- Maria Recio American-Statesman special correspondent
Amid eroding support from constituents and GOP leaders after a nude photo and sexting scandal, U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, announced Thursday he would not seek re-election.
“As a young congressman, my slogan was ‘listening to you in Texas, working for you in Washington.’ For me that was never just a saying, but a commitment – a way of life,” Barton said in a statement. He was first elected in 1984.
“I am very proud of my public record and the many accomplishments of my office. It has been a tremendous honor to represent the 6th District of Texas for over three decades, but now it is time to step aside and let there be a new voice.”
Barton, 68, had to make the decision quickly since the state filing deadline for the March primaries is Dec. 11.
He was pushed to retire by prominent North Texas officials, including state Sens. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, and Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, Tarrant County GOP Chairman Tim O’Hare and Ellis County GOP Chairman Randy Bellomy.
“We must hold public officials to a high standard and recent publicized incidents demonstrate those standards were not met,” Burton said Wednesday. She threw her support behind Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright, a former Barton chief of staff, who said Thursday he will run for the seat.
Barton is vice chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, a panel he chaired for four years and where he has had considerable sway over oil and gas legislation.
The scandal had already drawn Barton one GOP primary opponent in the solidly Republican district: Jake Ellzey, a Southwest Airlines pilot who is a former Navy fighter pilot and failed candidate for the Texas House in 2014.
Reacting to Barton’s retirement, Travis County GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak told the American-Statesman, “He made the only decision he could make. He lost local support. What really did it was the second accuser. He doesn’t appear to have done anything illegal or violated any rules of the House. But he clearly showed poor judgment and has embarrassed himself, his family and his district.”
Barton was not accused of sexual harassment, but the scandal emerged as the nation was reeling from a series of sexual misconduct accusations by women about U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and media figures, including NBC morning host Matt Lauer and CBS morning host Charlie Rose.
Barton did not address the scandal in his statement but, in a Thursday interview with The Dallas Morning News, he said, “I am not guilty of sexual harassment.” He said the nude photo — allegedly taken from a video of him masturbating — and lewd message were sent to a “mature” woman with whom he had a consensual relationship while he was separated from his second wife.
That publicly unidentified woman told The Washington Post she did not disseminate the photo. She played a recording she’d made of Barton threatening her after the relationship was over by saying he would go to the U.S. Capitol police if she continued to share intimate material he’d sent her with other women he was involved with. The U.S. Capitol police are now investigating what might be “revenge porn,” a crime under Texas law.
But a Wednesday report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram disclosed risque texts with another woman, with Barton asking whether she was wearing underwear, among other things. Barton was married during the time of the texts and says so in the posts that the woman, Arlington GOP activist Kelly Canon, had saved. Barton was divorced from his second wife in 2015 and is now engaged.
Birdwell, who represents some of the same constituents, said in a statement Thursday morning, “The conduct of Congressman Joe Barton that has been confirmed — along with new revelations coming to light — is simply unbecoming of representing these counties, citizens and families in the U.S. Congress.” He said he would not seek the seat himself.
Barton told The Dallas Morning News that he thought he had enough support that he could have won re-election. “But it would be a nasty campaign, a difficult campaign for my family,” he said.
Last summer, Barton was a figure of sympathy after the GOP congressional baseball team was fired on by a shooter during a practice session in Northern Virginia. Barton is the team’s longtime manager and was on the field during the shooting, along with two of his sons. They were unhurt but House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., was badly injured.
Barton is the fifth Republican member of Congress from Texas to announce this year he’s not seeking re-election. The others include U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of San Antonio, who represents parts of Travis and Hays counties.
Two Democrats are not running for re-election, including Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Republican Ted Cruz.