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Obey And Petri Take Aim At Divided Politics

Veteran Former Lawmakers Set Out On Bipartisan Speaking Tour

Glen Moberg/WPR

Two long-serving, former Wisconsin congressmen, one Democratic and one Republican, are touring the state together in an effort to heal its partisan divide.

Dave Obey, a 76-year-old Democrat, represented northern Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District for 42 years.

“Tom and I are from an era where it was not a mortal sin to have a friend across the aisle,” Obey said, referring to his friend, Tom Petri, 74, a Republican, represented eastern Wisconsin’s 6th Congressional District for 35 years.

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“We didn’t decide which one was going to be Oscar and which one was going to be Felix in this thing,” Petri joked.

The political odd couple are touring the state, with a goal of bridging its deepening partisan divide. One of the first stops was Dave Obey’s alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County.

“It isn’t just the politicians that are polarized these days. The country is as well,” Obey said.

But Tom Petri noted that as bad as things are now, America has seen worse.

“War broke out in the Congress itself, and the people who clubbed each other were each elected by acclamation, which told everyone people don’t want accommodation, they want war,” Petri said.

For some in the audience, partisanship is a five-letter word: M-O-N-E-Y.

“The elephant in the room is money, and what are we going to do about it?” an audience member at the UW event asked.

Here’s what Dave Obey did: When the U.S, Supreme Court loosened the rules on political spending, he retired.

“After the court decisions came down, I knew that if I wanted to stay in the Congress I was going to have to spend 50 percent of every day on the phone dialing for dollars like a telemarketer,” Obey said.

But Petri suggested the answer to big money may be small enough to fit in a pocket, referring to mobile technology

“It’s free, you know, on the web. I think it’s possible from the grassroots up to influence elections much more than was possible in the past,” Petri said.

The idea resonated with plumbing contractor Milt Pachal, who attended the event.

“Mr. Petri especially had hope that it will work itself out. Get things back to the middle, and it will be a negotiation rather than, ‘This is my way or the highway,’” Pachal said.

But UW-Marathon County student Shawn Igers was less optimistic

“Obey touched on it with who you vote for. And I also think it’s money in politics. One administration overturns the next, so nothing actually gets done,” he said.

And for retired school teacher Ruth Wrysinski, the answer doesn’t lie in smartphones, but in getting young people to put them down and talk to each other.

“We need to engage young people and ourselves in conversation, that you need more than one newspaper, that you need more than one channel,” said Wrysinski.

As for Wisconsin’s partisan divide, Obey blamed gerrymandered districts, saying the redrawn legislative map can account for things like Wisconsin’s the party-line passage of right-to-work.

“There are so many legislative seats that are so safe, that there’s no pressure on the politicians from those districts to compromise with the other side,” Obey said.

But Petri suggested that, for his fellow Wisconsin Republicans, the partisanship may have already peaked.

“This may have crested and we will see a certain amount of bipartisanship as the Legislature addresses the governor’s budget proposals,” he said. “I would be quite surprised if there weren’t changes in the funding for education.”

Both men long for a return to the civil discourse practiced by America’s leaders in the years following World War II.

“The value that they brought to politics was concern about ‘we’, not concern about ‘me,’” recalled Obey.

“You can have constructive as well as destructive disagreements, and sometimes as you debate and argue and differ, you learn something,” Petri said.

Tom Petri and Dave Obey’s tour is also making stops in Marshfield, Rhinelander, Mercer, Ashland, Rice Lake, Cadott, Madison, Milwaukee and Waukesha.