Freshman Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., retiring

Congressman's exit could be due to health issues -- or allegations he sexually harassed male staffer

Published March 3, 2010 7:34PM (EST)

After just one term in Congress, Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., has reportedly decided against running for reelection.

Massa is slated to hold a conference call with reporters to talk about the decision later Wednesday afternoon, but early reports suggest it could be health related. In the 1990's, while serving as special assistant to Gen. Wes Clark, then supreme allied commander of NATO, Massa was diagnosed with terminal cancer; after treatment, however, the cancer was reportedly in remission. However, the New York Daily News has unnamed "sources close to the congressman" talking about a possible ethics investigation.

The retirement would seem to give Republicans, who'd been targeting the seat anyway, a good opportunity for a pickup. The district leans to the GOP, and Massa won a close race in 2008, beating incumbent Republican Randy Kuhl by just 5,000 votes. Two years before that, Kuhl beaten Massa by 6,000 votes.

Massa was a "no" vote on healthcare reform when the House passed its bill last fall. Normally, his retirement would mean that House Democratic leaders -- who badly need every vote they can round up -- would start pressing him hard to come around, given that he now presumably has no political concerns about backing the bill. There's a key difference this time, though: He's one of those "no" votes that came from the left. That will make any such arm-twisting difficult, if not impossible.

Update: Here's a twist to the story, and some potential insight into Massa's decision. Politico reports that "the House ethics committee has been informed of allegations that Massa, who is married with two children, sexually harassed a male staffer."

Massa, however, told Politico, "When someone makes a decision to leave Congress, everybody says everything. I have health issues. I'll talk about it [later].”

Update 2: On that conference call with reporters, during which he did not take any questions, Massa reiterated that he was retiring for health reasons, not due to harassment allegations. He was hospitalized in December, and told reporters his doctors said he couldn't maintain his current lifestyle.

"I do not have the life's energy to fight all the battles all the time. I will now enter the final phase of my life at a more controlled pace," Massa said. "I'm a very salty guy, a very direct guy and I run at about 100 miles an hour."

Addressing the reports about sexual harassment of a male staffer, he said they're "unsubstantiated without fact or backing ... a symptom of what's wrong with this city." He also said, "Do I or have I ever used salty language especially when I'm angry, in the privacy of my inner office or at home? Yes I have and I've apologized where it's appropriate."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2010 Elections Eric Massa New York War Room