Posted: Jan. 6, 2010; updated


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Bill Oberle has decided not to run for re-election this year, bringing to an end a 34-year legislative career that has made him the longest-serving Republican in the Delaware General Assembly.

He made his plans official Tuesday evening by telling the other Republicans in the House of Representatives during a caucus meeting in Dover.

"You just know when it's time. It feels right. I'm happy about it," Oberle said.

Oberle's retirement announcement was not the only one that evening. Pam Thornberg, a 10-year Republican representative with a district west of Dover, also said she would not be running for re-election because she is about to become the administrator of the Delaware Farm Bureau, where she is currently the public relations coordinator.

The two new departures, along with one announced earlier by George Carey from Milford, leave the House Republicans with three open seats to defend and complicate their effort to regain the majority they held for 24 years until 2008. The Democrats control the chamber 24-17.

Oberle, a 60-year-old retired DuPonter from a district south of Newark, is one of the oddities of politics as a pro-labor Republican.

It set him apart from his colleagues, but it was a fit for his constituents, more than half of them Democrats, living not far from the Chrysler auto plant that shut down a year ago and a local headquarters of the United Auto Workers.

Oberle's leanings did not prevent him from rising in leadership, first to an abbreviated stint in the mid-1980s as majority leader, which he acknowledges was beyond his comfort level and maturity at the time, and more recently as the co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee before the House Republicans lost their majority in 2008.

Still, Oberle was an independent thinker who was most at ease in his customary perch on the back row in the chamber. He always seemed to be in the room when the tough negotiating went on to hammer out the stickiest legislation.

Only three current legislators, all Democrats, have served as long or longer than Oberle, who was elected in 1976 -- Speaker Bob Gilligan, elected in 1972, Sen. Nancy Cook, elected in 1974, and Sen. Harris McDowell, elected in 1976.

Oberle's departure should set up a ferocious election for his district, where the registration seriously favors the Democrats but the Republicans can ill-afford to lose.

Oberle's caucus mates were not always pleased to have a pro-labor Republican among them, but it did cheer them on Election Day when he brought them a district where the registration was stacked against them.