David Obey


Paying his college bills with money earned as a busboy at Rennebohm’s Drug Store on State Street and by installing tile for his landlord, David Obey BS1960, MA1968 never envisioned a political career.

Then UW political science professor Ralph Huitt intervened. The former aide to LBJ urged him to join the Young Democrats.

Later, as a graduate student, Obey again went to Huitt and told him that the Democrats had asked him to run for state Assembly from his hometown of Wausau.

“It’s in your blood. Get out there. Run,” Huitt told him. “If you win, you got a career. If you don’t win, at least you get it out of your system and you’ll be a better student.”

Spending $1,100 and Obey won by 1,100 votes, and his political career was underway. After three terms in the Assembly, he took aim at Congress when Melvin Laird left the job to become secretary of defense under President Richard Nixon.

Obey won the first of his 21 terms in Congress, heading to Washington in 1969 as the House’s youngest member, at 29. There, he became known as a sometimes-cranky fighter for his cause.

Obey was a champion for healthcare, ethics, and education.

“Experience burned into me the conviction that access to education ought to be based on how much you’re willing to learn and how hard you are willing to work, not the number of dollars in your bank account,” Obey said.

He wielded power as a senior member of congressional leadership, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and architect of the stimulus bill that aimed to avert financial collapse during the 2008 recession.

In 2010, Obey announced that he would not seek re-election, saying he was “bone tired.” At the time, he was the fourth-longest serving House member.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Obey a “visionary for a better life for the American people.

“He has an ability to see around corners, anticipate challenges and opportunities and sustain a fight on behalf of what is right,” she said. “For nearly half a century, he has been an indefatigable reformer.”