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Gunderson Leaves 'Increasingly Polarized' House

By Charles Bierbauer/CNN


WASHINGTON (Nov. 28) -- At age 45, some politicians might think about running for Congress. At age 45, Steve Gunderson is leaving after 16 years in the House.

Gunderson is openly gay, but that's not the reason the Republican congressman is stepping aside.

Gunderson's rural, conservative Wisconsin district had already re-elected him once since he acknowledged he is gay.

"I think that was sort of old hat, old history back home," he says.

After 16 years, Gunderson had other reasons for saying enough of this House. "This place is increasingly polarized on the right and the left. As one who came here to govern, to get things done, I think it's fair to say I'm increasingly frustrated by that process." (128K AIFF or WAV sound)

name plate

It's not the House that Gunderson first came to when he was just 29. "It was a good time to be here and a good time to be young, because I found myself riding in with the Reagan revolution," he recalled.

It was the Reaganite right wing, however, that was uncomfortable with Gunderson's personal lifestyle. In 1994 California conservative Bob Dornan "outed" Gunderson on the House floor.

"They couldn't have a guy like me, quote, 'legitimizing, mainstreaming the issue,' so as we've seen with the Bob Dornans of the world and people like that, I have become the target," Gunderson said. (128K AIFF or WAV sound)

gunderson on the house floor

He told his House colleagues: "All I ask in return is that you don't intentionally make me any less worthy than you."

Gunderson has also become an activist for gay and lesbian issues. He has read the names of AIDS victims with his partner, Rob Morris, an architect and builder, in memorial services on the National Mall in Washington.

But, as Gunderson reminds the gay community, it is not his only issue. It is not what got him re-elected in Wisconsin.

"I mean, it's pretty clear back there they decided what was and was not important. And to their credit, having talked to a lot of them, they said, 'You know, this is new for us, but when we look at what Steve has done on rural health care or education or agriculture, how can we vote against him just because of this one issue, even if we don't understand it.'" (224K AIFF or WAV sound)

"Back there" is a place actually called Pleasantville.

In his office, he shows a visitor an aerial photograph. "I have a two-room country school I went to, a country store my mom operated until recent years, the local ball field. There's the cemetery. They cut out of this picture, for PR reasons, the tavern which is right down there.

"We always joke you go drink there and end up there," Gunderson said, pointing at the missing tavern and then the cemetery.

It's no joking matter in a district where the dairies co-exist with the breweries.

gunderson with morris

"You have milk for breakfast and lunch... and beer for dinner and the rest of the evening," he said.

It's those dairy farms that tempted Gunderson to reconsider retirement, when he unexpectedly came in line to chair the Agriculture Committee next year. In the end, though, he stuck with his decision to leave.

"There will always be a reason to run again, and that's how... members of Congress quickly become Washington institutions,"

he said.

As for the institution, Gunderson says he's a "little bit optimistic" the House will return to a bipartisan center. The congressman will start a second career; after all, he's only 45.

"People still believe that when I say I'm leaving Congress, I'm actually retiring from work and that I'm going to have some lucrative federal pension come January," Gunderson said. "So I've got to make it clear to the district that I've got to earn a salary like everybody else."

The pension kicks in later.

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