Obey Formally Announces Retirement, Says He’s ‘Bone Tired’

Posted May 5, 2010 at 1:34pm

Declaring himself “bone tired,” House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), the third-most-senior Member of the House, announced Wednesday he will not seek re-election in November.

The move came as a surprise to even senior Democrats outside top leadership and amounts to a severe morale knock to a party already facing grim midterm election losses.

Obey has served for more than four decades as the Representative of Wisconsin’s northwestern 7th district, and though he won most of his races by overwhelming margins, he was facing his toughest re-election fight in years. But he said he has already accomplished much of what he had hoped and could reasonably expect to get done — pointing to the $787 billion economic stimulus package he shepherded last year and the sweeping health care overhaul enacted earlier this year. “There’s a time to stay and a time to go, and this is my time to go,” Obey said at a midday news conference on Capitol Hill.

But Obey also highlighted nagging frustrations with the inability of the political system to make other fundamental changes, namely correcting growing income inequality and implementing public financing of campaigns. He called them the biggest disappointments of his career. The Wisconsin Democrat said he first eyed retirement from the House after the 2000 elections but became “so angered by the policies of the Bush administration, I decided to stay around as long as they did.”

This year brought the decision back into focus. Obey saw two longtime allies on the panel — Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and former Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Texas) — die, both only five years older than Obey. He said he was wary of facing another grueling round of redistricting. And he pointed to the frustrations of dealing with a national press corps that he said is “increasingly focused on trivia,” calling the decline of the industry “a national catastrophe.”

House Democratic leaders have been in talks with Obey for months about his future, according to one aide who said the lawmaker’s inclination to retire became increasingly clear in recent days. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said the move “was not entirely unexpected” but said he was still “highly disappointed.”

“It’s just another example of the frustrations that a lot of people have with the way things are being done here,” he said.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), ousted as Ways and Means chairman earlier this year, likewise struck a sympathetic note. “I don’t remember when the atmosphere of this Congress has been more polarized,” he said. But he said he didn’t expect Obey’s decision to inspire other Democratic retirements. “I don’t see in any way how that has an adverse effect on our ability to maintain the majority. Not at all,” he said.

Republicans’ preferred candidate, county prosecutor Sean Duffy, demonstrated early success in raising money.

But Democratic sources said they have a deep bench of potential candidates in the district.

They noted that Obey’s district includes numerous state legislators who could look at the race, including state Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker and state Sens. Pat Kreitlow and Julie Lassa. Among the other Democrats mentioned as possible candidates in the wake of Obey’s announcement are state Sen. Jim Holperin and state Reps. Ann Hraychuck, Amy Sue Vruwink and Donna Seidel, attorney Christine Bremer, local judge Greg Huber and Obey District Director Doug Hill.

The Wisconsin Democratic Party will hold a conference call at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time to discuss Obey’s retirement and the race to succeed him in the 7th district.

Obey represents a vast district that takes in Wausau and Stevens Point and is politically competitive. President Barack Obama took 56 percent of the vote in the 2008 election, when he was more popular than he is today. In 2004, the 7th backed Democratic nominee John Kerry by just 1 point.

Republicans immediately charged that Obey is running from a fight.

“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,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said. “It is ironic that a Congressman who became infamously known for his short temper and angry tirades on the House floor is going out with such a whimper.”

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), a senior appropriator, called Obey “one of the most consequential figures to chair Appropriations, and he will be sorely missed.”

Moran said he expected Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) to succeed Obey as chairman and retain the gavel on the panel’s Subcommittee on Defense, which he just took over following Murtha’s death.

Steve T. Dennis contributed to this report.