Rep. Vito J. Fossella, citing “personal mistakes” after a drunken driving arrest and disclosure he fathered a child in an extramarital affair, yesterday became the 26th Republican congressman to retire rather than face re-election this year.
The New Yorker’s exit comes at a bad time for the Republicans, but staying could have made things worse. A socially conservative incumbent in a socially conservative party, the congressman’s personal baggage threatened to further weaken a sinking Republican ship.
“This choice was an extremely difficult one, balanced between my dedication to service to our great nation and the need to concentrate on healing the wounds that I have caused to my wife and family,” Mr. Fossella said in a statement on his congressional Web site, saying he would serve out his term, which expires on Jan. 3, 2009.
The 43-year-old has acknowledged fathering a daughter with a Virginia woman, Laura Fay. The two met while she was an Air Force officer working with Congress. He also has a wife and three children.
The lone Republican congressman in New York City, Mr. Fossella represents Staten Island and part of Brooklyn.
His departure puts more pressure on Republicans to hold the seat, though it is not clear who will be on the ticket for either party in November.
Republican Party officials already have begun searching for a successor.
The district “will vote true to its form in November and will send a Republican representative back to Congress,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee. He said the committee will be “working quickly” to sign up a Republican contender.
The local district attorney, Daniel Donovan, is an early favorite for the Republicans — particularly because voters might welcome a law-and-order candidate as an antidote to Mr. Fossella’s foibles.
Before the scandal, Democrats mounted a surprisingly tough challenge to Mr. Fossella in 2006.
The departure of Mr. Fossella “only provides a stronger opportunity for Democrats to pick up the seat,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Carrie James.
Party leaders already have spoken privately with a handful of potential candidates seeking the seat, though it is not clear how many will emerge as full-fledged candidates from that process.
Mr. Fossella’s secret relationship was revealed after he was arrested in Virginia May 1 on charges of drunken driving.
The disclosure was a crippling blow to the career of a lawmaker once viewed as a potential candidate for mayor of New York City.