Longtime congressman Obey, House Appropriations chairman, announces plans to retire

By Andrew Taylor, AP
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Powerful House chairman Obey to retire

WASHINGTON — Rep. David Obey, a leading liberal Democrat but a symbol of entrenched incumbency that’s falling out of favor with discontented voters, said Wednesday he will retire at the end of his term this year

The decision by the often gruff House veteran of four decades and powerful Appropriations Committee chairman dealt Democrats defending their majority another blow headed into a midterm election where they already confronted a significant loss of seats.

Obey, at 71 the third longest-serving current member of the House, faced a potentially bruising re-election campaign this fall for the northwestern Wisconsin seat he’s held since winning a special election in 1969.

At a hastily called Capitol Hill news conference, Obey told reporters he was confident he could have won another term, but that with the passage of landmark health care legislation this year, he felt he had accomplished much of what he set out to do in Washington.

“There is a time to stay and a time to go. And this is my time to go,” Obey said. “I think, frankly, that my district is ready for someone new to make a fresh start.”

Obey has routinely won re-election easily despite representing a competitive district. He won in 2008 with 61 percent of the vote. This year’s race would have been far more challenging; Obey’s decision came after Democratic polling showed he was vulnerable.

Democrats, who hold a comfortable majority, expect to lose seats in November, a typical trend for a new president’s party in the first midterm elections. Complicating Democratic prospects are a slide in support for Congress and President Barack Obama as well as the party’s agenda.

Sean Duffy, 38, a Republican district attorney, is seen as the favored candidate in the GOP primary Sept. 14. Duffy has attracted the backing of Republicans in Washington, tea party activists and the party’s 2008 vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin.

Obey came to the House during the tumult of the Vietnam War, when Congress was dominated by conservative Southern Democrats. He is leaving as one of its most influential members, his power stemming from his committee chairmanship and a close relationship with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

“This is a big loss for us, but he has left his mark,” Pelosi told The Associated Press. She said Obey had talked privately of retiring before, but “we kept pulling him back.”

Obey earned a reputation as a reformer over the years. He fought the seniority system that concentrated power in the hands of conservative Southerners and chaired a task force that wrote rules requiring lawmakers to disclose their personal finances and limit the potential for conflicts of interest.

More recently, he has been an architect of reforms of the earmarking process, requiring greater transparency and blocking House members from directing earmarks to for-profit-companies whose executives often return the favor with campaign cash.

He also can have an irascible, sometimes prickly demeanor and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. In a 2007 incident, he was captured on camera by an anti-war group telling activists who confronted him outside his Capitol Hill office that “idiot liberals” didn’t understand Democrats’ strategy for leaving Iraq.

“I didn’t come here to win any charm-school award,” he said at the time.

Once a Republican, Obey moved to the Democratic Party after witnessing the excesses of Wisconsin GOP Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade in the 1950s. He was elected to the Wisconsin legislature and was a protege of Sen. Gaylord Nelson, an iconic Wisconsin progressive who was the founder of Earth Day.

He won a special election in 1969 to replace Republican Melvin Laird, who had been tapped to be President Richard Nixon’s secretary of defense. Obey first became chairman of the Appropriations Committee in 1994, then served as it’s ranking Democrat the next 12 years when Republicans controlled the House, becoming chairman again after the 2006 election.

He was a top architect last year of Obama’s economic stimulus bill but has been a reluctant backer of the administration’s efforts in Afghanistan. He’s been an ardent defender of federal spending for domestic programs like education and community health centers, as well as less popular causes such as foreign aid.

“I believe the job of a good politician was to be used up fighting on behalf of causes you believed in, and when you are used up, to step aside and let someone else carry on the battle. Well, today I feel used up,” he said.

Republicans took a measure of credit for forcing Obey’s retirement.

“There is no question that David Obey was facing the race of his life and that is why it is understandable that the architect of President Obama’s failed stimulus plan has decided to call it quits,” said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the Republican campaign committee.

Obey’s response: “Let me put it this way: I’ve won 25 elections. Does anybody think I don’t know how to win another one?”

In Wisconsin, Obey’s retirement came as a surprise to Mark W. Conway, 59, of Rothschild, eating at the 2510 Restaurant in Wausau.

“I thought he’d be there until the day he would collapse on the job,” Conway said. “He just does what he thinks is right and every two years the people in the 7th District seem to agree with him.”

Obey cited the recent deaths of a pair of colleagues, former Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Texas, and Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., as factors in his decision. He also mourned a time when, he said, you could “fight like the devil” against political opponents, then get a drink with those same people after work.

“I need a change,” Obey said. “I think my family needs me to have that change.”


Associated Press writers Henry Jackson in Washington and Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee contributed to this report.

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