FRESNO — Rep. George Radanovich announced Tuesday that he is retiring from Congress next year, a decision that immediately triggered a battle over who will replace the Mariposa Republican.
Radanovich, 54, said in a news release that he is stepping down from the 19th Congressional District seat after eight terms to be with his wife, Ethie, who is battling ovarian cancer.
"My family needs me, and I intend to be by their side to win this battle," he said in his statement. He did not return calls seeking comment.
As Radanovich steps down, he is endorsing state Sen. Jeff Denham of Atwater as his replacement. The statement noted that Radanovich's congressional district and Denham's Senate district share more than 100,000 constituents.
Denham, 42, said Tuesday that Radanovich called on Christmas Eve and asked if he would consider running for the seat.
Denham talked with his wife and two children, who were supportive.
"It was certainly a Christmas I'll never forget," Denham said.
Denham won't be the only Republican seeking to replace Radanovich.
For months, former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson has been exploring a run against Radanovich. Tuesday, he made it official.
"The campaign started this morning at 8:30 when I woke up and heard on the radio that George was going to retire," Patterson said.
Until Radanovich's announcement, Patterson, 61, said he remained undecided on a challenge because of Ethie Radano-vich's cancer battle.
"I did not desire to have a political fight with a friend during a time when his wife was ill," Patterson said.
Former Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy and Fresno City Councilman Larry Westerlund also are considering runs.
Pombo lost his congressional seat in 2006 to Democrat Jerry McNerney by 6 percentage points. He has worked on his cattle ranch since then.
"Obviously, I haven't made my mind up on it at all, but it is something that I am considering." Pombo, 48, was a seven-term lawmaker in the 11th Congressional District and chairman of the House Resources Committee, which writes environmental laws.
Neither Denham, Pombo nor Westerlund live in the district.
Pitchfork and principles
Michael Der Manouel Jr., chairman of the Lincoln Club of Fresno County, promised that all prospective candidates will emerge "bleeding" from their interview session with the conservative Republican organization.
"We're so sick of phony Republicans that the Lincoln Club will be the toughest interview anybody has to go through," Der Manouel said. "If you're not going to go there with a pitchfork in your right hand and strong principles in your left, don't even bother to file."
Der Manouel — who lost to Radanovich in the 1994 Republican primary — noted that Denham, Patterson and Westerlund are current or former elected officials.
Patterson, who served as Fresno's mayor from 1993 to 2001 and made an unsuccessful congressional bid in 2002, has spent the past decade in the private sector.
Already, he is lashing out at Denham, who he said has been "in public office too long and has been too ineffectual." Patterson added that Denham — who earlier this month ended a lieutenant governor bid and instead said he would run for the Assembly — is "looking for a place to land for another government check."
Responded Denham: "I believe public service is something that is very important." Denham cast himself as a lifetime farmer and small-business owner.
He said his primary source of income is a Salinas company that makes plastic containers.
The seat would appear to be solidly Republican. Radanovich first was elected in the Republican landslide of 1994 when he unseated Democratic incumbent Richard Lehman. He has held the seat without serious challenge ever since.
Republicans hold a voter registration advantage of 44 percent to 37 percent.
Republican John McCain posted a solid win in the district over Democrat Barack Obama in last year's presidential election.
This past summer, retired actor and Fresno native Les Marsden, a Democrat who lives in Mariposa, said he would challenge Radano-vich. Tuesday, Marsden said, "I have not let up in the meantime." Marsden said he is better suited for the seat because Democrats are likely to maintain their advantage over Republicans in the House.
"The question is, do you want a freshman majority member or a freshman minority member?" Marsden asked.
As potential successors explored the possibilities or announced their intentions, words of praise were offered to Radanovich.
"George was a good congressman who had his heart in the right place and cared about the valley," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. Cardoza said the two often put their party politics aside to advance San Joaquin Valley causes.
"He and I have had a very pleasant and professional relationship. I consider him a friend and I have worked well with him over the years," Cardoza said.
'A devoted public servant'
State Sen. Dave Cogdill of Modesto called Radanovich "a devoted public servant, and I've been proud to partner with him on several issues important to our region."
Radanovich has always been careful to keep details about his wife's condition private, and he has publicly maintained an optimistic attitude about her chances for full recovery.
Recently, Radanovich has missed a number of congressional votes as Ethie Radanovich has seemed to require more care, including occasional hospitalization.
If Radanovich had chosen to seek re-election, he likely would have been forced to campaign in a contested primary against Patterson, leaving his wife in northern Virginia.
Fresno Bee staff writer E.J. Schultz and The Modesto Bee contributed to this report.