Voters in the 8th District say Oberstar became big government

Oberstar leaves
U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar leaves the Gerald W. Heaney Federal Building in Duluth, Minn. after speaking to the media on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010. Oberstar had just been defeated by Republican challenger Chip Cravaack.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

Minnesota's 8th Congressional District will have a new representative in Washington for the first time since 1975, after political newcomer Chip Cravaack unseated veteran Rep. James Oberstar in a tight race that stunned many observers.

Was it the same anti-incumbent mood that prompted voters to oust dozens of Democrats across the country? Was it the changing demographics of a huge district? Or was it something more personal? Whatever the causes, the close election was a cliff-hanger and Cravaack's victory was a shock.

Bob Lloyd, a retired St. Louis County public works superintendent on the eastern end of the Iron Range, Oberstar's home territory, said he voted for Oberstar for many of the congressman's nearly 36 years in office.

"But as he got older and more set, he was one of the ones that wanted more and bigger government," Lloyd said. "His transportation job went to his head and he became a big spender. The last several years I could no longer support his government growth and spending ways."

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Oberstar took over as chair of the powerful House transportation committee in 2006.

Lloyd and others complain that Oberstar -- who was born and raised in Chisholm -- didn't spend enough time in the district in recent years, had an elitist attitude and couldn't relate to the people back home. And Oberstar is closely associated with currently unpopular programs pushed by the Obama administration, such as health care reform and the stimulus package.

Another Iron Ranger, Wesley Trout of Hibbing, said people are sick of a do-nothing Congress, squabbling along party lines, unwilling to reach across the aisle. Trout says he's hoping Chip Cravaack will be different.

"Hopefully he'll be able to at least bring some fresh ideas and a new way of doing business to the Congress," Trout said. "And hopefully they'll be able to cooperate with each other for a change."

Some observers suggest the Oberstar loss shouldn't have been such a surprise. The 8th District is thought of as a blue-collar, union stronghold because of its historic center, the Iron Range and Duluth.

But as mining employment has dwindled and population has declined up north, the boundaries of the district have shifted farther south. So the district now includes the northern reaches of the Twin Cities metro area.

Retired UMD political science professor Craig Grau said you only have to look back at the previous election to see that this large district sometimes votes just the same as the state and the nation.

"President Obama -- when he was candidate Obama -- only got 53-percent in the district," he said. "And who knows how much he would have gotten last night?"

Oberstar was not the only DFLer to lose in Northeastern Minnesota.

Seven DFL state lawmakers who represent areas in the more conservative southern part of the 8th District lost their seats to Republicans. They included four members of the Minnesota House and 3 state Senators.

In his concession speech, Oberstar said the campaign was expecting a higher turnout in St. Louis County than they got.

Craig Grau points out the House of Representatives is elected every two years, so it's most subject to the public's anger.

"The Democrats controlled the House of Representatives for decades until 1994, and then there was a period of 12 years that the Republicans did, and now there's only been a period of four years. It's getting faster and faster; the pendulum is picking up speed."

And that's the idea on Bob Lloyd's mind. He says he'll give Chip Cravaack a chance -- but not for long.

"Hope for the best, and if in a couple years he doesn't produce, or doesn't do as promised, it's the same with most of them that were elected, let's hope we have enough courage to jump up and boot 'em out," he said.

For his part, after his concession speech, Oberstar headed for the airport, and one of his last flights back to Washington as a congressman.