U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan will not seek reelection, he disclosed Thursday, about a week after news reports that he used taxpayer dollars to settle a former aide's sexual harassment claim — and following the harsh response to his description of the woman as his "soul mate."
The decision makes Meehan the latest in a string of powerful men, including other members of Congress, to lose their positions amid a national backlash against sexual harassment. It comes five days after the accusation and his secret settlement payout were first made public, and two days after interviews in which the congressman seemed to worsen the situation by attempting to defend his actions.
"After consultation with my wife, Carolyn, and with my three sons, and after prayerful reflection, I write to inform you that I will not seek re-election to the United States Congress for the Seventh Congressional District in 2018," Meehan, a Delaware County Republican, wrote Thursday in a letter to his campaign chairman. "Today I communicated the same to the office of Speaker Paul Ryan."
The Inquirer and Daily News obtained a copy of the letter Thursday night.
Meehan, 62, is now subject to a review by the House Ethics Committee, which he sat on until the reports. He has said he will repay the taxpayer money if the panel finds that he committed sexual harassment. But he concluded his letter by saying, "I acted, at all times, within the appropriate boundaries of the close relationship I shared with the former employee."
In the letter, Meehan also elaborated on his use of "soul mate," which drew widespread ridicule and anger — from political commentators to Stephen Colbert on The Late Show — after he used it in an interview with the Inquirer and Daily News.
"No characterization of the work relationship I shared with a uniquely close colleague could have been more personally harmful than when I described that co-worker as a 'soul-mate,"' Meehan wrote. "I truly didn't even consider or understand the full implications of the use of that term. Quite simply to me a soul-mate means a uniquely close person who is joined with you on a daily basis, in which you both share the routine successes and strains of a work day."
He said he used the term while trying to honestly answer "very difficult and probing questions," in order to be accountable to his constituents, and "in no way" intended to "suggest a romantic partnership."
"After spending a lengthy amount of time together it is also natural that the connection will be one of a caring attitude toward each other," Meehan wrote.
His decision opens a major opportunity for Democrats as they seek to recapture the House this fall. He represents a moderate suburban district that leans slightly right, but that went narrowly for Democrat Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. Until this week he was widely seen as strongly positioned to withstand what may be shaping up as a Democratic wave. His departure could also play into the court-mandated effort to redraw Pennsylvania's congressional maps, since Republicans will not have an incumbent to protect in the Delaware County-based district.
Meehan's sudden downfall seemed inevitable to most Pennsylvania Republicans after the New York Times revealed his secret settlement Saturday, and his interviews attempting to explain his actions only cemented that belief. Meehan's letter acknowledged that reality.
Calling the news "a major distraction," Meehan wrote, "I need to own it because it is my own conduct that fueled the matter." He added, "It is clear to me that under the current conditions, any campaign I would run would not be decided over vital issues but would likely devolve into an ugly spectacle of harsh rhetoric."
He also said that he has never been unfaithful to his wife and that "characterizations of a romantic interest in a co-worker are not only unfair, they are wrong."
In his interviews, though, Meehan did describe developing an "affection" for an aide several decades younger than him, and said he felt "invited" to describe those feelings to her over ice cream one night. In his interview earlier this week, he said he hoped that by airing his feelings he could keep the relationship from becoming improper.
The aide, however, last year accused Meehan of sexual harassment, saying he turned hostile toward her after she began a serious relationship with another man and planned to leave his office. He denied that he harassed his aide or acted inappropriately, but paid her thousands of dollars from his office fund in a confidential agreement to settle her complaint. Congressional leaders want to ban such secret, taxpayer-funded settlements, which have drawn intense scrutiny as more have been revealed.
The attorney for Meehan's former aide wrote in a text message Thursday that Meehan's decision "does not end the need for the House Ethics Committee to continue its investigation into the matter, which my client will fully cooperate with."
Meehan had been seen as the strongest GOP incumbent in several swing districts around Philadelphia. The former county and federal prosecutor was bolstered by a large campaign fund, a straight-arrow reputation, and a bizarrely shaped district drawn to favor Republicans.
Meehan's departure after four terms will come shortly after he obtained a perch on the House's powerful Ways and Means Committee. It also likely will end a long career in politics.
He previously was the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia under President George W. Bush, and the district attorney for Delaware County: Meehan also worked as a campaign manager for former Republican Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum.
Elected to Congress as part of the 2010 tea party wave, Meehan struck a more moderate tone compared with many of his GOP colleagues, including last year, when he voted against the Republican plan to roll back the Affordable Care Act.
His decision will leave yet another open Republican House seat in Pennsylvania, to go along with those being vacated by Reps. Charlie Dent, Lou Barletta, and Bill Shuster. Rep. Tim Murphy also resigned amid a scandal tied to an affair.
Had Meehan continued to run, his candidacy threatened to weigh on fellow Republicans, who were facing questions about whether they would continue supporting their colleague. Even in Virginia, Democrats are using Meehan's interviews to urge a vulnerable Republican there, Rep. Barbara Comstock, to return campaign donations she received from him.
Among Pennsylvania Republicans there has been informal talk about "sacrificing" Meehan's Delaware County-based district, by making it more heavily Democratic, as they try to comply with a state Supreme Court order to draw up fairer congressional maps. Republicans who control the legislature, the thinking goes, would instead firm up GOP support in neighboring districts where incumbents face tough challenges.
Democrats do not have a clear-cut favorite in the race to replace Meehan. Their most well-known contender, State Sen. Daylin Leach, suspended his own bid after reports that he used sexually charged language and inappropriately placed his hands on women who worked for him or the party.
Republicans this week were weighing who might be able to run in Meehan's place, but recruiting may prove difficult given the uncertainty over the shape of the district and a national environment that appears to favor Democrats.