Posted: Jan. 24, 2011
THE NINE LIVES OF CHARLIE OBERLY
By Celia Cohen
Charlie Oberly has been part of public life in Delaware for so long, there should be no surprise that he got around to being the U.S. attorney.
He had his formal investiture Monday morning in the federal courthouse in Wilmington, nearly a month after he took his oath privately as the federal government's chief legal officer here.
Oberly is the state's 39th U.S. attorney in a long line going all the way back to 1789 with George Read II, the son of the signer of the Declaration of Independence.
It figures. No matter the qualifications, this post has needed political connections from the start.
Oberly, a Democrat, was nominated by President Obama through a recommendation from Tom Carper, the Democratic senior senator, but his real political patron has his picture hanging in the courthouse lobby. That would be the vice president.
It did not seem accidental that the task of introducing Oberly at his investiture went to Beau Biden, although there were reasons, other than being the vice president's son, for him to do it. As the attorney general, he holds the state office where Oberly served for three terms, and the two of them have a joint mission now.
Biden welcomed Oberly as "my friend, my new partner in law enforcement."
Joe Biden was in town but did not attend. He had no choice. He was about three blocks farther down King Street in the New Castle County Courthouse for jury duty. Not nobody, not no how, escapes death, taxes or jury duty.
Plenty of others filled the courtroom, though, with latecomers craning to see inside from the vestibule. There were remarks from Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, and the congressional delegation and also an appearance by Mike Castle, the Republican ex-congressman whose tenure as governor overlapped with Oberly's as attorney general.
For Oberly, who is 64, there was a lot that happened before he got here. Nor was he always the iconic role model along the way. A cat could relate, because it looks like Oberly has had something like nine lives, sometimes perilous.
1. Native son, not that he was supposed to amount to much. Oberly was a cut-up at Brandywine High School, a discipline problem with bad grades. His conduct was so out of line, other students called him "Spitball" Oberly. Then he righted himself in college and earned a law degree from the University of Virginia.
2. Return to his roots. As the U.S. attorney, Oberly is back in the federal system where he had an early taste of law. He is a "Latchum boy," as the onetime clerks for the late Judge Jim Latchum proudly identify themselves for life. Another "Latchum boy," Judge Kent Jordan from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, was there to observe Oberly's investiture.
3. Deputy attorney general. Oberly flourished as a state prosecutor, but he was kicked upstairs to handle appeals when Rich Gebelein, a Republican, was elected attorney general. So Oberly ran against him in 1982 and won. Not everyone can have a real live fantasy of firing his boss.
4. Attorney general, Act I. At first, Oberly was, well, impetuous. It blew up when he outsmarted himself in a spat with the Democratic Party over his filing fee for re-election and nearly got himself booted from the ballot in 1986. He needed a sympathetic court ruling to be able to run and just managed to eke out a victory.
5. Attorney general Act II. Wiser if not sadder, Oberly settled down and grew into his job to become the only attorney general ever to serve three full terms. Although the office handled a number of high-profile criminal cases -- like the prosecution of Steven Brian Pennell, the state's first convicted serial killer -- Carper used his remarks at the investiture to focus on a civil matter.
It occurred as Carper and Castle were switching jobs in 1992 with Carper going from congressman to governor and Castle from governor to congressman. Along with Joe Biden, then the Democratic senator, and Bill Roth, then the Republican senator, they joined with Oberly to fend off the 49 other states wanting a cut of abandoned stock claimed by Delaware. It represented a significant revenue source, accounting for 11 or 12 percent of the state budget today.
"Charlie Oberly, the gift that keeps on giving," Carper quipped.
6. Federal office, first try. At the end of Oberly's third term in 1994, he ran against Roth for the Senate. Roth was a political power, it was a huge Republican year, and Oberly did not stand a chance. His campaign ended, though, with an indelible moment.
On the eve of the election, President Bill Clinton and the first lady gamely showed up for a rally in Rodney Square. There were fireworks and music, and Oberly and Hillary Clinton boogied together in joyous defiance of the Democrats' collapse.
7. Not-so-private practice. Out of politics, Oberly set up a law practice. It is hard to think he could have had a more notorious client than Tom Capano, the wealthy and well-connected lawyer convicted of murdering Anne Marie Fahey, the scheduler for Carper when he was the governor.
Not that anyone at the investiture mentioned Capano. Instead, Markell noted Oberly's thoughtful work representing people before the Board of Pardons, where Markell was a member when he was the state treasurer.
"He took on something when the case really needed to be heard," Markell said.
8. Betwixt-and-between. It took so long from the time Oberly's name was submitted to the White House in May 2009 until his Senate confirmation in December 2010, it should count as a life. When Oberly spoke, he thanked his colleagues at Drinker Biddle, the law firm where he last worked, for their patience.
9. Federal office, second try. Oberly is only the second Delawarean ever to be both attorney general and U.S. attorney. The other was the late Laird Stabler Jr., a Republican, represented at the investiture by Laird Stabler III, his son who is the Republican national committeeman.
So many incarnations. It is like Delaware came up with its own Kilroy. Wherever anyone could look, Oberly was here.