Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, works the phones in this 2005 photo. Lewis, who has represented a Southern California district in Congress for more than 30 years, will not seek re-election in 2012, he announced Thursday./AP

BY BEN GOAD
WASHINGTON BUREAU
bgoad@pe.com

Published: 12 January 2012 10:17 PM

U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis, the dean of California’s House Republicans who was both celebrated and criticized for the hundreds of millions of federal dollars he sent to his Inland district, said Thursday he would retire after more than three decades in Congress.

“We’ve enjoyed the fact that we’ve been able to make some reasonable contributions. We will miss the work,” Lewis R-Redlands, said referring to himself and his wife, Arlene, his longtime chief of staff. “One doesn’t have to do this forever, and there are many capable people around who ought to be serving as well.”

Over almost half a century, Lewis rose from San Bernardino’s local school board to become one of the most powerful members in Congress. As top House appropriator, he gained notoriety — and drew unwanted attention from federal investigators — for his use of earmarks for projects in his home district.

Lewis, 77, is the longest-serving House Republican in California history. He said will remain in office until his term ends in December. He did not elaborate on his reasons for leaving, but redistricting has left him in a less favorable position, and last year he lost his bid to reclaim the chairmanship of one of Congress’ most powerful committees.

His is the third retirement announcement in the past week from senior California House Republicans, signaling major changes in the state’s federal representation and particularly Inland Southern California’s congressional delegation, which has been unchanged for more than a decade.

Lewis’ decision triggered a stream of tributes from both sides of the aisle and around the nation, as well as a spate of campaign announcements for the two districts where he had considered running.

WASHINGTON FIXTURE

Lewis grew up in San Bernardino County and served as a lifeguard at what is now the Jerry Lewis Swim Center in San Bernardino. In 1968, when he was 34, he left his job as owner of an insurance business for the state Assembly.

V. John White, an environmental advocate in Sacramento, was a self-described “bearded anti-war Democrat” when Lewis hired him as a consultant for the Assembly’s new air quality subcommittee, which Lewis led. The assemblyman introduced legislation that established the South Coast Air Quality Management District, an agency that has been instrumental in drastically reducing air pollution in Southern California.

“It was a wonderful experience for a rookie staffer to get to work with a member who had Jerry’s political skills,” White said.

In 1978, voters sent Lewis to Washington. Two years later, he found the niche that would help define his congressional career: the House Appropriations Committee. Lewis gradually moved through the ranks of the powerful panel, which oversees spending on federal programs.

He became chairman in 2005, a promotion that was aided by his prolific fundraising on behalf of the Republican Party. The job, he said, “was beyond my wildest dreams.”

Lewis, a UCLA fan who swims four miles a week and brings his dog Bruin to the office, remains a stickler for the more buttoned-down old ways of Washington. He has been known to chide reporters with the nerve to show up for an interview at his Capitol office without a necktie.

“Around here,” he grumbled on at least one occasion, “we respect the uniform.”

Both on the House floor and in the committee room, Lewis grew to be a skilled parliamentarian, often to the ire of his longtime rival, Rep. Davis Obey, D-Wis., who took the Appropriations gavel from Lewis when Democrats took control of the House in 2007.

On one day in the summer of 2008, in the face of high gas prices, Lewis used a surprise legislative maneuver to force a vote to repeal a congressional ban on offshore drilling. Obey called Lewis’ tactics childish.

“With all due respect, there are only seven weeks left in the session. I don’t see why we should spend those seven weeks in Jerry Lewis’ playpen,” Obey said before promptly adjourning the committee altogether.

EARMARKS APLENTY

For Inland residents, Lewis’ legacy is just about everywhere. It’s on the swimming pool in San Bernardino, the Highland recreation center that also bears his name and the new Jerry Lewis High Desert Government Center in Hesperia, but it’s also along Inland roadways and in area hospitals and universities.

From his perch on the Appropriations Committee, Lewis steered enormous amounts of federal funding to favored projects through the use of earmarks, spending directives that were, until recently, slipped into annual appropriations bills.

Few congressional members were more adept at the process. Lewis’ earmarks helped pay for the creation of a cancer research center at Loma Linda University Medical Center, the Seven Oaks Dam and a massive tree-clearing effort in the San Bernardino National Forest credited with reducing the region’s perennial wildfire danger.

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