Pickering to quit Congress

Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering announced Thursday that he won't seek a seventh term in 2008, a move that's expected to create a free-for-all contest for a rare, open congressional seat in Mississippi.

"I have a window of opportunity to maximize my time, influence and participation in the lives of my five sons now ages 8 to 17," Pickering, 44, said in a news release. "Time is the one element I can never recover or regain. Being a father is one of life's greatest callings.

"I make this announcement with a full heart and abiding faith in both our country and great state," he said. "I look forward to working together to complete our mission and fulfill our promise."

Pickering did not say if he has a new job lined up. His congressional salary is $165,200.

He was first elected in an east central Mississippi district in 1996, when longtime Rep. G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery, a conservative Democrat, chose not to run after 40 years in office.

After the 2000 Census, Mississippi lost one of its five U.S. House seats because it had grown more slowly than many other states during the 1990s. During a contentious redistricting battle that moved from the state Legislature into the federal courts, most of Pickering's original district was combined with most of the territory of Democratic Rep. Ronnie Shows, who was first elected in 1998.

In 2002, Pickering defeated Shows in the new district, which makes a diagonal from southwest to east central Mississippi, stretching from the Louisiana border up through the Jackson area and over to the Alabama border.

"The district is one which Republicans are slightly favored," said Rich Forgette, chairman of the political science department at the University of Mississippi. "I suspect there's definitely going to be a lot of Republicans interested in filling that position. That district is in the Jackson area and a lot of state elected officials might be interested."

He said Pickering could make a political comeback later, if he chooses.

"The Pickering name in Mississippi is well known," Forgette said. "He's well integrated within the Republican Party."

Mississippi now has two Democrats and two Republicans in its House delegation. The other Republican, Rep. Roger Wicker, said he - like many Republicans - was surprised by Pickering's announcement.

"He's been a diligent, effective member of the Energy and Commerce Committee," Wicker said. "He has an expertise ... on telecommunications law. He was a good partner with the rest of the delegation on transportation issues. He's been a very effective advocate for his district."

Pickering, son of the former head of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, worked as a Christian missionary in eastern Europe before starting his political career in 1989 with an Agriculture Department job in the first Bush administration. He then moved to a staff job for U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.

Pickering emerged from a field of nine Republicans and three Democrats to win the open congressional seat in 1996. In the general election, he defeated attorney John Arthur Eaves Jr., who is now the Democratic nominee for governor.

Pickering has been widely regarded as a potential candidate for Senate if Lott or Mississippi's other Republican senator, Thad Cochran, decides not to run again. Cochran has not said whether he'll seek another six-year term in 2008. Lott's term is up in 2012.

Pickering and his wife, Leisha, and their sons live in rural Madison County.

In 2003, Pickering turned down a $1 million-dollar-a-year lobbying job as president of the Washington-based Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.

His father, former U.S. Appeals Court Judge Charles Pickering Sr. of Laurel, said he is disappointed his son will leave public service.

"But putting his family first is the right decision," the elder Pickering said. "Several years ago, Chip told me raising his boys is his greatest responsibility. I totally agree. Hopefully, he will be able to re-enter public service again sometime in the future."

Since February, Chip Pickering has been the Mississippi chairman of Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign.