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Rep. Obey Retires: Progressive Congressman, a Committee Chair, Calls It a Day

"There's got to be more to life than explaining Senate procedures to angry constituents or begging Blue Dogs to do what they ought to do by rote," Obey said.

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Nor did he suffer fools lightly, especially Republican fools. His disdain for former President George W. Bush was such that, at his retirement announcement, he made a point of noting that, while he had pondered leaving the House earlier: "I was determined to outlast him."

The congressman's inspiration came from his youth in northern Wisconsin's Marathon County.

Obey's father was temporarily paralyzed when the congressman was young. "Nobody knew what caused it,"Dave recalled. "But after a number of months, he slowly regained the use of his arms. We were scared. That experience taught me that working families are often just one paycheck away from economic disaster. And it showed me first-hand the importance of every family having access to good health care."

When Obey was just starting at the University of Wisconsin, his father lost a good job with the 3M Company. "That scared me," said Obey, "because I had no idea how much help I would get from home in finishing my education. And that experience burned into me the conviction that access to education ought to be based on how much you are willing to learn and how hard you are willing to work, not on how many dollars your family has in their bank account."

On issue after issue, the congressman would remember an experience from his own youth to explain his distrust of corporate and political elites, and his determination to turn the tables on them. For Obey, it was always a matter of basic fairness. He wanted a level playing field for all Americans. And he was willing to work for as long as it took to achieve that balance.

That was why, after he shocked the nation by winning the 1969 special election to fill the House seat left vacant when veteran Republican Congressman Mel Laird was appointed as Nixon's Secretary of Defense, Obey immediately burrowed into the committee work that earned few headlines but ultimately determined whether a federal program had the resources that were needed to make it work.

From the start, Obey's mantra was the same: "I have an obligation to fight and to fight hard for what I believe in and for the progressive principles that we are supposed to defend."

If a jobs, or education or health-care bill was not to his liking, Obey believed that he would be around to "make a bad bill better" in the next Congress. And he usually did just that, as one of the steadiest defenders of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, higher education, public broadcasting and progressive taxation in the House.

But, as of next January, Obey will no longer be there. At 71, he is younger than some committee chairs; and, despite an energetic Republican challenge from a former MTV "reality TV" star, he probably would have been reelected by voters in a Democratic-leaning district.

But Obey always said of his (and every) House seat: "It's not a lifetime appointment."

Much will be made of the fact that Obey is the highest-ranking Democrat to leave the House in what many see as a difficult year for Democrats. Already, national Republicans are claiming a sort of win – in fact, Wisconsin Republicans know their prospects just dimmed, as they were excited about running against a "Washington insider" not a Democratic newcomer in a district that tends to vote for Democrats.

But Obey was far less of a Washington insider than most committee chairs -- or than any member who obtained his kind of seniority (he's the third longest-serving member of the current House, after two Michigan congressmen with whom he often worked closely, John Dingell and John Conyers.)