Neil Nisperos and Joe Nelson, Staff Writers
Posted: 01/12/2012 10:24:20 AM PST

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, announced his retirement on Thursday, after 46 years in elected office and 33 years representing San Bernardino and Riverside counties in Congress.

“It’s been a fabulous time and a great privilege and honor to serve the people of San Bernardino County for all these years,” Lewis said in a telephone interview Thursday.

But after months of speculation about his future, and his own mulling it over after new political lines were drawn last year, the 77-year-old Inland Empire congressman decided to end a historic run.

He’ll fulfill his term, which ends in January 2013, and will not seek re-election in November.

After beginning his public service career as a San Bernardino Board of Education member in 1965, Lewis rose quickly. He successfully ran for an Assembly seat in 1968 and after running for Congress in 1978, ultimately became among the longest-serving members of Congress in history.

He was the first representative from the state to be chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. He also served as chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee from 1999 to 2005.

That power came as Lewis rose through the ranks of Republican leadership, where the Inland Empire had a consistent and influential representative in a congressional district now known as the 41st, centered in Redlands. It includes a region that spans from the East San Bernardino Valley to a portion of the Mojave Desert to Desert Hot Springs in Riverside County.

He steered federal dollars to the state and to the region for projects such as the planning and construction of the Seven Oaks Dam near Highland. The dam, dedicated in 1999, was built to protect residents of San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties from flooding.

He also helped secure funding for improvements at LA/ONT International Airport, and he sponsored legislation that required the U.S. Air Force to transfer Victorville’s George Air Force Base and the former Norton Air Force Base to local agencies and low cost, while pushing for funds for both bases.

Among his proudest achievements came early is his career as a state assemblyman, pushing for the establishment of the first air quality committee in the state Legislature, which led to the formation of the South Coast Air Quality Management District in the mid 1970s.

Growing up in the San Bernardino Valley, where thick, tawny bands of smog often cloaked the horizon, Lewis said it was one of the things he wished would go away.

“For 250-plus days a year you could drive down the I-10 and you didn’t even know mountains surrounded this valley entirely because you couldn’t see them,” Lewis said. “Since running for public office, it was always one of my commitments to do something about that.”

Though his career has been flecked with myriad achievements, Lewis experienced his share of controversy.

In 2006, a federal grand jury subpoenaed records from various San Bernardino County organizations and agencies in an investigation into Lewis’s alleged abuse of power as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He was accused of steering hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks to family and friends in exchange for contributions to his campaign.

The U.S. Department of Justice closed the case in November 2010 without citing a reason, and it was never submitted to federal prosecutors.

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