By Kathleen Foody
Wausau Daily Herald

Even as Republican Sean Duffy delivered his victory speech Tuesday night, he found the influence of Democratic Rep. Dave Obey impossible to ignore.

“This seat has been held for 41 years by Congressman Obey,” Duffy began his speech at The Rose Garden in Wausau, shortly before midnight.

The crowd of ecstatic Republicans gathered before him responded with loud boos, buoyed by their candidate’s win and national gains for the GOP.

Duffy raised his hands.

“Now I can tell you, I didn’t often agree with his policies and ideas,” Duffy said. “But he did serve this district honorably, and we owe him that due respect.”

Obey’s surprise decision not to run for re-election to the seat he has occupied since 1969 sent shockwaves through the 7th Congressional District and gave Duffy, 39, a clearer path to victory Tuesday.

Now as the congressman-elect prepares to take office in January, he faces the daunting task of addressing the needs of a congressional district spanning 20 counties.

It’s a skill that Wausau community leaders say Obey perfected during four decades, one they doubt any freshman lawmaker can master in a first term.

“(Obey) knew what was happening in the district, and it wasn’t happenstance,” Wausau City Council member Jim Brezinski said. “He worked at it.”

Linda Lawrence, the former mayor of Wausau, has known Obey since she was a teenager. Lawrence said Obey’s connection to the district developed over time.

“Some people get elected and climb to the top of an ivory tower, thinking they know what’s best for people,” she said. “Dave would attend city events when he could and actually talk to people. He wasn’t a big shot, leaving right away.”

Brezinski described dinner and coffee meetings between city and county leaders and Obey, giving local officials an opportunity to share their concerns about the lagging economy in central Wisconsin and other needs of the district. The physical results of those routine meetings — subsidized senior housing, higher education facilities and roadways funded with federal dollars — “are everywhere,” Brezinski said.

“That was the way he did it,” he said. “Think about that. He’s giving up a night that he probably would have preferred to read a book or watch a football game to meet with (us).”

Dean Zuleger, administrator for the village of Weston, said he didn’t agree with Obey’s political decisions “80 percent of the time,” but did appreciate the longtime congressman’s approach.

“Obey raised the bar with respect to thoughtful debate,” Zuleger said. “Hopefully, Congressman Duffy will step into those shoes and make sure policy-making goes through the same thorough vetting and debate.”

Duffy says Obey wasn’t present or visible enough in the district in recent years. He frequently has faulted the longtime congressman for having a single town hall meeting — by telephone — on the national health care reform legislation and for choosing to live primarily in Washington, D.C.

“I look forward to being a congressman in Wisconsin, not a congressman in D.C.,” Duffy said Thursday. “You get a better pulse feeling it rather than someone telling you what it is. And my votes will be based on this district, not the party.”

But Congress, particularly the House, is a seniority-based institution, said Eric Giordano, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service.

“(Duffy) will probably have to go along to get along with votes, especially early on,” Giordano said. “As a freshman congressman, you’ve got to make sure not to go against the grain or (you could) face serious repercussions for the party support you receive.”

Mark Neumann, a former congressman for southeastern Wisconsin’s 1st District, believes Duffy can have influence almost immediately. Neumann was elected in 1994, one of 54 pick-up seats for Republicans in the “Republican Revolution” engineered by Newt Gingrich.

With more than 60 new Republican members elected to the House again this year, Neumann said freshmen members including Duffy could be appointed to powerful committees that usually would go to senior members.

“I wound up serving on appropriations, with Obey actually,” Neumann said. “I think if these new candidates stand their ground, they really can have influence.”

Neumann admits there can be repercussions for independence — he was bumped from the appropriations committee after voting against a military spending bill — but said members of Congress should be accountable to their constituents, not party leaders.

Duffy brushed off questions about the pressure that new lawmakers face, even as GOP leaders turn their attention to the 2012 elections with the goal of unseating President Barack Obama and taking both chambers of Congress.

“Our race had some great attention, and I think it puts us in a position to have a little bigger bully pulpit,” Duffy said. “The kind of campaign we’ve run, who we’re replacing will go a long way toward increasing my ability to be effective.”

Zuleger said Obey has left the district “a nice legacy,” with the completion of the Highway 29 interchange and new facilities at the University of Wisconsin Marathon County and Northcentral Technical College.

One remaining project Duffy should focus on — renovations to Central Wisconsin Airport — will be critical to the region’s economic future, Zuleger said.