Posted: June 25, 2010
THE WIZARD OF O
By Celia Cohen
Bill Oberle is leaving Legislative Hall. Just leaving. Of all the legislative magic he has performed, this might be the most amazing act of all.
Oberle, a Republican state representative, is not running for a new term in a district south of Newark, his base in the Delaware General Assembly for 34 years.
Nothing is making him go. How strange is that? This place is like the Hotel Dover, where people avoid checking out. Not unless their health falters. Not unless they lose or think they might. Not unless they get the call to that higher office in the sky. Not unless they can morph into, say, the president of Delaware Tech.
If Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, then Dover is sports for clumsy people.
There can be a casino-like rush to it, the roll calls to be won, the deals to be made, the secrets of what-happens-in-caucus-stays-in-caucus, the special treatment, the pumped-up titles and the extra paychecks. There is scoring, too.
Hang around long enough, and people can get a building named after themselves. This just in -- the Thurman Adams Jr. State Service Center in Georgetown.
Wrap it all up in the name of the public good, and never mind the hours and hours of tedium or the ruthless wear-and-tear on family life. Legislative Hall can feel like the center of the universe.
Oberle is not up to retirement age. He is a trim 61, with the upbeat stride of a guy who just got his corporal's stripes and who knows where he can go from there? He keeps winning elections, no matter how many Democratic voters are packed into his district. He could stay as long as he wanted to, but he did not want to.
As if more proof were needed that Oberle is a special kind of legislator, there it is.
With the session set to end June 30, the House of Representatives took Thursday to give Oberle a sensational sendoff. The chamber was so packed, it was hard to tell he was getting standing ovations, because the conditions reached standing-room-only and a host of legislators were on their feet to be recognized to give their tributes. People were crying.
So many representatives wanted to talk that Bob Gilligan, the Democratic speaker, quipped, "It would have been easier just to call the roll."
Two of the state's premier political figures sent their best wishes. They came from Pete du Pont, the Republican ex-governor, and Tom Carper, the Democratic senator who used to be the governor, both recalling their common beginnings in the 1976 election, when Oberle was first elected, du Pont won his first gubernatorial term and Carper his first statewide office as treasurer.
"We are losing a giant," said Pete Schwartzkopf, the Democratic majority leader.
Don Blakey, a Republican representative from Dover, spoke in Swahili, anointing Oberle as "the head teacher" and intoning, "Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations, you are now a member of my village."
The highest praise of all came from Nancy Cook, the Democratic senator who is the queen of Legislative Hall. In a one-line interview, she said, "He probably is the best."
The tribute lasted more than an hour, although Oberle himself had little to say.
"I'm actually very uncomfortable in this position. I'll be brief. We have business to do. Bond Bill meets tonight, and I want to get home at a decent hour," he said.
"Someone a lot smarter than I am once said, when you aspire to greatness and you get to OK, look around, because you're probably not going to get much farther. I hope I made it to OK."
By nature, Oberle was a roamer. Although it is normal to find a niche, like education or agriculture, he was into everything -- state finances, casinos, school desegregation, gay rights, a friend to labor unions and the state police. He did not mind waiting years for what he wanted, and he was equally adept at crafting winning coalitions as he was in killing off legislation.
"If you wanted something done, you better make sure you had him as a co-sponsor," Gilligan said.
Oberle tried leadership in the 1980s, but it was no good. He was better suited to sitting on the House floor in a corner seat on the back row, where he could shuttle between the caucuses.
He liked an office away from the customary suites and spent years in one just outside the House gallery and across the way from the governor's office, a triangle of power.
Not that Oberle was holed up there. He had so much going on, and he was in such demand, it was hard to find him, even though it was essential to find him. It prompted Dan Short, the Republican minority whip, to give him a sign as a going-away present.
It read, "Nobody gets in to see the wizard, not nobody, not no how."
The Wizard of O is up to his last trick. He is going to make himself disappear.