Retiring Republican: Capitol Hill is 'toxic'

Rep. Ryan Costello tells CNN's Lauren Fox he'll miss his job as a member of Congress, even though he thinks the political environment is destructive.

Posted: May 28, 2018 9:08 AM
Updated: May 28, 2018 9:08 AM

A lot of Republicans are running away from Congress.

Since the beginning of the 115th Congress, more than 40 Republicans have left or announced they plan to leave the House by the end of the year. A handful of members have resigned amid scandal. Another group is leaving to run for higher office -- for seats in the Senate or to become governors of their home states.

Still, the majority of Republicans leaving Congress this cycle are leaving politics altogether -- a side effect, they say, of the political climate and President Donald Trump, a commander in chief who hails from their own party.

CNN sat down with three outgoing Republicans -- all of whom left for different reasons -- about why they are calling it quits.

Ryan Costello: The reluctant retirement

Ryan Costello, 41, is still new to Congress.

Elected in 2014, the lanky, laid-back congressman is a rare brand in the House GOP conference: a young moderate willing to break with his leadership and his President on everything from gun control bills to repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Representing the Philadelphia suburbs, Costello has remained left of many of his colleagues. However, in the Trump era, the congressman is reluctantly moving on, fed up with the polarization of not only Washington but also the country at large.

"I feel, increasingly, that if you're a member of Congress, they assume that you're not good," he told CNN in a recent interview. "They assume that you're not telling the truth. No matter what you do, someone's out there locked and loaded to say something disparaging, false, mean, in an attempt to have other people not like you."

But Costello -- unlike some of his older colleagues, who've decided to hang it up after decades-long careers or after being term-limited out of powerful committee chairmanships -- said the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court's redrawing of his district so that it became more Democratic-leaning also was a major factor.

RELATED: Court releases new Pennsylvania congressional maps, could help Democrats

"I'm 41. I have an 8-month old. I have a 4-year old. I just lost half my congressional district. The state Supreme Court decided that they were going to try and take me out," Costello said.

Another factor? The reality that no matter what day it is in the Capitol, he typically is inundated with questions about Trump.

"No matter what I say or do, I feel all I do is answer questions about Donald Trump rather than health insurance or tax policy," Costello said. "I think it's a very challenging political environment, and when you add on top of that just the demands from a work-family balance, I just felt it was best for me to take stock in my life and have eight months to decide what I'm going to do next rather than, potentially, six weeks."

When he walks away, Costello said, he'll miss the camaraderie he felt with other members at times and the "pinch-me" moments, the experiences he couldn't have had if he weren't a member of the US House of Representatives.

"There is the occasional pinch-me moment. There's the occasional bang-my-head-against-the-wall moment, too, but there's the occasional pinch-me moment," he said. "That is something that I'll certainly miss."

Jeff Flake: Trump's foil stepping aside

There are few Republicans in Washington who have been more uncompromisingly outspoken about Trump and shortcomings than Arizona's Sen. Jeff Flake.

From the earliest days of the presidential campaign, in which Trump suggested Mexican immigrants were rapists and Flake's Arizona GOP colleague, Sen. John McCain, didn't deserve the distinction of war hero because he'd been captured in Vietnam, Flake has been crystal clear that he thinks Trump's bombastic style is hurting the country and endangering America's reputation abroad.

It's Trump and what he represents about the far-right and nativist underpinnings of Flake's beloved Republican Party right now that drove the 55-year-old senator to decide that now was as good a time as any to retire from Congress.

"Our debt has increased massively; we're no longer the party of free trade. We've become a party of anger and resentment, and that is not the optimistic vision that I cut my teeth on as a Republican listening to Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush or others," Flake said.

After a single term in the Senate and more than a decade in the House of Representatives, Flake will leave at the end of the year just after his youngest son has graduated from high school and he and his wife, Cheryl Flake, are empty-nesters.

