WASHINGTON – Democratic US Representative David R. Obey, the third-most senior member of the House and chairman of the Appropriations Committee who brought hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to central and northern Wisconsin during a 41-year career, has finally announced his retirement on Wednesday.
“I’m ready to turn the page,” said Mr. Obey, 71. He told lawmakers and reporters that he was “bone tired” by four decades of political wrangling, before adding, “And frankly, I think that my district is ready for somebody new, to make a fresh start.”
Obey’s decision reverberated in the House for he’s the most prominent lawmaker to decide to retire this year. His abrupt retirement shocked most of his supporters, critics and other political observers when he announced that he will not seek re-election in the fall. It turns out what had been a race between two Republicans, Rudolph farmer Dan Mielke and Ashland County District Attorney Sean Duffy, vying out to challenge Obey in November has now became a battle between the two parties trying to put their best candidates forward.
“Dave Obey has clearly seen the writing on the wall, realized he was in a fight that he might lose, and rather than making a stand and facing the voters he has represented for 40 years, he turned tail and called it quits,” said Marathon County Republican Party Chairman John Yackel, a Wausau attorney who’s also Duffy’s cousin.
Obey scoffed and abruptly dismissed the belief that the threat of an election challenge forced him to retire.
“I won 25 elections,” Mr. Obey said. “Does anybody really think I don’t know how to win another?” This elicited a round of applause from the Democratic lawmakers and staff members who were present in the room. “Or, for that matter, has anybody ever seen me walk away from a fight in my life?”
However, Republicans saw Obey’s decision as a pivotal moment.
“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 National Republican Congressional Committee.
Obey was born in Oklahoma and raised in Wausau. He won a seat in the state Assembly at age 24 and defeated state Sen. Walter John Chilsen of Weston to take the House seat he has held since 1969.
“My God, what a thunderbolt,” Chilsen said Wednesday when he heard of Obey’s retirement. “I can’t believe it. I had not heard any rumors. Several years ago, we heard rumors he was getting fed up with being in the minority and were thinking of teaching or something. But lately, he was reveling in his authoritative stature.”
Mr. Obey has stated that his future plans were still unsettled; however he could not resist give a parting jab at the Senate.
“I don’t know what I will do next,” said Mr. Obey, who was later joined by his wife, Joan, and their children. “All I do know is that there has to be more to life than explaining the ridiculous, accountability-destroying rules of the United States Senate to confused and angry and frustrated constituents.”
During the teleconference with reporters, Obey said he had secured more earmark money for his district than the entire Wisconsin delegation combined with his requests for fiscal 2011 alone total nearly about $213.3 million. However, his exit from his position will likely mean that these figures will fall out a few federal dollars short.