Oberstar looks back on nearly four decades at the Capitol

Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn.
Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., speaks at his final hearing as Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in Washington D.C., on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010.
Photo Courtesy of John Schadl

by Eric Niiler, Special to Minnesota Public Radio News

Washington D.C. - After losing a close race to Republican Chip Cravaack in November, 8th District Congressman Jim Oberstar is wrapping up nearly four decades in Congress, and finds himself in unfamiliar territory. His Washington office is closed and he has finished his final committee hearing.


Jim Oberstar first came to Washington in January 1963 as an aide to Congressman John Blatnik, who assigned Oberstar to clerk for the Public Works Committee. He became an expert in canals, bridges and barge traffic, something few would consider interesting or politically important.

After he was elected to Congress, Oberstar rose to lead that very same committee, overseeing hundreds of billions of dollars in federal transportation spending.

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

Last week, the 76-year-old Chisholm native began a series of goodbyes to his colleagues during his last hearing, starting with members of the committee.

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"It was overwhelming," Oberstar said. "My eyes just flooded with tears and I found it hard to choose just the right words."

Looking back, Oberstar said he is bullish on his legacy, ticking off projects throughout Minnesota that were paid for with taxpayer dollars, including the Hiawatha Light rail project, the Northstar corridor connecting central Minnesota to the Twin Cities, and the ongoing Central Corridor project which would connect Minneapolis and St. Paul.

When the I-35W Bridge collapsed in 2007, Oberstar stayed in Washington and got to work.

"I take pride that instead of rushing out to the site of the bridge collapse I stayed here until midnight that night," Oberstar said, "and within 48 hours having it passed through the House, the Senate, signed by the president a quarter of a billion dollars of 100 percent federal funding to rebuild that bridge and make Minnesota whole."

Oberstar is proud of his achievements in bringing home congressional bacon in the form of road, aviation and rail projects. But there are critics who say the committee has gotten too big, and doled out highway earmarks instead of focusing on the needs of the entire nation.

Mondale, Oberstar
In this Feb. 21, 1983 file photo, then-Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, left, leaves a food shelf store in Gilbert, Minnesota, with U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn. Mondale made a trip to Minnesota's depressed Iron Range following his announcement in St. Paul, Minn., that he will seek the Democratic nomination for President in 1984.

"The committee is one of the largest, if not the largest, in the entire Congress," said Steve Ellis, with the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. "People are there to fight for their own parochial interest. We saw that in the last highway bill which had the legendary 'Bridge to Nowhere'."

Leaders of the incoming GOP majority say they'll ban congressional earmarks. New chairman Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said he's cutting the size of the committee and its staff.

Brian Baird, a Seattle Democrat and committee member who is retiring this year, praised Oberstar's attention to detail on transportation policy, even though it may have hurt him with voters.

"You have to spend a lot of time on the road, away from your district, attending to the details of the legislative process and of policy," Baird said. "Not to running around saying how wonderful you are, not to tearing down the system but trying to make it work. Jim has done that and probably to his own detriment."

With Oberstar's departure, 7th District Congressman Collin Peterson becomes the dean of the Minnesota delegation. He said Oberstar lived and breathed transportation issues.

"There isn't anybody in the United States of America that knows more about this as Jim Oberstar," Peterson said.

Peterson said he hasn't met Chip Cravaack, the Republican that won Oberstar's seat, though he has talked to him on the phone.

"He seems like a good guy, from what I can tell. I look forward to working with him. But it's a big loss," he said.

For his part, Oberstar says he's ruled out lobbying -- the last refuge of many ousted politicians -- and is thinking of joining the academic world. But for the next week or two, he'll be shaking a lot of hands in the marbled corridors of Capitol Hill.