"My wife reminded me the other day that we had done this completely backward. I thought if I ever run for office, when I was younger, much younger, that it would be after the kids were grown," Flake said. "Instead we raised our kids during this period and now they're leaving the nest and I'm retiring."

Flake said the first thing he plans to do is take a big trip (maybe a couple), similar to the exit strategy of former President Barack Obama.

"I will go (to) an island or two. I've done that in the past, even when I've been in session, just to find a break and as a hobby," he said. "Go out and survived on an island with no food or water. That's my kind of idea of fun."

As he heads for the exit, he leaves some unfinished business. Flake -- who has been among the Republicans who worked relentlessly on immigration restructuring and enshrining the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program into law -- said he's frustrated he hasn't been able to see the legislation through. He also lamented that he's leaving at a time when the Senate isn't doing as much legislatively as he wishes it was, in part because of arcane Senate rules and in part because, he said, leadership on both sides of the aisle has shielded members from difficult votes.

"We end up in this dance where we just don't vote very much. That needs to change. Take a vote. Just take a vote," he said. "I hear sometimes from my colleagues, 'We can't do that because the President doesn't support it.' Ultimately the President has to sign or reject what we pass, but to obsess over whether the President will agree with what we've put on his desk just means that we put very little on his desk."

Behind the scenes, Flake said, there are many more Republicans as concerned about the President and the direction of the party as he is. From public policy to the Russia investigation, Flake said, members in the GOP are more vocal behind the scenes than they are before the cameras.

There is one issue where members are especially worried: No one wants Trump to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.

"All of us are quietly, and sometimes publicly, warning, or begging, or admonishing the President not to go that route. I certainly hope he doesn't," Flake said.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: The first Latina in Congress retires

In the span of a single hour, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's office was never not doing something.

The Floridian sat down with CNN, met with a landscape architect and entertained representatives from an after-school program for underprivileged kids, asking questions and engaging in a manner that many members who've been around Capitol Hill for as long as she has lost long ago. Everyone was offered Cuban coffee, perhaps the secret to Ros-Lehtinen's boundless energy and enthusiasm for a job she's held for nearly three decades.

Unlike other members walking away this cycle, Ros-Lehtinen doesn't have a list of gripes about her job, the hours, the fundraising, the endless mix of meetings. She loved it all, she said.

Instead -- as the first Latina ever elected to Congress (a fact she herself didn't know until after she'd won her seat) -- Ros-Lehtinen offers a glimpse into just how much Congress has changed for women and minorities in a body where they are steadily gaining ground.

"When I first got to Washington, there were not even 30 women. Not even 30 women in the House. I don't know what the number is now. I've lost count, there's so many of us, thank goodness. Is it parity? Is it what it should be? No. But is it getting better? You bet," she said.

Still, Ros-Lehtinen argues there is more work to do on some committees, like House Foreign Affairs, where she served her entire congressional career and once chaired.

"We need to do better in getting more women involved in those kinds of committees, so that when the audience is looking at us, they're thinking, 'Oh, yeah. This is representative,' " she said.

When she retires, Ros-Lehtinen said, she hopes to split her time between Washington and Florida. While Miami is her primary residence, she said she has a "dumpy" townhouse in DC in a great location and wants to "save it for a rainy day." She's not interested in shunning politics altogether. Even in the era of Trump, who she admits has made Washington more polarized, she believes Congress has always been a tough place.

"It seems a little more antagonistic, so that part has changed a little bit, but it's not like this was 'Leave it to Beaver,' 'Mayberry R.F.D.,' 'The Donna Reed Show,' " Ros-Lehtinen said. "It was never a Pollyanna, Mary Poppins place. It was always rough and tumble politics."

The congresswoman leaves her post with very few regrets, although she admits she would have liked to have helped establish an American Latino Museum as well as passed her bill that would allow Holocaust survivors to present a case in court, something they aren't able to do. She also once aspired to have a perfect voting record, but that was shattered on her first day in Congress in 1989, when she got an unexpected invitation to meet with the father of her congressional campaign manager, George H.W. Bush and Jeb Bush, respectively.

