WASHINGTON (AP) — California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, a tenacious liberal whose election to the Senate in 1992 heralded a new era for women at the upper reaches of political power, announced Thursday she will not seek re-election to a new term next year.
Boxer's retirement sets off a free-for-all among a new generation of California Democrats, who have had few offices to aspire to while Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein had a lock on the state's U.S. Senate seats.
A staunch supporter of abortion rights, gun control and environmental protections, Boxer has said she is most proud of the vote that she cast against the war in Iraq.
The 74-year-old Boxer made the announcement in a mock video news conference with her grandson, Zach Rodham, acting as reporter. "I am never going to retire. The work is too important. But I will not be running for the Senate in 2016," Boxer said.
"I want to help our Democratic candidate for president make history," Boxer tells her grandson, a reference to a possible bid by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
She closed with a poem, "I won't be working in my Senate space and I won't be running in that next tough race."
Boxer was elected to the House in 1982 and to the Senate one decade later. That was an election that marked a watershed year for women in politics, with four winning U.S. Senate seats.
Boxer prominently displays in her office a photograph of her and six other female House members marching up the Senate steps to demand hearings on Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas before holding his confirmation vote.
Boxer's departure is a generational change as well. Feinstein is 81, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is 74.
Pelosi described Boxer, who stands 4 feet, 11 inches tall, as "small in size but a giant in terms of contributions to her country."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama called Boxer to congratulate her.
"She's served the people of California for more than three decades with distinction, fighting for the issues that are close to their homes and hearts," Obama said in a statement.
Later at a news conference from her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., she said, she was confident she could still accomplish much in her final two years.
"I don't believe in lame-duckism. I think Barack Obama is proving that. Bill Clinton proved it and I'm going to prove it."
Boxer had a way of riling conservatives.
In 2009, she requested that a brigadier general in the Army Corps of Engineers call her senator instead of ma'am. The confrontation served as fundraising fodder for her opponents the following election, but she still won handily.
And during the height of the Iraq war, she told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that her "loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell this war, overwhelmed your respect for the truth."
Boxer would have been a prohibitive favorite to win re-election in a state where only 28 percent of the registered voters are Republicans.
Among the Democratic candidates speculated to try to succeed her: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor; state Attorney General Kamala Harris; former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; and Tom Steyer, a retired San Francisco hedge fund billionaire who sought to make climate change an issue in the midterm elections. While lauding Boxer in prepared statements, none of the potential candidates indicated a possible Senate run.
Statewide elections in California are hugely expensive and could require Republicans to side with a candidate able to fund his or her own campaign, such as Rep. Darrell Issa or business executive Carly Fiorina, who lost to Boxer in her last race and is weighing a run for president. Another possible candidate is Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who ran for state controller last year.
Republicans view the retirement as positive for the 2016 elections in part because it could mean that Democrats will have to spend money to retain the seat, which they probably would not have done if Boxer were in the race.
"A California Republican starts every statewide race 15 points behind and is competing against arguably the most effective state political party in the country," said Republican strategist Aaron McLear.
Boxer narrowly won her first Senate race after a late revelation that her Republican opponent had attended a strip club. She won three subsequent Senate races by double-digit margins.
Political observers say Boxer's work to protect the environment is probably her most significant legacy. Boxer authored legislation that has designated more than 1 million acres of land in California as wilderness, a classification that generally does not allow for motor vehicles, new roads and mining. She also led efforts to prevent oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
However, she has failed to help pass meaningful legislation to curb global warming, a longtime goal that became even more distant when Republicans won control of the Senate and Boxer lost her prized role as chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Donna Cassata in Washington and Fenit Nirappil in Sacramento contributed to this report.