Sabo leaves politics as he served: low-key

Retiring Rep. Martin Sabo
Martin Sabo is the son of Norwegian immigrants. He grew up on his family's wheat farm in North Dakota. Sabo began his political career in 1960 -- the same year John F. Kennedy was elected president.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Martin Sabo's legacy may be what he delivered to his district. But he says the pinnacle of his career was his work on balancing the budget as chair of the House Budget Committee. As House budget chair in 1993 and '94, Sabo helped pass the largest deficit reduction package in the nation's history. The package increased taxes and cut government spending.

"He's very straight forward," said Leon Pannetta, who was the director of the Office of Management and Budget for Bill Clinton in 1993. "He tells you what he thinks. He doesn't get angry or pound his hands on the table but he just kind of talks to people and lets them know what makes good sense and because of that, he can be a very effective whip when it came to getting the votes we needed."

Sabo spent his adult life worrying about votes. Despite run-away victories at the ballot box for 23 straight campaigns, Sabo still spent his Octobers knocking on doors, looking for votes. Once he was elected, Sabo had to round up votes to pass his initiatives.

Sabo chokes back tears
Rep. Martin Sabo tries to hold back tears as he announced his retirement from Congress in March 2006.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Sabo is the son of Norwegian immigrants. He grew up on his family's wheat farm in North Dakota. Sabo began his political career in 1960 -- the same year John F. Kennedy was elected president. He was 22 and fresh out of Augsburg College when he ran for a state House seat in Minneapolis.

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"He was young, he was actively interested in public issues," recalled Don Fraser, who preceded Sabo in Congress and later served as mayor of Minneapolis. "He seemed like a very sensible younger person that I thought would make a very good candidate for Legislature."

Sabo rose quickly in the Legislature. He was elected House minority leader in 1968 and became speaker of the House in 1973. It became clear that his political style focused more on consensus building and horse trading than political showmanship.

Sabo showcased that low key style during a 1973 oral history interview with the Minnesota Historical Society. Sabo was nonchalant when asked about why he became speaker of the Minnesota House.

"Natural thing to do, I guess, after visiting with some people, this is what they thought I should do," he said.

Light rail legacy
Rep. Martin Sabo's most lasting achievement may be funding for the light-rail system in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Sabo said his work in the Minnesota Legislature, in particular his work on the Minnesota Miracle, was one of his proudest moments of his career. There was also evidence that he was becoming a career politician. During another oral history interview in 1975, Sabo said it was time for the Legislature to take a more business-like approach.

"There's no way we're going to return to the dream world of the gentleman farmer coming down to the state Capitol for a brief period of time taking care of the state's business and then going home," he said. "Flexible sessions are here and here to stay and I think that's good."

In 1978, Sabo left the state Capitol to run for Congress after then-Congressman Fraser decided to run for the U.S. Senate. During an MPR debate that year, Sabo criticized his Republican opponent for promising more money for federal programs and massive tax cuts.

"What I find totally objectionable are the people who run around as candidates and are everything to everybody," he said. "They're for every program and say 'yes' to the questions involving more outlay of federal funds. At the same time they then switch over and say 'We're a big Santa Claus. It isn't going to cost anybody anything.' That's just deceitful."

Sabo won the election convincingly, garnering 62 percent of the vote. That was the closest anyone ever came to beating him during his Congressional years.

Sabo and Erlandson
Retiring Rep. Martin Sabo, left, endorsed Mike Erlandson to replace him in office. But 5th District voters gave the primary election victory to Keith Ellison.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Even though Sabo served on the influential House Appropriations Committee, Sabo's political profile didn't grow at the same rate as his political power. And that wasn't by accident.

Sabo, who preferred door knocking for votes to TV ads, relied on his soft-spoken style to get re-elected. He told MPR in 1998 that he may not have been the most noticeable politician because he never mastered the sound byte .

"If you in the electronic business want the witty 10-second response to something, I'm probably not your source," he said.

But Sabo became the source on federal budget matters, working with both Republicans and Democrats. Leon Panetta, who also served on the House Appropriations Committee with Sabo, said Sabo was the Democratic manager of the annual Congressional baseball game. Panetta says Sabo would also play pick-up basketball against his much-younger colleagues, mixing jump shots with another Sabo staple, the cigarette.

"He used to smoke a lot and I remember him going to the back of the chamber of the House and always lighting up a cigarette and smoking it," Panetta recalled. "And sometimes on the basketball court he used to get a cigarette just to keep going."

Sabo quit smoking three years ago. He spent his last 12 years in office in the minority after the GOP took control of Congress in 1994. But that didn't mean his influence diminished. Eighth District Congressman Jim Oberstar says he and other Democrats continued to follow Sabo's lead on the budget.

"So rarely did Martin speak that when he did, people knew that he had something to say and they stopped and listened and pay attention," according to Oberstar.

Oberstar says he believes Sabo's legacy will be his work on the Hiawatha Light Rail project that now runs from downtown Minneapolis to Bloomington.

Sabo was also instrumental in securing federal money for the Northstar Commuter Rail Line that will run from Minneapolis to Big Lake and for the Minneapolis VA Hospital, the federal courthouse in Minneapolis and Heritage Park in Minneapolis.

Sabo scoffed at any criticism that he and other members of Congress were running up the budget by securing these types of earmarks.

"You either are looking out for your state or your district or it's going to go elsewhere," Sabo said.

But in March Sabo decided it was his time to go elsewhere. He announced his retirement at a news conference before family, friends and colleagues. At the time he said he wanted to see the northeastern part of the country during the fall, something that the constant campaigning and work in Congress prevented.

"When you've been running every two years for 46 years, the normal thing is to just keep doing it," he said. "But at some point you have to come decision that it's time stop. And to me, my instincts told me this was the time."

Two months later, delegates at the 5th District DFL Convention gave Sabo a standing ovation. He was a popular politician in his Minneapolis district because he had one of the more liberal voting records in Congress. He told the delegates he was disappointed with the way President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress handled the Iraq war.

"The best vote I ever made in Congress was to vote 'no' on that war," he told delegates.

But those delegates also sent Sabo a message by not endorsing his former chief of staff and hand-picked successor to replace him. Instead, they endorsed Keith Ellison, who will replace Sabo.

Sabo gave a brusque response when he was asked if there was a reason he never backed Ellison.

"Obviously there was but I'm not about to get into those issues today. The voters have spoken. He's won. He has a big task in front of him and I wish him well," he said.

Sabo also told a Washington D.C. newspaper that Ellison, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, should make sure his high profile does not become a liability.

Martin Sabo, who preferred behind the scenes deal-making to the media spotlight, wouldn't have it any other way.