"George Herbert Walker Bush was the President and he had campaigned for me in Miami, so the first day, I get sworn in and his office calls me up, the White House, and ... says, 'The President would like to see you,' " she recalled. "I said, 'Well, we have votes.' So the very first day, I missed like seven votes, so so much for my perfect voting record, which is something I wanted to do."

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 593622

Reported Deaths: 7379
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1228171731
Ramsey51446875
Dakota45976452
Anoka41782439
Washington26948283
Stearns22266222
St. Louis17787304
Scott17296124
Wright16082140
Olmsted1325598
Sherburne1173087
Carver1050745
Clay816392
Rice8063107
Blue Earth751541
Crow Wing666290
Kandiyohi656283
Chisago601351
Otter Tail575478
Benton571697
Goodhue478572
Douglas468575
Mower466232
Winona455050
Itasca439156
McLeod424559
Isanti422464
Morrison419660
Nobles408048
Beltrami397059
Steele388715
Polk384868
Becker380953
Lyon361051
Carlton345654
Freeborn342029
Pine329022
Nicollet326243
Brown305440
Mille Lacs305053
Le Sueur292423
Todd282432
Cass273428
Meeker256640
Waseca236322
Martin230732
Roseau209419
Wabasha20613
Hubbard190041
Dodge18513
Renville180343
Redwood174337
Houston171916
Cottonwood165823
Fillmore156510
Wadena155922
Pennington153719
Faribault152419
Chippewa152338
Kanabec144726
Sibley143810
Aitkin135036
Watonwan13289
Rock128319
Jackson121812
Pipestone115926
Yellow Medicine114120
Pope11056
Murray10639
Swift105618
Stevens91411
Marshall88117
Clearwater86916
Koochiching83615
Wilkin81612
Lake81120
Lac qui Parle75322
Big Stone6004
Lincoln5813
Grant5788
Mahnomen5539
Norman5399
Unassigned49293
Kittson48622
Red Lake3977
Traverse3705
Lake of the Woods3253
Cook1640

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 367236

Reported Deaths: 5940
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk57666626
Linn20892335
Scott20060241
Black Hawk15824308
Woodbury15138228
Johnson1449183
Dubuque13380208
Dallas1118398
Pottawattamie11132168
Story1062348
Warren577988
Clinton555893
Cerro Gordo540689
Sioux514474
Webster512293
Marshall483075
Muscatine481399
Des Moines458066
Wapello4303122
Buena Vista424840
Jasper419372
Plymouth401280
Lee376055
Marion362875
Jones299057
Henry291937
Carroll285752
Bremer284860
Crawford266240
Boone265034
Benton256655
Washington254050
Dickinson248543
Mahaska230451
Jackson222142
Clay215725
Kossuth215564
Tama209871
Delaware209741
Winneshiek196835
Page192722
Buchanan191432
Cedar190023
Hardin185643
Fayette185141
Wright184737
Hamilton180049
Harrison179673
Clayton169556
Butler165034
Madison162519
Mills162422
Floyd161142
Cherokee158938
Lyon158241
Poweshiek154934
Allamakee151451
Iowa148824
Hancock148434
Winnebago142531
Cass138654
Calhoun138513
Grundy136333
Emmet134240
Jefferson132435
Shelby131137
Sac130419
Union128333
Louisa128149
Appanoose128049
Mitchell126442
Chickasaw124116
Guthrie121530
Franklin120721
Humboldt119126
Palo Alto112823
Howard104622
Montgomery103338
Clarke100224
Unassigned9710
Keokuk96031
Monroe95329
Ida90435
Adair86532
Pocahontas85522
Davis83024
Monona82730
Osceola78716
Greene77710
Lucas77223
Worth7478
Taylor66012
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