WASHINGTON -- The newly announced retirement of Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, culminates a San Joaquin Valley political career built from the ground up.
On Thursday, the former Capitol Hill intern and one-time Atwater city councilman revealed he will step down from the House at the end of 2012. The departure avoids a primary battle with his longtime friend, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, in a newly redrawn congressional district.
"I love the people of the Central Valley, and thank them for the confidence they have placed in me," Cardoza said in a statement. "While I plan to retire from public service...I will energetically continue my efforts to improve California as a private citizen."
But in giving up a job he first won when he unseated a former boss in 2002, Cardoza is also departing the frustrations of a Congress where his fellow moderates have faltered and partisan zeal prevails.
"The constant focus on 'screamers' and the 'horse race' of elections is smothering useful discourse and meaningful debate of public policy," Cardoza said, adding that he was "disappointed by the broadcast media's general lack of attention to moderate members of Congress."
Cardoza was traveling cross-country to California on Thursday and unavailable for further comment.
The veteran politician did not specify his career plans once he leaves the House of Representatives and its $174,000 annual salary. He and his wife Kathleen McLoughlin, a physician, currently live in a new, 4,130-square foot house on two acres in rural Maryland; they also maintain a home in Atwater.
Cardoza and his wife have three children, two of them adopted, and foster children issues have been among Cardoza's priorities in the House. In his six-paragraph statement, Cardoza also cited his "work to build community centers, new schools, roads and water infrastructure" as well as his emphasis on farm programs.
While chair of the House horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee, Cardoza helped secure a record $1.2 billion for specialty crops as part of the 2008 farm bill.
"Congressman Dennis Cardoza has been a strong and valued supporter of the University of California, Merced, since the earliest days of his career in public service, dating back to his tenures on the Atwater and Merced city councils and in the California Assembly," UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland said.
"His efforts throughout the 1990s were instrumental in the selection of Merced as the home for the newest campus in the renowned UC system and in securing funding for the campus' construction -- support that was critical in bringing world-class research, education and public service to a long underserved region of the state," Leland said.
Turlock City Manager Roy Wasden, who formerly served as Modesto police chief, added that Cardoza helped San Joaquin Valley officials frame requests for congressional help. The congressman, Wasden said, wouldn't simply nod and say yes to a local wish list.
"He was able to get things done, and he was also effective in showing what can be accomplished," Wasden said in an interview. "He'd say, 'you need to come back here with one message.' He would keep us realistic."
Cardoza's decision leaves Costa as the favorite to represent the newly redrawn 16th Congressional District, which spans Merced and Madera counties and parts of Fresno County.
Democrats enjoy a 48-to-33 percent voter registration advantage, and Republicans are seeking a top-tier candidate.
The new district includes 324,000 residents of Fresno County, parts of which Costa has represented for some three decades. Cardoza's political base, by contrast, has been in Merced County and points north. The new district's balance seemed to favor Costa, though the two longtime allies never came close to competing.
"Dennis has been a tremendous ally for all the years we have worked together," Costa said in an interview Thursday, adding that "his first priority has always been the people of the San Joaquin Valley."
Cardoza's decision did not surprise his political allies. Tellingly, Cardoza's fundraising slowed since July, and newly filed statements show his campaign treasury has only $62,471 available.
Last July, in another telling move, Cardoza's long-time chief of staff Jennifer Walsh departed for a vice president's job with a health care company. Walsh had worked for Cardoza since he first took office in January 2003, following his defeat of then-Rep. Gary Condit, D-Ceres.
Cardoza served as Condit's chief of staff while Condit was in the state Assembly. Later, as an assemblyman himself, Cardoza challenged his former boss after Condit's reputation plummeted following the disappearance of Chandra Levy, the much-younger woman with whom Condit was having an affair.
"None of us have a divine right to hold these offices we hold," Cardoza said in announcing his inaugural House campaign in October 2001.
Some of Cardoza's most trusted staffers first honed their skills in Condit's office, including district director Lisa Mantarro Moore and senior policy advisor Dee Dee Moosekian.
Politically, too, Cardoza has been cut from the same centrist cloth as past Valley Democrats. Last year, he voted more conservatively on economic and social policy issues than 40 percent of other House members, according to the non-partisan National Journal.
Cardoza helped lead the moderate Blue Dog Caucus, whose membership plummeted following the 2010 election. Cardoza also served as a liaison between moderates and the liberal House Democratic leadership, through his 2007 appointment to the House Rules Committee.
The rules committee seat gave Cardoza, a gambling fan, what he fashioned as a place at the table. Behind the scenes, he could quietly help cut deals. The leadership position, though, was also a complicated one for a centrist whose rural constituents distrust Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
On Thursday, Pelosi praised him as a "leading moderate voice."
"For our country to change course," Cardoza said, "voters must aggressively punish extreme partisanship and rhetoric when they cast their ballots."