Ruing "the ever-increasing vicious polarization of the electorate," Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) on Friday became the third Democrat to announce his retirement from the Senate at the end of this Congress.
Exon, 73, an independent-minded but popular middle-of-the-road lawmaker, decried what he called "the us-against-them mentality," which he said "has all but swept aside the former preponderance of reasonable discussions of the pros and cons of the many legitimate issues." That polarization is the main reason for his decision to retire after three terms, he said.
If it were not for that atmosphere, "the old fire horse within me wanted to answer the bell for another race," Exon said in a meeting with about 100 friends and family members in his hometown of Lincoln, Neb.
His decision not to seek reelection increases the odds against the Democratic Party's attempt in 1996 to take back leadership of the Senate, which Democrats lost in November. Democratic clout fell even further after the elections as two of their 48-member caucus jumped parties, with Sens. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado joining the Republican Party. Republicans now hold a 54-46 majority. Fifteen seats held by Democrats are up election next year.
Three other senators have announced their retirements, effective at the end of next year: Paul Simon (D-Ill.), J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) and Hank Brown (R-Colo.). Both Simon and Johnston cited personal reasons for retiring, although Simon said in an interview Friday that he concurred with Exon's assessment of the increasingly corrosive partisanship in Congress.
"There is more of that," Simon said. "And that is not healthy."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) praised Exon as "an extraordinary senator and public servant" and expressed his confidence that Sen. Bob Kerrey, soon to be Nebraska's senior senator and current chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, would help the party "find a very viable candidate" who will win Exon's seat in 1996.
Republicans targeted Exon's seat as a high priority for 1996. "Electing a Republican to fill Sen. Exon's seat will be one of our most important goals of this election cycle," said Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman. "Nebraska voters have the opportunity to continue the GOP's sweep of open-seat races since President Clinton has been in office."
Possible Republican candidates for the seat include Rep. Doug Bereuter, a nine-term member of Congress, and Jan Stoney, a retired business executive who lost a 1994 Senate bid to Kerrey.
On the Democratic side, Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson, who handily won reelection last year, said Friday that "all kinds of people" are pushing him to seek Exon's seat.
Exon, a pipe-smoker known for his easy-going manner, was an Army master sergeant who served in the Pacific during World War II. He owned an office equipment store when, in 1969, he ran for governor, defeating an incumbent. He went on to serve a second term before winning a Senate seat. He has never lost an election.
In the Senate, as ranking member of the Budget Committee, Exon fought hard for the recently defeated constitutional amendment to balance the budget.
Over the years, Exon has been a strong supporter of the military, especially the B-2 bomber, the Midgetman missile and the MX missile. In 1989, Exon vigorously opposed then-President George Bush's nomination of former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) as defense secretary.