Obey Retirement Shocks Political Observers from Washington to Wausau

MacIver News Service – As the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Democratic Wisconsin Congressman Dave Obey is used to making news in Washington.

However on Wednesday, Obey absolutely shocked supporters and opponents alike when he announced his retirement by saying, “There’s a time to stay and a time to go, but this is my time to go.”

Obey has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1969. As Appropriations Chair, he helped author the Stimulus Package and played a crucial role in the creation and passage of the monumental health care reform bill earlier this year. He was facing a heated campaign against likely GOP nominee Sean Duffy, the District Attorney of Ashland County.

Obey downpalyed the significance of that challenge and instead cited weariness as his chief reason for stepping down.

“Frankly, I had considered retiring after the 2000 election, but I became so angered by the policies of the Bush administration that I decided to stick around as long as he was here,” said Obey. “In 2002, after a year-long reapportionment struggle, which devoured my time and the time of my colleague Jim Sensenbrenner, I publicly stated I would not be around for another one.  That is exactly what I would face if I returned to Congress next year.  I simply don’t want to do it.”

Reapportionment wasn’t just a chore he had to do as the dean of the Wisconsin Congressional Democrats.

Out of 21 Congressional races, Obey has only faced two difficult reelection bids, and one of them resulted from the reapportionment in 1972.  His other close call came in 1994, when Republicans took control of Congress in the “Republican Revolution.” Some pundits believe another “Republican Revolution” could occur this year, and that Obey would lose his chairmanship if the Democrats were to lose the majority. Or worse yet for Obey supporters, the author and advocate of the Stimulus plan could lose his own, long-held seat.

Republicans had planned to use Obey’s role in the Stimulus Act to campaign against him.  Reince Priebus, Chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, told the MacIver News Service “Dave Obey has become a national symbol of a failed policy and the need for reform in Washington.”

Priebus said, “Let’s face it.  The folks that are voting in the 7th Congressional District are folks that are fed up with out of control taxes, out of control debt, and a feeling that Dave Obey was very much responsible for those problems.”

Obey bristled at the thought.

“The much maligned but absolutely essential Economic Recovery Act of 2009, which in the midst of the deepest and most dangerous economic catastrophe in 70 years, has pumped desperately needed purchasing power into the economy to cushion the fall and reduced the number of families whose breadwinners were thrown out of work,” Obey said.  “My only apology is that it should have been larger, but it was the most that the system would bear at the time.”

For their part, as surprised as they may have been at the timing and subject matter of Obey’s abrupt announcement, Wisconsin Democrats expressed confidence that they will continue to hold the 7th District after November.

“Looking forward, we know that whoever seeks to fill the enormous shoes in the 7th District will have to account to voters who expect a Congressman on their side, and not on the side of the special interests.” Mike Tate, Chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. “We guarantee that this seat will be won by the Democrat.”

Obey stayed true to his cantankerous reputation and denounced his would-be challengers in his farewell address.

“I’m ready to turn the page, and I think, frankly, that my district is ready for someone new to make a fresh start,” he said.  “Not someone who poses as a fresh face, but would in reality take us back to the ‘good old days’ of Bush tax cuts for the rich and a misguided Iraq war.”

Duffy,  despite being the front runner for his party’ nomination, does face a Primary challenge from Dan Mielke (who lost to Obey by a significant margin two years ago). However, Duffy is clearly the Party favorite and  has already received high profile endorsements from two potential Republican Presidential candidates: former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and current Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Duffy has also garnered significant national press coverage from the likes of the New York Times, National Review and radio talker Rush Limbaugh.

It is uncertain who might run for Democrats now that Obey is out (Madison insiders suggest  Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker (D- Wausau), Sen. Robert Jauch, from Poplar and/or Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point).

However, one thing is certain, it will take several weeks, at least, for the dust to settle from Obey’s monumental announcement.