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'It's been long enough'

With nearly half a century of public service under his belt and 25 successful campaigns behind him, Congressman Dave Obey said, "It's been long enough."...

Obey
Superior City Councilor Warren Bender takes notes as Congressman Dave Obey, D-Wausau, discusses health care reform with members of local labor unions at the Old Town in Superior on April 7. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

With nearly half a century of public service under his belt and 25 successful campaigns behind him, Congressman Dave Obey said, "It's been long enough."

The 71-year-old Wausau Democrat who has served more than 40 years in the U.S. House of Representatives is stepping down at the end of the year.

Obey announced Wednesday he won't be seeking re-election in November.

"I was just extremely surprised; I didn't have any inkling," said Douglas County Board Chairman Doug Finn.

Finn said he had joined an annual tour to examine the condition of county highways when the county's highway commissioner, Paul Halverson received the news on his Blackberry. Finn said he thought Halverson was joking when he broke the news of the congressman's decision.

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"What's interesting about this is he's left whoever's going to challenge for this seat only six months to the general election," Mayor Dave Ross said. "This is an unusual departure. Normally parties plan these things well in advance. Usually they have a candidate prepped and ready to go ... This truly is a surprise departure."

Obey said he wanted to retire in 2000 after President George W. Bush was elected to office.

"When I saw how stubborn the administration was going to be, I changed my mind and decided to stick around at least as long as they did," Obey said during a telephone news conference Wednesday. "I also wanted to do it last fall and expected the health care bill would be done by then. I've always told people I didn't want to leave until health care was done - once health care was passed I'd be happy to leave."

With health care insurance reform signed into law and the nation's economy showing signs of improvement, the longtime congressman of Wisconsin's 7th Congressional District said it was safe time to leave.

"I think it's time for someone with fresh eyes and fresh set of hands to take the reins and move the country forward," Obey said.

"Today's news ensures that the people of the 7th Congressional District will have a new representative for the first time in 41 years," said Ashland County District Attorney Sean Duffy, who announced plans last year to challenge the congressman for the seat this fall. "It's important that person be someone who can bring new energy and ideas to Washington, D.C. - above all when it comes to solving the fiscal crisis that threatens our kids' future."

The Republican candidate who's garnered national attention in his bid for the seat held by the senior congressman and powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee said while he and Obey had differing views on the issues, he wished Obey and his family well as he begins a new chapter of his life.

"I wish him and his family all the best as he concludes his service in Congress," Duffy said Wednesday. "His dedication to our country is beyond question."

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But while Republican party members suggested Obey's decision was based on that challenge, the congressman said he didn't believe the progressive district would replace him with a Republican that would return to the failed policies of the Bush Administration.

Even before the dust settled after the congressman's announcement Wednesday, Democrats were starting to line up to fill Obey's shoes.

"Obviously we're losing a senior member of congress and in any legislative body there's a real benefit to have that sort of seniority," said state Rep. Nick Milroy, D-Superior. He said a lot of federal projects and investment in infrastructure came to northern Wisconsin because of Obey's lengthy service in the House of Representatives.

"It's going to be a long road for whoever is going to be the next congress person; hopefully we'll get someone in there good who will be willing to serve a long time and gain that seniority so a lot of good things will come our way again," Milroy said.

Obey, who started his political career in 1963 in the Wisconsin Legislature, has served in the house since 1969, elected to replace Republican Melvin Laird, appointed to serve as Secretary of Defense by President Richard Nixon.

Obey said on a day when people on both sides of the political aisle had encouraging words to say, one of the highlights of his day Wednesday was talking to Laird.

"I think the most gratifying thing of the day was to have Mel Laird ... call just before I gave my statement and said some very nice things," Obey said. "We've been friends for a long time. It's the kind of bipartisan, human relationship politics needs a lot more of."

However, Finn said, it was the congressman's long commitment to working with communities and protecting Lake Superior that created Obey's best legacy in the northernmost part of Wisconsin's largest congressional district, which includes all or part of 20 counties.

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"The one legacy that I think he will have in northwest Wisconsin is the 154 water and sewer project money for the four counties along Lake Superior," Finn said. The fund has provided millions for sewer projects throughout Douglas County, including a soon-to-begin sewer projects in Solon Springs and Parkland, and numerous projects in Superior.

"He didn't just pull projects out of his hat; he worked with communities," Finn said. "These are things we identified ... that 154 money was designed to protect Lake Superior."

Finn said Obey cared about all people, not just the estimated 670,462 people living in the district, but people throughout the country.

"He was a fighter for every citizen ... and he never forgot about his moral compass and his background and recognizing there were a lot of needs out there," Finn said.

"Dave Obey raised the standard for all members of Congress when it came to being a true champion for his constituents. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin will pay his legacy the highest tribute when we win his seat in November," said state party chairman, Mike Tate.

"Dave Obey is a great man and my good friend, and Wisconsin and our nation have been superbly well-served by his representation these many years," said U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl. "He worked tirelessly for our state and to defend the ideals he believes in deeply: peace, equality and opportunity."

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