Love him or hate him, Obey was a force

    When you serve in Congress for more than 41 years, you make your share of friends – and enemies.

    So, it was interesting to watch and listen to the commentary that followed U.S. Rep. David Obey’s announcement that he will retire after serving Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District since 1969. The Wausau Democrat was re-elected 20 times.

    My own most recent encounter with Obey came a couple years ago as my family was being led on a tour of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. In the midst of the rotunda, Obey came charging through, practically running across the room, carrying a stack of papers in his hand, weaving his way through the crowd. He appeared to be a man on a mission.

    And love him or hate him, there is something to be said for longevity. Obey was the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Without Obey, President Barack Obama never would have won Congressional approval for his economic stimulus package.

    The mantle of dean of Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation now goes to Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Menomonee Falls).

    Sensenbrenner was gracious when learning that the man who has canceled out his vote in Congress for all of these years will ride off into the sunset.

    "Over the years, Dave Obey and I have disagreed on many issues; however, I have always found Dave Obey to be a passionate public servant who has worked tirelessly for the State of Wisconsin and the country throughout his 48-year career in public service. Given his announcement earlier today, I wish Dave Obey well in retirement and thank him for his commitment to Wisconsin. I hope he enjoys this new chapter in his life and appreciates the opportunity to spend more time with his wife, Joan, and their family,” Sensenbrenner said.

    Similarly, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) also was diplomatic. “David and I have had our policy disagreements over the years, but he has always had my respect. He has served Wisconsin and served this country honorably. I wish him and his family nothing but the best,” Ryan said.

    Of course, Democratic officials from Wisconsin had plenty of praise for Obey.

    U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said, “I am deeply grateful for Congressman Obey’s decades of service to the state of Wisconsin and the nation. David Obey has been a strong defender of Wisconsin seniors and families, a tireless advocate for Wisconsin farmers and a staunch ally of Wisconsin veterans. His dedicated service to the people of Wisconsin will be greatly missed and I wish him and his wife, Joan, the very best.” 

    Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a former Congressman who is now running as a Democrat to be Wisconsin’s next governor, said, "For more than four decades, Dave Obey has been a champion of reform and justice, and a voice in Congress for those too often pushed aside by special interests and powerful insiders. A leader in the fight for health care, for jobs, for working families, for education, for civil rights, for veterans, for the middle class, and for the less fortunate among us, Dave has also always been a fierce advocate for Wisconsin. In an era where far too many politicians aren’t straight with people, Dave always said exactly what he believed, and let you know exactly where you stood. His presence and leadership will be missed, and I thank him deeply for the tremendous example he has set for all of us in public life."

    Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) said, “History will show Congressman Obey as one of the best public servants Wisconsin has ever seen, and indeed, that our nation has ever seen. His record of service is long and distinguished. He has stood on the right side of history. He has tirelessly fought for the little guy. His work has helped our families, our children and our workers. And Wisconsin and our nation are better off because of his service. I am proud to have called him a colleague, and he will be missed.”

    Then there were others who were less congenial. Rebecca Kleefisch, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, posted a link to a news story about Obey’s retirement and wrote on Twitter, “Congratulations, Wisconsin.”

    Members of the Tea Party loudly proclaimed victory, likening Obey’s retirement to another pelt on their wall.

    Meanwhile, Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate vowed that the Democrats would retain the seat in November.

    Obey himself dismissed the notion that he would have lost in November, saying instead that he was “just bone-tired.”

    Perhaps the funniest reaction of the day came from Obey’s would-be Republican challenger Sean Duffy. When informed by a reporter at that Obey would not seek re-election, Duffy, a former cast member on a reality television show, replied, “Is this a prank call?”

    Tate said some key Wisconsin Democrats will meet soon to pick the candidate who will run on the ballot to succeed Obey.

    “This is a Democratic district,” Tate said. “I don’t expect a contested primary up there.”


    Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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