Media weren't the only people caught by surprise Monday by U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin's announcement that he would not seek re-election in 2014.
Griffin had been running hard, with the honed, disciplined and repetitive messaging that marked his first two runs for the congressional seat. He had $500,000 in the bank. He pressed solicitations regularly through social media. He made appearances at all the football games, pie suppers and oil pipeline disaster sites expected of a congressional candidate.
Griffin said his two young children finally dictated his decision. On Alice Stewart's radio show he spoke poignantly of his young daughter asking him on a walk to school if he couldn't find a job closer to the Capitol in Little Rock. This was shortly before he was due to take his weekly flight back to the Capitol in Washington.
The story had long been that this would be his last run for Congress. Friends said his wife didn't like the grueling bi-city life of permanent campaigning and travel that is the congressman's lot. And she reportedly discouraged a run for a job closer to home — governor — because of the low compensation. They have a fat-columned Heights home to support as well as children.
Griffin made good money working in political/legal consulting in the year before he first ran for Congress. His time in Washington would serve him well in finding that sort of work again.
I'll take Griffin at his word on family pressures, but you have to wonder whether the sudden evidence that he faced a tougher than expected race for a third term might have been a contributing factor. After all, both children were born BEFORE Griffin's first race.
The emergence of serious Democratic opposition in the form of North Little Rock's former mayor, Patrick Henry Hays, and polling that offered hope for a Hays candidacy was well-known. Republicans have been polling, too, and the numbers haven't been good for House Republicans, who, like Griffin, forced the shutdown.
Hays isn't the guaranteed nominee. But I give him a sentimental edge for committing to the race before Griffin's departure. He mailed papers last week. Bill Halter's sudden reappearance (through a spokesman) from seclusion after a tepid response to his short-lived gubernatorial candidacy didn't serve him well. Where had he been until naked opportunity arose?
It's a wonder to me that anyone runs for the U.S. House. Fund-raising never stops. Campaigning never stops. Serving in Washington means a week split between Washington and home, the trips often on puddle-jumper flights with bad connections. Coming home doesn't mean relaxation time with family, but meetings with staff and making the rounds of public events to nourish political roots.
All this to be one of 435 people, very few of whom count for much in the big picture. In today's deeply divided Congress, party-line voting is the norm. Individual merit counts for little. Those who stand out often do so for negative reasons — think Louie Gohmert and other Tea Party extremists.
Griffin landed a seat on the Ways and Means Committee, once one of the most powerful places in Washington. Now that earmarks are out of favor and budget chopping is the flavor of the day, it offers less by way of meaningful service to constituents, but some of his backers were miffed he decamped abruptly after winning that prize.
Griffin's abbreviated service did put him in contact with the permanent and growing professional class that infests Capitol Hill like head lice.
If nothing else for his four years in Congress, Tim Griffin probably can get another job.