Big names battle in the 8th

Rod Grams
Rod Grams, Republican, from St. Fancis, MN, is seeking the 8th District Congressional seat held by Democrat Jim Oberstar of Chisholm. Grams is a former U.S. Senator and Congressman from Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Rod Grams brings a high-profile name to the 8th District Congressional race, a name Minnesotans might know as well as Jim Oberstar's. Grams was a long time Twin Cities television news anchor, a three-term vongressman, and served one term as Minnesota U.S. senator.

Grams says his conservative attitudes are more in line with 8th District values than is Jim Oberstar.

Jim Oberstar
Democratic U.S. Congressman Jim Oberstar represents Minnesota's 8th congressional district. Oberstar is shown at a Duluth area political rally.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"I believe that Minnesota, northern Minnesota, is conservative," says Grams. "I don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican. These are good, conservative, hard working people. And, so that's what I like to tell them all the time is this is not your father's Oldsmobile. This is not your father's Democratic Party. The party is gone. It's been replaced by something that is much more liberal."

Grams says when he was in Washington he worked across party lines to pass a $500 income tax credit. And Grams says he got motor vehicles back on two Boundary Waters boat portages.

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"I'm not out there being partisan," Grams says. "I always consider myself a Reagan conservative. But I don't care if you say it's a Democratic idea or a Republican idea, if it's good for northern Minnesota, if it's going to help us, I'm going to be for it."

So far, Grams has been on the attack, challenging Oberstar's attendance and voting records. Oberstar says Grams is deliberately distorting the records, and running a negative campaign.

Jim Oberstar is the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Recently, he's brought home money to rebuild dangerous highways in Chisago County and near Ely.

United Taconite
This is a view of the United Taconite mine at Eveleth. Jim Oberstar is credited with bringing together Cleveland Cliffs Corp. and the Chinese Steel Company Laiwu to reopen the taconite operation.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"I've proven that I deliver for the people of the 8th District, that I listen to the people," Oberstar says. "I have traveled every county; every city, every township. Every session of Congress I cover this and listen to what the people's needs are."

Oberstar takes credit for business recruitments and expansions in the district, from Polaris Industries, to Northwest Airlines, to a deal selling Minnesota taconite to a Chinese steelmaker. And he sells himself in a folksy way as a long time neighbor.

"I'm a son of the Iron Range," Oberstar says. "I'm a child of the 8th District. My heart is here. My love of this place is here. I'm in a position as next year, hopefully, Chairman of the Transportation Committee, to keep on doing the good and the right things for the people of northeastern Minnesota."

Some pundits wonder why Rod Grams is challenging such a well-entrenched incumbent.

Craig Grau, a retired professor of political science at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, says Grams' role might be to energize 8th District Republicans in support of other statewide races. He says Grams could be positioning himself for a future run at the office if and when Oberstar decides to step down.

"There's another thing also, that he ties up Oberstar and his campaign to this district, where he can't go into other districts and help other candidates in marginal areas to win some seats," Grau says.

Craig Grau
Craig Grau is a former Professor of Political Sciences at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Retired now, Grau lives with his wife in Duluth.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

But Rod Grams says he's not in the race to fall on a sword for anyone else. He says he believes he can win, and he's not laying the ground work for another year. Grams says he hopes to energize the district's Republican base and draw the conservative vote.

Craig Grau says Jim Oberstar also appeals to some conservatives.

"The problem Rod Grams has is that Jim Oberstar's been conservative on some of those issues as well, especially gun control and abortion," Grau says. "It's hard to say he would resonate more than the incumbent on those issue. Now there are other issues like fiscal policy that he (Grams)might appeal more to conservatives than Oberstar."

No one expects Jim Oberstar to be a pushover in this race. Rod Grams has raised more than $230,000, less than a third of Jim Oberstar's war chest. Grau says that's enough to make Grams a viable candidate. It gives Grams, Grau says, a place at the table.

In addition to Oberstar and Grams, Harry Welty of Duluth is running for the seat as a Unity Party Candidate.