Longtime Wisconsin congressmen honored for decades of service

David Obey, a Democrat, and Tom Petri, a Republican, were honored with a ceremony at the state Capitol

The sun shines through leaves in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol.
The Wisconsin State Capitol on Oct. 4, 2023, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Two longtime Wisconsin lawmakers were honored Tuesday for their records of public service.

Former U.S. Reps. David Obey, a Democrat, and Tom Petri, a Republican, received an award named for former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.

A ceremony at the state Capitol Tuesday was marked by both humor and memories of an age when lawmakers worked across party lines to achieve change.

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“It’s always been the leadership on both sides that have made Wisconsin what it is,” Thompson said in his opening remarks.

Obey worked in the state Legislature before entering Congress in 1969. He served until 2011, representing northwestern Wisconsin, including his native Wausau. Petri also served in the state Senate until he entered Congress in 1979. He represented a district in eastern Wisconsin until 2015.

David Obey. J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Both lawmakers reflected on the importance of working across the aisle. Obey submitted prepared remarks and discussed his early years in the state Legislature.

“We didn’t always love each other, but we recognized what each other needed in order to support legislation that was for the good of the state,” he said of Republican colleagues at that time. “Sometimes we fought like hell. But it’s important to understand that when we did disagree, we did not invent reasons to oppose each other. When we differed with each other, it was because of our honest beliefs that led us to our legislative differences.”

Petri said democracy requires conversation.

“Our system is wonderful, but it requires people listening to each other. It requires people … figuring out how to live together,” he said. “It’s a little bit like a family. I used to say: I don’t even agree with myself half the time.”

Above, Rep. Tom Petri during a visit to the Lester Public Library in Two Rivers. Photo: Lester Public Library (CC-BY-NC-SA)

Thompson also shared personal memories of working with both men.

“To get to know Dave is to love him. Because the first experience I had with Dave Obey was: I really disliked him,” Thompson said, recalling a time that Obey hosted him for dinner in Washington, D.C. “He was a true practitioner — the finest calling, being a citizen legislator — and congressman.”

Petri, Thompson said, is a gentleman.

“Just an outstanding person that you, as soon as you meet him, you know you’re in the presence of a wonderful human being,” Thompson said, before joking about Petri defeating him for the congressional seat Petri held for more than four decades.