WASHINGTON -- South Jersey Congressman Rob Andrews will resign from Congress later this month to take over as head of government affairs at prominent Philadelphia law firm Dilworth Paxson, Andrews announced Tuesday morning.
Andrews, a Democrat in his 24th year in the House, will leave office Feb. 18.
State Sen. Donald Norcross will run to replace Andrews and is already the heavy favorite to win the seat in a strongly Democratic district. Almost immediately after Andrews' announcement Norcross was endorsed by the top names in South Jersey Democratic politics, including Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald and Camden Mayor Dana Redd. Norcross is a labor leader -- the former head of the AFL-CIO's South Jersey chapter -- and brother of South Jersey power broker George Norcross. (George Norcross is also majority owner of the company that owns the Inquirer and Philly.com).
Andrews, 56, has faced an expensive House ethics probe into his use of campaign money for a family trip to Scotland. The investigation has gone on for more than a year.
But Andrews described his resignation as a "personal and family decision." He cited financial considerations, saying that he and his wife were going to pay for their two daughters to go to college and for one to go to medical school. His daughters are 19 and 21.
Andrews said the congressional ethics committee's probe had "no role at all" in his decision-making. He said he had not received word about the status of the investigation and emphatically added that he had not violated any rules or laws. He chalked up the allegations to a partisan dispute with a local Republican chair.
"This was the entirety of the campaign against me in 2012," Andrews said. "And the people rendered their judgment."
Asked if he regretted using campaign funds to take his family to Scotland, he said, "I regret creating any distraction that would take people away from the mission I brought to his office, which is to try to help the people of my community."
Andrews said some of his biggest legislative accomplishments were working to make student loans more affordable and helping to pass the Affordable Care Act, which he said would "stand next to Medicare and Social Security as a pillar of middle class prosperity in this country for many, many years to come."
President Obama praised Andrews as "an original author" of the health law in a statement released by the White House Tuesday afternoon.
"Rob Andrews has served the people of Southern New Jersey with tenacity and skill," Obama said.
An ethics watchdog, though, argued that all signs point to Andrews leaving ahead of a damaging ethics report.
"Clearly he wants to leave before there's any more embarrassment," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a group that has long criticized Andrews' behavior.
Sloan pointed out that most retiring members of Congress stay until the end of their last terms.
"He's leaving right in the middle, which suggests he wants to make sure this doesn't see the light of day," Sloan said of the pending House Ethics Committee investigation. "When you're kicked out of the house you're going to have a tough time getting a high priced law firm job. People are not going to be calling you for advice."
It's unclear how close the committee was to releasing a report, or what it's findings may have been. The committee operates in secrecy and does not comment on its proceedings, except for when formal decisions are made.
The seat is safely Democratic. Andrews won 68 percent of the vote in 2012 and President Obama won 66 percent. Andrews' resignation will mean the seat will be vacant until after November's election. (Andrews entered Congress in 1990 under similar circumstances, replacing Jim Florio, who had run for governor).
Donald Norcross announced his candidacy in a news release Tuesday afternoon.
"I have spent my career fighting for middle class families, senior citizens and workers," he said in the release. "It is a sad truth that while some are doing better, too many are falling further behind. If elected to Congress, I will focus on creating jobs across South Jersey and an equal opportunity for everyone."
Andrews, despite twice losing statewide races, has built his profile in the House and become a trusted ally of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. He last ran statewide in 2008, losing a Senate primary to the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg. After that, Andrews re-focused on his work in the House and became a key Democratic voice in the passage of the Affordable Care Act. A recent column in Roll Call cited Andrews as someone who could help fill the void of recent resignations among senior House Democrats.
But Andrews has also been marked by the ethics committee investigation over the 2011 trip to Scotland. The committee has been looking into the trip and the use of $30,000 of campaign money to pay for flights, a luxury hotel stay and other expenses while attending a wedding in Edinburgh.
The committee, though, does not have jurisdiction over retired House members.
Sloan said the committee should release the results of the investigation anyway -- something the panel has done in the past, but only rarely. Such a decision would require a vote by the committee.
Andrews is the fourth House member from the Philadelphia area to announce plans to leave Congress this year. U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D., Pa.), of Montgomery County, is running for governor in Pennsylvania and U.S. Reps. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.) and Jon Runyan (R., N.J.) have both announced that they will not seek re-election.
Democrats quickly backed Norcross, the state senator from Camden County, to replace Andrews.
"Sen. Norcross has shown a willingness and ability to work across the aisle at a time when compromise is sorely lacking in Washington," Greenwald said in a statement. He said he would "strongly support" Norcross.
"Donald will make an outstanding Congressman and continue the great work of Rob Andrews," Sweeney said in a news release.
Other Democrats said to be backing Norcross include U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and former Gov. Jim Florio.
Logan Township Mayor Frank Minor sasid he would form an exploratory committee to consider a run. "People should have a choice," Minor said.
- Jonathan Tamari and Andrew Seidman. Seidman reported from Haddon Heights.