Posted: Jan. 7, 2010
By Celia Cohen
Think about the likely description for the longest-serving Republican ever to be elected to the Delaware General Assembly.
Probably from a safe Republican district, right? Maybe Chateau Country or Hockessin. Strong pro-business voting record. Favorite president undoubtedly Ronald Reagan.
That would be so wrong.
The longest-serving Republican is Bill Oberle, a sweatshirt-and-baseball-cap kind of guy.
William A. Oberle Jr. is putting in his 34th year in the House of Representatives, a fixture from a district south of Newark where more than half the voters are Democrats and even the independents outnumber the Republicans. He is proudly, proudly pro-labor.
Oberle told his caucus Tuesday evening at Legislative Hall in Dover he has decided not to run for re-election in 2010 to the seat he held for 17 terms since 1976. He is 60 years old, retired from DuPont, eager along with his wife Sally to spend time with eight grandchildren, and topped off his legislative goals last year when a gay rights bill became law.
"It's been a good run, 34 years. It's been a blessing -- with a few bumps in the road. You just know when it's time. It feels right. I'm happy about it," Oberle said.
Oberle's tenure is noteworthy because of his longevity. It is remarkable because of his paradoxical political identity as a pro-labor Republican. Even more, it is historic because of the legislating skills that made him one of the best there ever was.
"He was always a player. If you wanted something done, he was someone you had to talk to, because he was going to be involved," said Bob Gilligan, the Democratic speaker.
"He was always the kind of guy you wanted on your side. He knew what he was talking about, he did his homework, and he was a good debater. You knew if he was on your side, you had a better chance of passing meaningful legislation."
Gilligan has been around to watch. He is the longest-serving legislator of all time after arriving in the House in 1972. Gilligan joins two others -- Sen. Thurman Adams from 1972 until his death last year and Sen. Nancy Cook from 1974 until now -- with more years than Oberle, but all three of them are Democrats, giving Oberle the record for Republicans.
Oberle was propelled to be a legislator. His background was typical Delaware for his day -- growing up near Claymont, the son of a steelworker at the local plant, graduating from Brandywine High School, signing up for a little more schooling and taking a blue-collar job at DuPont.
He cannot really account for what came next. Against personal odds, he joined his civic association.
"I have suffered paralyzing panic attacks my whole life. The first meeting I was so terrified, I actually thought I was going to be physically ill, but it was much more rewarding that I thought it would be," Oberle said.
He became the civic association president. It was the time of a federal court order to desegregate the northern New Castle County public schools, and Oberle also got involved with the Positive Action Committee, the most vocal outlet of protest.
"The legislature seemed to be a logical next step," Oberle said.
His participation in the Positive Action Committee was decisive for the aggrieved voters in 1976. Oberle beat a Democratic incumbent by 24 votes and set up shop for the long haul. He was 27 years old.
There was a bit of a chip on Oberle's shoulder then. Anyone familiar with the legislature from that time would never guess the colleague who got Oberle to reconsider his attitude.
It was Rep. John Matushefske, of all people, an enthusiastic and outrageous deal-making Democrat who once traded his vote on a revision of the state constitution for a higher price from the state for asphalt contractors.
"Matty told me, to be a successful legislator, you can't be against everything, you have to be for things," Oberle said.
Oberle was for a lot of things. He was a prolific bill sponsor, his issues including neighborhood schools, the Chrysler loan act, workers' compensation, collective bargaining and horse racing. The one that took him the longest to accomplish was gay rights, a debate that lasted a decade. The one that brought him the most citizen complaints was mandatory seat belts.
Not that Oberle entirely stopped being against things. His proudest "no" vote was cast in 1981 against the Financial Center Development Act, the landmark banking law that transfigured the state's economy. He was one of three representatives to say nay, and he still thinks he was right, farsighted even, considering the banking industry's role in the Great Recession.
If there was a blemish on Oberle's career, it was his ill-advised stint as the House majority leader in the mid-1980s. Although he was up to it legislatively, he was not up to it personally. His conduct became more and more erratic.
"That didn't work out because I had a drinking problem. There were a lot of pressures, I was young, there were the panic attacks, and I think I was self-medicating. That was not the environment to be self-medicating," Oberle said.
Oberle returned to the back row, where he was more comfortable. In more recent years he served ably as the co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, which writes the state's operating budget, and the Bond Bill Committee, which drafts the construction budget, until the Republicans lost the House majority in 2008.
Not that Oberle ever needed a title. He is a backstage master who could make or break the House Republican leadership and handle the hard negotiating on complex and controversial bills.
"In may respects he was the un-elected Republican leader. He was a joy to work with, incredibly sincere, never disingenuous," said U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat who was the governor Oberle called his favorite.
"The people who benefited the most were not Democrats or Republicans, the legislators or the administration, but the people of Delaware. We need people who can work across party lines and are open and constructive."
Oberle exits as perhaps the last of his kind, a pro-labor Republican. His best allies were Rep. Terry Spence, who was the speaker, and Rep. Vince Lofink, but they lost their seats in 2008, leaving him as alone at the end as he was at the beginning.
"It wasn't easy, and it's still not easy. I'm the ugly stepchild of the Republican Party," Oberle said.
Stepchild or otherwise, Oberle is a Republican, and his departure will make the next election harder on his party. It is down 24-17 in the House and will not be able to count on him to deliver a district that by all rights should belong to the Democrats.
"He did the party proud in holding a very difficult district in terms of registration. People in that district are open to voting for a Republican and have for a long time, so what we have to do is find a quality candidate," said Tom Ross, the Republican state chair.
As for Oberle's favorite president, it is not Ronald Reagan but Harry Truman, a Democrat.
It is not just because Oberle, like Truman, did not turn away from giving 'em hell. It is because Truman, who called the White House the "Great White Jail," left his presidency by taking the train to Missouri like any other passenger, no Secret Service anywhere.
All Truman wanted was to go home, a private citizen. Bill Oberle does, too.