As Rep. Obey Retires, Wisconsin Voters Revisit Values

Rep. David Obey (D-WI) announces his retirement at a news conference in Washington. i i

Rep. David Obey (D-WI) announces his retirement at a news conference in Washington, D.C., on May 5. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images
Rep. David Obey (D-WI) announces his retirement at a news conference in Washington.

Rep. David Obey (D-WI) announces his retirement at a news conference in Washington, D.C., on May 5.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Many voters in northern and central Wisconsin are still stunned by the news that their congressman for the past 41 years — Democrat David Obey — is retiring.

Obey is a political icon in Wisconsin, known as a fighter for progressive causes. He also chairs the appropriations committee and brings plenty of federal funding back home to Wisconsin's 7th District.

Obey first won the seat in 1969 in a special election to replace Republican Melvin Laird, who was named President Richard Nixon's secretary of defense. He's rarely had a close race for re-election since.

But there are signs the district is changing — and it might not be as liberal as Obey. With him out of the race, some say Republicans could pick up the seat in November.

'Big Shoes To Fill'

Around this sprawling district that runs from the center of Wisconsin and covers much of the north and northwestern part of the state, many constituents have high praise for Obey.

The front window of the Portage County Democratic Party headquarters in Stevens Point, Wisc. i i

The front window of the Portage County Democratic Party headquarters in Stevens Point, Wisc. David Schaper/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Schaper/NPR
The front window of the Portage County Democratic Party headquarters in Stevens Point, Wisc.

The front window of the Portage County Democratic Party headquarters in Stevens Point, Wisc.

David Schaper/NPR

"Oh, those are big shoes to fill. Big shoes because he did so much for our district," says Mary Beth Anday, a retired schoolteacher from Stevens Point. She shares the sentiments of many constituents who are shocked that the congressman many here simply call Dave is calling it quits.

"I would have been very happy to have Dave in there another 10 or 15 years," she says.

It's hard for anyone at a recent meeting of the Portage County Historical Society in downtown Stevens Point to say anything bad about Obey — maybe his hot temper, some say before quickly adding that Obey himself would be the first to admit that.

"I think he's done an awful lot of good," says retiree Loras Smithback. She says it's not just the buildings, highways, parks and water treatment plants that Obey helped fund that she appreciates, but that Obey really tried to use government to help people in need.

But because Obey hadn't faced a significant challenger in years, his sudden retirement leaves many constituents re-examining what they want in a representative and the role of government in their lives.

The Role Of Government

Retired teacher Anton Anday, Mary Beth Anday's husband, wants the next representative to be "energetic, young [and] progressive. If you know the LaFollette tradition of Wisconsin — that's what we should be sending to Washington from the district."

Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette was a populist Republican governor and U.S. senator from the turn of the last century until the 1920s. His son Robert Jr., who succeeded him in the Senate, created the Progressive Party of Wisconsin in the 1930s before returning to the GOP.

The LaFollette ideal of progressivism was adopted by New Deal-Great Society Democrats like Obey in the 1960s.

And the spirit remains alive and well in this part of Wisconsin among some voters who still trust government to play an integral part in providing for the common good through public education, infrastructure and programs to aid the less fortunate.

"What is the role of government? Is government too big? It's always too big; it doesn't matter where it is," says Anton Anday. "But is it needed? Is it rational? Is it functioning with some order?"

Anday answers "yes" to those questions, but others in the district suggest it might be time for a different perspective.

Winds Of Change

Stevens Point Fire Chief John Zinda, who considers himself politically independent, says Obey has been very good to his department and the community, but adds after 41 years, it's time for someone new.

"The mood of the country is definite change. And change sometimes can be good. Dave's been in there for a long time. I'm sure he would've done well if he would've sought election again, but his replacement will do well, too," Zinda says.

And the desire for change seems to be growing stronger, especially up in the more sparsely populated Northwoods, an area dotted with vacation homes and a few remaining lumber mills.

At the Rhinelander Cafe and Pub in downtown Rhinelander, Bill Meisel, a retired banker living in nearby Eagle River, calls Obey's decision to retire "wonderful."

"I didn't like him," Meisel says. "He spends too much money. Our money."

Meisel says he senses a change happening among his neighbors in northern Wisconsin, who had been very supportive of candidates wanting to spend on big projects and government programs. "I think the majority of people up here are independent thinkers. I think that's good," Meisel says. "I think they're tired of all of the reckless and foolish spending that's going on in Washington and in Madison."

Barb Miller, the manager of the cafe, agrees government is beginning to reach too far into people's lives. She wants a candidate who will restrain government somewhat. "Once in a while you get to feel like you don't have your own say anymore; it's a dictatorship you better follow. I'd like to come back a little bit on some of it," Miller says.

District Up For Grabs

Republican Sean Duffy is hoping to capitalize on what he says was a growing anti-Obey and continues to be an anti-big-government fervor in the district.

He was tapped by the national Republican Party as one of its "young guns" in 2010 and says the momentum of his campaign might have helped push Obey into retirement (a claim Obey denies).

Republican candidate Sean Duffy i i

Republican candidate Sean Duffy, a former cast member on MTV's Real World at the opening of his campaign headquarters in Wausau. David Schaper/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Schaper/NPR
Republican candidate Sean Duffy

Republican candidate Sean Duffy, a former cast member on MTV's Real World at the opening of his campaign headquarters in Wausau.

David Schaper/NPR

Duffy, 38, district attorney in Ashland County, says getting Obey out of Congress is only half of the battle. "We need to have a principled congressman go there to do the heavy lifting to actually balance our budget, reduce the size of government, and that's what I'm going to do," he said in a recent interview as he opened his campaign office in the Democratic-leaning city of Wausau.

Duffy has a big head start over the candidate Democrats appear to have quickly coalesced around, State Sen. Julie Lassa.

Lassa, 39, and a mother of two, is an experienced state legislator who is well known in the southern and more densely populated part of the district.

"I believe that I bring a fresh and strong voice for the people of the 7th Congressional District," says Lassa, who touts her track record of success on economic development and job creation.

Lassa and other Democrats say Wisconsin's 7th is a Democratic district through and through, and will remain one come November. President Obama carried the district by 14 points. John Kerry and Al Gore won the district as well, though by much smaller margins, and the majority of state lawmakers in the district are Democrats.

But University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point political scientist Dennis Riley says it's not entirely clear whether the district will continue to lean Democratic without Obey on the ballot.

"It's clearly not as liberal as Dave Obey himself. This is a more conservative district than Dave Obey is," says Riley, who adds that he sees signs voters in this part of northern and central Wisconsin are drifting away from Obey's kind of steadfast liberalism.

"I still think he would've won," he says. "I really don't believe he could have been beaten, but I think the district is transforming and it is up for grabs. I really believe it's up for grabs."

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