Eight-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Rush Holt announced his decision to retire on Tuesday in an email to supporters. He represented New Jersey’s 12th district, which includes the town of Princeton.
“Today I am announcing that I will not seek re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives,” the email read. “It has been and remains an immense honor for me to represent the people of New Jersey’s 12th District … There is no hidden motive for my decision. As friends who have worked with me know, I have never thought that the primary purpose of my work was re-election and I have never intended to make service in the House my entire career.”
Liz Muoio, Mercer County’s Democratic party chairwoman, told The Daily Princetonian that, as of Wednesday evening, nine individuals had expressed interest to her in running for the position being vacated by Holt. Petitions to run for Holt’s seat are due on March 31, and the primary election is on June 3.
Holt, a nuclear physicist and one of only two physicists in Congress, was an assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory before taking office in 1999. He had never held elective office before then.
“There is a bumper sticker that goes around Princeton that says ‘My Congressman is a rocket scientist,’ ” former University President Shirley Tilghman, who was also a vocal supporter of Holt, said in a November interview. “I’ve always felt kind of proud to be able to say that we have someone representing us in Congress with Rush Holt’s intelligence and his scientific background.”
The University was also supportive of Holt while he was in office. As Holt’s largest single donor group, University employees gave $42,090 to his campaign in the 2011-2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Holt previously cited the alternative energy research occurring at the PPPL as his reason for wanting to work there. While in Congress, Holt secured $22 billion in funds for scientific research in the 2009 stimulus bill alone, and he also mentioned in a Tuesday New York Times article that he was proud of expanding suicide prevention programs for military members and working with states on land and water conservation.
The University and the PPPL received $27 million and $19.4 million, respectively, from the stimulus bill, according to a May 2010 ‘Prince’ article.
In a December 2013 ‘Prince’ article, Tilghman credited Holt for co-hosting a 2007 meeting at the University that ultimately resulted in the America COMPETES Act, which mandated investment in research and development.
“That meeting was [also] important for securing the funding for scientific research as part of the stimulus package,” University Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti said in an interview with the ‘Prince’ on Wednesday. “He’s been a really extraordinary advocate for science research and science education in general.”
Emily Carter, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and applied and computational mathematics, and founding director of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, said Holt was among a rare breed of scientists within Congress.
“He’s a terrific human being … I’m sad that he decided not to continue, because he’s one of the only scientists in Congress right now,” Carter said. “He represents an ideal of the kind of ethical, intelligent, hardworking, non-power hungry person that’d you like to see in the House of Representatives.”
During Holt’s failed 2013 bid to secure the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died in June 2013, 65 scientists signed a letter endorsing his run, including seven Nobel laureates and a former Secretary of Energy. Many of the signers were University faculty members. Cory Booker ultimately won the nomination and the seat.
“Rush became a rare and outspoken voice for evidence-based thinking in the U.S. Congress,” the letter said. “Never before in our history have we needed more and had less scientific expertise in the United States Congress.”
Frank von Hippel, a nuclear physicist who is now a professor of public and international affairs at the Wilson School and co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security, was among those who signed the letter.
“[Holt] is very capable. He’s insightful and has good priorities in my judgment,” von Hippel said. “This Republican Party doesn’t give much outlet for one’s creativity or generosity as a minority member of the House. I guess I took his decision as an indication that he doesn’t think that the Democrats are going to take over anytime soon.”
Von Hippel also said that Holt was accessible to members of the University community.
“He certainly was receptive to me. I’d been working on the Iran nuclear issue, and he was very supportive,” von Hippel said. “He even came to some NGO meetings at the Hague and in Vienna … meetings with Iranian officials, and we just kind of discussed the possibilities.”
Robert Keohane, professor of international affairs at the Wilson School, said that Holt’s membership in the House minority party and his failure to be elected as senator, which would have given him a job with a greater scope in a branch of Congress where he would likely have been in the majority, probably contributed to his decision to move on.
“He’s relatively young. He has a lot of talent. My guess is that he has something he wants to do that seems to be more interesting than hitting his head against the wall,” Keohane explained. “[His running for Senate] indicates that he was very dissatisfied with being a representative … He should have lots of opportunities. Why should he go to the office every day knowing he’s not going to accomplish anything?”
Holt was rated one of the five most liberal members of the House by the National Journal in 2009. He voiced his frustration with government shutdowns that he blamed on House Republicans in an October 2013 interview with the ‘Prince’.
Holt, the sole Quaker in Congress, also called for cuts in defense spending during his tenure.
“We are spending as much as the rest of the world combined [on military spending], friend and foe,” Holt had said. “We shouldn’t be known for the efficiency of our killing. We should be known for the humanity of our ideals.”
He also expressed frustration with the state of affairs in Washington at a March 8 question-and-answer session at Terrace Club. Specifically, he said he thought his colleagues lacked the will to invest in research and education.
Nonetheless, Holt remained optimistic about Congress in a statement to The New York Times on Tuesday.
“From my point of view, Congress, even with its frustrations, is the greatest instrument for justice and human welfare in the world,” he said. “The stories trying to puzzle out why someone would do something else are based on this rather narrow way of thinking that the only purpose for a member of Congress is to be reelected. I’ve never viewed it that way, and I think everybody who’s worked with me knows that I think there are a lot of things that I can and should be doing.”
Holt maintained a close relationship with the University throughout his time in office and was in attendance at the installation ceremony of University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 on Sept. 22.
“The speech, in fact, today dealt in part, I’m pleased to see, with maintaining excellent education in America and not falling victim to fads, to excessive commercialization or commoditization,” Holt said at the time.
Holt is also a five-time Jeopardy! champion and was the only member of Congress to defeat the IBM supercomputer Watson on the show.
His father, Rush Holt, Sr. was a U.S. Senator from West Virginia.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated a quote by professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering Emily Carter. Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article inaccurately attributed donations received by U.S. Rep. Rush Holt. The donations were made by University employees. The ‘Prince’ regrets the errors.