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Ackerman hoped to keep district safe before exiting

U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman stunned the political world with the announcement he will retire at the end of his term, which ends early next year.
TimesLedger Newspapers

U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside) wove stories from his youth and more than 30 years as a New York lawmaker into an explanation as to why he abruptly decided to leave office at the end of his term last Thursday.

“I guess retiring catches everybody by surprise,” Ackerman said during a conference call. “I’ve given it my best shot. I’ve enjoyed almost every moment of every day of it. At 69 years old, if I were going to have an Act 4, I can’t think of a better time to do that.”

As of Jan. 2, 2013, the last day of Ackerman’s term, other House members will no longer see him pull up in his 1966 Plymouth Valiant nor see him walk the halls of Congress wearing his signature white carnation boutonniere.

During his stays in Washington, D.C., the congressman lived on a houseboat called “Unsinkable II,” after his first boat did not live up to its name.

Ackerman sat on a variety of foreign affairs committees and traveled the globe in his capacity as a congressman.

But Tuesday afternoon, Ackerman said leaving Congress was one of the hardest things he had ever done. After dispelling rumors about poor health or not wanting to move back to Queens, Ackerman said going out on his own terms was essential to his making the final call.

Ackerman’s district was redrawn as part of the once-a-decade redistricting process that adjusts political lines based on population changes.

But the congressman wanted to make it clear that the redrawn district did not frighten him into retirement. It, in fact, closely resembled his congressional district before 1992.

Instead, Ackerman said that once he knew his district was safe from being chopped up, it made it easier to consider retirement.

“You have to fight to keep the district as compact, as contiguous as together and sensible as this process can make it, so they don’t decimate [it],” Ackerman said. “The court’s plan was the best one for me, and it gave me a chance to think.”

In addition, Ackerman said he did not want to back down from a fight. Up until he made the announcement shortly after 7 p.m. last Thursday, Ackerman was adamant publicly that he would run.

State Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) had pledged to run for Congress against U.S. Rep. Bob Turner (D-Middle Village), but when Turner’s district was eliminated through redistricting and the Republican decided to run for U.S. Senate, Lancman was faced with running against Ackerman.

Last Thursday, Lancman went to Ackerman’s house and told the longtime lawmaker he would not run against a fellow Democrat.

Ackerman said he dropped several hints to Lancman that a congressional run might not actually be in the cards, and told a story about how he was first elected after the incumbent suddenly died.

Hours after Lancman’s announcement, Ackerman sent out his retirement notice.

“It became easier when one of the Assembly persons decided he was not going to challenge me,” Ackerman said. “I was under no pressure. I could make it under the ideal circumstances — I didn’t lose an election, I didn’t go in a body bag and nobody was chasing me out. There are ugly ways to get out.”

Ackerman was born in Brooklyn in 1942 and grew up in Pomonok Houses before graduating from public schools. He started off as a schoolteacher, and first gained notoriety when he sued for a leave of absence to be with his newborn child.

He served as a state senator for four years before moving up to Congress.

But Ackerman’s career was not without blemishes. In the early 1990s, he was embroiled in a House banking controversy and, although never prosecuted, he resigned from the House Ethics Committee shortly afterward.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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