Exclusive: GOP lawmaker who sought to recruit more women to run in 2020 is herself retiring
The four-term representative of Indiana's 5th Congressional District will not run again in 2020. Stephen J. Beard/IndyStar, Stephen J. Beard/IndyStar
WASHINGTON – When the number of Republican women in the House of Representatives dwindled to the lowest level in a quarter century, Rep. Susan Brooks was determined to persuade more GOP women to run for Congress.
Now, the four-term congresswoman from Indiana has herself decided not to run in 2020.
“While it may not be time for the party, it’s time for me personally,” Brooks, 58, told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview. “This really is not about the party. It’s not about the politics. It’s just about, `How do I want to spend the next chapter of my life?'"
“There will be much, MUCH, conjecture about my decision,” Brooks wrote in a letter sent to supporters Friday.
Brooks also knows that because she's not running, the party may want someone else to take over her recruitment position for the campaign arm of House Republicans.
“I have no idea what they’re going to do,” she said Thursday morning of party leaders' response to the decision she had yet to share with them.
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After Brooks' announcement Friday, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee said the congresswoman's recruitment efforts "are full steam ahead."
“When we look back, Susan’s legacy will be that she played an instrumental role in leaving our new Republican majority far more diverse than it was when she found it," said Minnesota Rep. Tim Emmer, chair of the NRCC.
But Emmer's counterpart at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said losing Brooks underscores the problem Washington Republicans have created for themselves with leadership that "continually marginalizes women’s voices."
"Congresswoman Brooks’ retirement is the clearest evidence yet that Washington Republicans' efforts to retake the majority are in a tailspin," said Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill.
'It's OK to walk away'
Brooks said that while she doesn't know what her next chapter will be, she knows she's ready to slow down and spend more time with her family. And that means no more bids for Congress or any other elected office — including the position of governor that she sought in 2016.
Brooks spoke in her studio apartment, a 15-minute walk from Capitol Hill where she’d been voting since past midnight the night before.
Visiting her son Conner last month in Alaska where he teaches helped cement her decision not to miss out on more of the lives of her friends and family because of an inflexible schedule where “you’re never off the clock," she said. Her husband David, an Indianapolis attorney, is semi-retired.
“It’s a bit of a selfish decision. I appreciate that,” Brooks said. “But I also think what people need to appreciate is, once you enter elected office, it’s OK to walk away. It’s OK to break the rules and not stay in the game until you’re defeated or something bad happens in your career.”
For 2020, Democrats had put Brooks on their “retirement watch list.” They see her district, which includes the wealthy northern Indianapolis suburban areas, as potentially flippable as Republican support has eroded in some suburban areas under President Donald Trump.
But Brooks insisted that Indiana’s 5th District, which she carried by nearly 14 points as Republicans lost the House in November, will remain in GOP hands with or without her.
It's Indiana's only Democratic-trending House district that's now held by a Republican, according to David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
"Still, this is going to be a tough district for Dems to flip in 2020," Wasserman tweeted. "It’s not just wealthy Indy burbs, it’s also got pro-Trump factory towns."
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So is she leaving because it’s no fun being in the minority? Brooks points to legislation she’s been working on with Democrats, including a bill reauthorizing funding for health emergency programs that is awaiting the president’s signature.
Is she dissatisfied with the leader of the party? Brooks said she has a “fine relationship” with Trump and an “outstanding relationship” with Vice President Mike Pence – her former law school classmate.
“Indiana is going to be very strong for the president and vice president in the 2020 cycle,” she said.
Never part of the plan
It had never been Brooks’ goal to be in Congress. Or to run for any office.
But after serving as deputy mayor of Indianapolis, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, and a top administrator at Ivy Tech Community College, Brooks was encouraged to challenge GOP Rep. Dan Burton. When Burton decided not to seek re-election in 2012, eight Republicans vied for the nomination, including former Rep. David McIntosh.
Brooks said she was backed by only one member of Congress: Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. And the photo that Brooks would display at some of her campaign events was not of herself, but of Cecil Murray Harden, the only Republican woman that Indiana had previously elected to the House, who left office in 1959.
Brooks won the primary — by just 1,010 votes ahead of McIntosh. Her elections since have never been close in the district that spans eight urban, suburban and rural counties in central Indiana, including the north side of Indianapolis. But her victory in November with 57% of the vote was her smallest general election performance.
Even before the #MeToo movement took off, Brooks was working on sexual harassment issues including putting together an online training video after a House member was caught on video kissing an aide. Under her watch as chair of the House ethics committee, the panel investigated sexual misconduct allegations against multiple aides and members – including a fellow committee member. And Congress agreed at the end of last year on new rules for handling complaints, including making lawmakers financially liable for sexual harassment settlements.
“It was a very difficult and a very busy time,” she said.
Brooks has kept busy on policy issues. Successful bills on which she played a major role included legislation responding to the sex abuse scandal in USA Gymnastics uncovered by IndyStar, establishing the Landmark for Peace Memorial in Indianapolis as part of the African American Civil Rights Network, and creating a task force to review opioid prescribing practices.
President Donald Trump recognized the number women in Congress and cheers broke out during the State of the Union address. USA TODAY
Brooks, a past co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, belongs to both the Republican Study Committee – a group of conservative lawmakers – and to the moderate Main Street Partnership.
She’s broken with fellow Republicans on a few big issues, including when she voted in 2013 to end a partial government shutdown and avoid a default on the national debt. More recently, Brooks was one of only eight House Republicans to vote in May for a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
One focus for Brooks in her remaining time in the House will be her work on a special committee created this year to “modernize” Congress. Issues they’re tackling include scheduling, staff retention, staff diversity, transparency, social media and how to avoid government shutdowns. She’s been reading “Strengthening Congress,” a book by former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat who co-chaired the last committee formed to update Congress – in 1993.
Brooks passed up a chance to run for the Senate in 2016, after Dan Coats announced his retirement. And the party choose Eric Holcomb over Brooks to replace Pence on the 2016 gubernatorial ticket when Pence became Trump’s running mate.
She said she’s no longer interested in running for governor – or any other elected office – even as she will continue to encourage others, including with her political action committee through which she’s prioritized supporting female candidates.
“I will remain involved,” she said. “I’m looking forward to who knows what. I don’t have a plan for what’s next.”