Tearful Martin Sabo announces retirement from Congress

Sabo chokes back tears
Rep. Martin Sabo tries to hold back tears as he announced his retirement from Congress.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

U.S. Representative Martin Sabo of Minneapolis says he plans to retire after 28 years in the Congress.

Sabo and family
Rep. Martin Sabo is surrounded by his family as he announced his retirement from Congress
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

The 68-year-old Sabo announced at a news conference on Saturday outside his Minneapolis office that he will not seek a 15th term. He was first elected to Congress in 1978. Before that, he served 18 years in the Minnesota Legislature. Sabo, who earned a reputation as a deficit hawk, says he's concerned about the nation's current fiscal problems. But with another campaign season approaching, Sabo says it's time to move on.

"This was not an easy decision," he said. "There are many important battles before us, and I still care deeply about the issues facing our nation. I still have energy and good health. And public service is what I;ve done my entire adult life. It has been a long and rewarding career. I was first elected to the Minnesota House in 1960, when I was 22, and to Congress in 1978. I;ve been on the ballot every two years since 1960. That's 23 campaigns. I think I can honestly say I think I've knocked more doors than anyone in the history of the state. Now at age 68, it's time to stop. In my gut, I know the time is right."

Minnesota's 5th Congressional District is considered a Democratic stronghold. Dozens of potential candidates could now seek the DFL Party endorsement. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, a professor at the University of St. Thomas, had already organized a challenge.

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State Rep. Keith Ellison and Minneapolis City Council Member Gary Schiff say they're running. And Mike Erlandson, Sabo's chief of staff and a former DFL Party chairman, is expected to jump in.

Sabo was first elected to the state House the same year John F. Kennedy won the presidency. After almost 28 years in Congress - and campaigning every two years since 1960 - he said he had a gut feeling it was time to quit. He said Congress has become more polarized and less hardworking during his years there.

Mike Erlandson
Mike Erlandson, Sabo's chief of staff and former DFL Party chairman has been mentioned as a possible candidate for Sabo's seat.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"I've always believed the fundamental problem with politics today are people who over-promise and overstate. I've tried to do the opposite," Sabo said. "I've also tried to treat my colleagues with respect. I don't recall ever making a public statement critical of my colleague, whether it's Democrat or Republican."

Sabo's wife, Sylvia, daughters Karin and Julie and five grandchildren were among dozens of supporters who gathered outside his Minneapolis office to hear him speak.

He choked up when he thanked family members and said he's looking forward to seeing more of his grandchildren and having time for Twins games, golf and travel. A long moment of applause after he finished his announcement brought tears to his eyes and reddened his nose.

DFL Party Chairman Brian Melendez called Sabo "one of the greatest representatives in a state known for political giants."

State Sen. Wes Skoglund, DFL-Minneapolis, said Sabo was an example to fellow politicians.

"I'm in a form of political mourning because Martin has done such an outstanding job," Skoglund said. "He never said something bad - that's the way to do it. He sets the standard."

Brian Melendez
Minnesota DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Mike Erlandson, Sabo's chief of staff and a potential candidate for the seat, said Sabo brought a level of civility to the job that's rare in Washington.

"He's a giant in public service in our state, in our nation," Erlandson said. "There are not many Martin Sabos."

Sabo said putting together the 1993 federal budget as House Budget Committee chairman was one of his proudest accomplishments because it helped spur the biggest economic expansion in history. He also named the so-called Minnesota Miracle - the 1971 Legislature's groundbreaking overhaul of the state's school funding system - as a major success.

He currently serves on the House Appropriations Committee and has helped steer millions of dollars to the Twin Cities for projects including the Hiawatha Avenue light-rail line and the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center. He's also the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee's homeland security subcommittee.

Born in North Dakota, Sabo served 18 years in the Legislature and quickly ascended to leadership positions - first minority leader, then speaker. He said he rarely calls news conferences, joking Saturday that the press wouldn't come. But Sabo said he's probably knocked on more doors than anyone in Minnesota in his 23 campaigns for election or re-election.

Erlandson, former head of the DFL Party, said Saturday he is considering a run.

Other possibilities include Sabo's daughter Julie, a former state senator and lieutenant governor candidate; state Sen. Scott Dibble; Hennepin County Commissioners Gail Dorfman and Peter McLaughlin; former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew; Minneapolis City Council members Lisa Goodman and Scott Benson; former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton; R.T. Rybak, the current mayor; state Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher; former state Rep. Betty Folliard; and former state Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge.

Sabo said he plans to work for the DFL candidate but declined to comment on the field or whether he would endorse one of the contenders.

On the Republican side, Tim Anderson and James Turnham are seeking the seat, said GOP spokesman Mark Drake.