elected to the State House and in 1985 to theState Senate. He stayed in the senate for years, eventually servingas President Pro-tem.
He counts among his political accomplishments: resolving garbagedisposal issues while a Kent County Commissioner; implementingmandatory medical tests for all babies at birth while in theMichigan House; instituting statewide 9-1-1 emergency service as aMichigan Senator; and laying the groundwork for improving K-12instruction in science, technology, education and mathematics asCongressman.
Lakeshore congressman Pete Hoekstra, who is also leaving his DC seat torun for governor, said in a statement that Ehlers is "smart,friendly, funny and has great integrity. He will be greatlymissed."
Born in 1934 in Pipestone, Minnesota, he was raised ChristianReformed and was home schooled. He attended Calvin College andgraduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where heearned his Ph.D in nuclear physics.
For a while Ehlers was the only scientist in Congress, but thereare two other scientists currently serving with him.
Ehlers and his wife have been married for 51 years, and havefour adult children and five grandchildren.
He told 24 Hour News 8 he plans to spend more time with hisfamily and lightheartedly said, he may be looking for a 40 hour aweek job.
At his news conference he admitted he "never expected to stay inCongress this long."
On the Net:
Former UAW President Owen Bieber, now retired and living in Dorr Township, was wide-eyed at the magnitude of the moment. Nelson Mandela, just out of a South African prison, meeting another civil rights icon -- Rosa Parks -- at the Detroit …
A Grand Rapids sex offender has been charged with another crime against a young girl.
A Grand Rapids man busted for using a 77-year-old woman's credit cards has now been charged with breaking into her home – and raping her.