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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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Obey did not try to fit into official Washington. He treated lobbyists gruffly and reserved his meeting time for constituents from northern Wisconsin -- his staff was instructed to avoid scheduling sitdown sessions with advocates unless the group included Wisconsinites. He shied away from the DC party circuit, except if his bluegrass band, The Capitol Offenses, was invited to play. (The chairman played harmonica on three albums recorded by the group.) And he berated fellow Democrats for going soft on their New Deal, Fair Deal and Great Society commitments.

In truth, however, what distinguished David Obey was an older faith. He kept a picture of Robert M. La Follette, the progressive governor of Wisconsin, senator and 1924 radical presidential candidate behind his desk. And he opened his biography on his official congressional website with the words: "Every American who works hard should be able to fully share in the bounty of America and so should their families. That is the bedrock belief of the Wisconsin La Follette Progressive tradition since the days of its founder, Senator Robert La Follette, and it is the belief that drives Wisconsin's 7th District Congressman Dave Obey today."

That really was the case.

And that is why, in a season of many congressional retirements, none will matter more to progressive policymaking and to the interests of workers, farmers and small business owners on the main streets of America than this one.

John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.