US Representative John Olver, an Amherst Democrat, will retire at the end of his term in January 2013, ending a political career that dates back more than 40 years, and taking significant pressure off the congressional redistricting process in Massachusetts.
His announcement could offer one easy fix for what had been a sticky political problem for the state: Massachusetts is losing one of its 10 congressional seats, all held by Democrats.
A plan under consideration by the state’s redistricting committee would have put Olver in the same district as one of his colleagues, James P. McGovern. But it would also enact other major changes, squeezing two Boston-area Democrats, Stephen F. Lynch of South Boston and William R. Keating of Quincy into a single district in order to create a new seat for the southeastern part of the state and Cape Cod.
If that plan moves forward, it appears that Lynch and Keating would still be forced to run against each other unless Keating chooses to move to the Cape.
Olver, 75, is in his 11th term representing the far-flung First Congressional District, which covers some 40 percent of the state, from the western border to northern Worcester County.
The cochairmen of the redistricting committee, state Senator Stanley Rosenberg and state Representative Michael Moran, reacted quickly yesterday to Olver’s announcement, but would not discuss the specifics of their plan.
“This is a dramatic change,’’ they said in a statement, “and the committee in the coming days will assess its impact on congressional redistricting.’’
Moran, in a follow-up interview, said he and Rosenberg have made no final decisions, but he acknowledged that one of the scenarios would involve merging much of what is now Olver’s district with McGovern’s, establishing a district that runs from the New York border through Worcester.
If that plan crystallizes, Representative Barney Frank’s district and several others around Boston would also shift slightly. Committee sources said they are expected to release the new congressional maps next week.
Olver, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed about his decision, in keeping with his long reputation as low-key and media shy.
Upon hearing of Olver’s retirement, US Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, praised Olver as “a congressional workhorse with the heart of an Amherst activist.’’
Retirement rumors have swirled around Olver, the oldest member of the delegation, since he revealed last spring that his wife, Rose, a professor at Amherst College, had started treatment for ovarian cancer.
Over his 20 years in Washington D.C., the former state legislator rose to become chairman and now ranking minority member of the influential Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, housing, and urban development. He became known for bringing home federal money.
“There’s probably not a transportation project in the state that doesn’t have John Olver’s fingerprints on it,’’ said McGovern, who in 2006 was arrested with Olver for civil disobedience while they protested the Darfur genocide. He called Olver “a person of integrity who has shown that standing up for what you believe is not only the right thing to do, it’s good politics.’’
President Obama, in a statement, said Olver “has fought tirelessly for a cleaner environment, modern infrastructure, more affordable housing, and more accessible health care.
“Michelle and I join the people of Massachusetts in thanking Congressman Olver for his service, and we wish John, his wife Rose, and daughter Martha the very best in the future,’’ he said
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said in her own statement that Olver “used his position to advance the common good, to expand access to health insurance, protect the environment, defend workers’ rights, and improve our schools.’’
Olver, a former college professor, has been ranked among the most liberal members of the House. Yet he has thrived in a district that had historically been friendly territory for Republicans before becoming a heavily Democratic stronghold in recent decades. Frank, the Newton Democrat, said that Olver was the first Democrat to hold that seat after more than a century of Republican representatives.
“He was a quiet guy, but he also was something of a giant killer,’’ said Frank. “In his own quiet way he has been very effective.’’
Olver has won a state or federal election every two years since 1968, plus one special election to Congress, giving him more continuous time in public office than any of his Bay State colleagues. He won his House seat in a special election in 1991 to replace Representative Silvio Conte, a charismatic Republican who died in office.
Anthony Cignoli, a Springfield political consultant, said Olver has built a massive legacy in Western Massachusetts though his skill at bringing home federal dollars.
“John is not as flamboyant or charismatic or as cinematic as Silvio Conte, but he did as much without the show,’’ he said. “He used his weight well on Capitol Hill.’’
In 2010, Olver won reelection easily, with 60 percent of the vote.
Representative Richard E. Neal, the Springfield Democrat, said that Olver had sought out his delegation colleagues during an afternoon floor session yesterday. He approached Neal around 4 p.m.
“I can’t say I’m surprised, but the suddenness of it caught my attention,’’ Neal said.
“I certainly wished him well,’’ Neal added. “He didn’t say why. But we had a very candid but brief conversation. Then we had a firm handshake.’’
Frank Phillips and Bobby Caina Calvan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Mark Arsenault can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.