Photo courtesy of Dave Obey for Congress.

Dave Obey retiring? I almost fell off my chair when I heard the report. Obey has represented the northwestern portion of Wisconsin so long that the many of the candidates who ran against him weren’t even born when he first went to Washington. At 48 years, he has served longer in state and federal office than any other Wisconsin politician. The idea that Dave Obey would step aside voluntarily is something most people could never imagine.

His announcement caught even the biggest names in the party off guard, but soon accolades poured in from President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of the Wisconsin delegation, including Sen. Russ Feingold and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner. Even his opponent, Sean Duffy, had kind words for Obey’s service.

“While Congressman Obey and I have major differences on the issues, he has dedicated his life to be a servant for his state and his country and for that he should be commended. He has served honorably as a Congressman for more than four decades and he deserves a great deal of respect for his work. I wish Mr. Obey and his family well in their future endeavors.”

Obey said in his announcement that the decision to retire from Congress was because he is “bone tired,” and he just wanted to get out and spend time with his family. That is understandable. He spent the last 41 years in Congress working to make Northern Wisconsin a better place for his constituents. While I didn’t agree with his politics and some of his methods, he always had the 7th district in mind when making decisions. He said the loggers, paper mill workers and farmers who elected him to office were some of the smartest he ever knew and he worked tirelessly for them.

He went to Washington with three goals in mind – to help make the economy fairer for poor and middle class working families, to expand federal support for education and to make it possible for every American to receive health care.

In his announcement, Obey said he was disappointed he couldn’t stop the transfer of income to the wealthiest 10% of the population or achieve public financing of campaigns. He did express pride in being able to help move more federal aid toward student aid at both the K12 and college levels.

As for health care, he said that was his greatest achievement. “For years I despaired of ever getting that done. But last month, I had the great privilege of presiding over the House of Representatives as it finally completed action on historic health insurance reform legislation.”

And while the sudden announcement surprised political operatives everywhere, one had a feeling something was up.

John Smart, former chairman of the Price County Democratic Party spoke with Obey at a campaign fundraiser few months ago. “He said to me, ‘If I can just get health care through, I can call it quits.’”

Smart added that the death of fellow congressmen John Murtha and Charlie Wilson at the age of 76 shook Obey. “I think after Murtha and Wilson died he felt enough is enough.”

Officials with the Republican Party in Obey’s district followed the party line, saying Obey was getting out of the race because he saw the writing on the wall.

“I guess he’s scared,” said Jeff Fahl, chair of the Price County Republican Party. “There are a lot of incumbents that are stepping down because they don’t want the battle this November.”

Obey and I have a history. I first interviewed Obey when he ran for re-election to his 7th district congressional seat in 2000. I was a reporter for a small newspaper group and he sat across from me in a small conference room filled with old newspapers and computers. Here was a man who had worked with Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush I and Clinton and he was explaining the economy, health care and job creation as if he were a kind, caring professor.

Over the years he stopped in my office at election time and spoke with me at events to mark the start of a new program, building or bridge he brought to the Northwood’s with his clout in Washington. Each time he was unpretentious, spoke about his kids and grandchildren and wouldn’t leave until he left the newest CD featuring the music of his bluegrass band, The Capital Offenses. Bet you didn’t know he plays a mean harmonica.

This year Obey was in the midst of a re-election campaign against Republican front-runner Sean Duffy. Duffy, the current Ashland County District Attorney and former MTV Real World star, has garnered national attention and is drawing the highest poll numbers an Obey challenger ever had through a grass roots campaign that has attracted Tea Party buzz and the endorsement of Sarah Palin.

With Obey’s retirement, the field is wide open for a Democrat to move in and try to keep the seat in the D-column. But no one is willing to speculate, instead waiting to follow Obey’s lead. “I’ve been told Dave has talked to some people about running,” Smart said. “But I don’t even want to try to guess.”

Patrick Schilling, former treasurer of the Wisconsin Republican Party doesn’t think Duffy will have an easy time, even with Obey’s departure.

“I am not sure that this move doesn’t make the race harder for Sean Duffy, contrary to the belief of some. He had the 41 year incumbent to run against before, but now it will be someone without the “baggage” that Obey had with the stimulus and health care reform laws that were recently passed,” Schilling said.

Among those being mentioned as possible candidates are state senators Bob Jauch (Poplar) and Russ Decker (Schofield), the current majority leader of the Senate. However, coming into the race at this late date will require either a name that can bring in cash quickly or someone with a hefty personal bank account. While Obey had a large war chest to use against Duffy, whoever the Democratic candidate is will have to scramble for cash that probably has already been spoken for.

And even though this affects the 7th district directly, Obey’s departure reaches across Wisconsin and the nation. While you may agree or disagree with his policies – supporting and gaveling the passage of Obama’s health care package, authoring the 2009 stimulus package and his calls to end funding to the Iraq War, Obey served his district and nation by answering the call of public service in an effort to make the world a better place. The residents of Wisconsin just lost a bit of standing in Washington with the departure of Obey, but we can be proud of his example and dedication.

“Let me profoundly thank everyone who has ever cast a vote for me for the privilege of representing you in Madison and Washington all these years,” Obey said, concluding his retirement announcement. “I hope that in whatever years I may have remaining, I will still find occasion to help move the needle forward.  But for now, after 48 years, it is time to pass the torch.”

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