Former Rep. Jim Oberstar grew up in Depression-era Chisholm, wearing dirty overalls around the family home, walking the iron-tinted muddy streets of his Iron Range hometown. Like many Iron Rangers in the 20th century, mostly miners' kids, Oberstar became upwardly mobile, flung from the catapult of extraordinary Range schools and the drive of a hungry people. He learned French, excelled in the details of public policy and became the longest-serving member of Congress in Minnesota history.
So when Oberstar, a preeminent transportation expert, lost his once solidly DFL 8th District seat to central Minnesota Republican Chip Cravaack in 2010 — you really can't overstate the symbolism. Cravaack, an airline pilot of all things, seemed to tear through an old dam, unleashing a torrent of anti-incumbent resentment. No project by the Army Corps of Engineers could save Oberstar from this flood. The water was just too deep.
Jim Oberstar, like his long-serving predecessor John Blatnik, was the sort of politician most districts got rid of in the '90s. He served as a conduit between an old world and the new world. Because he grew up so modestly, with such a deep knowledge and affection for the Iron Range, voters allowed him to spend more time in Washington, becoming a transportation policy guru and House power broker. This arrangement ended brutally last fall.
In sharp contrast, Cravaack is a political newcomer adept in modern political messaging and image-crafting. He wraps conservative ideology into the sort of neat package that wins elections, his affability substituting for voters' knowledge of his positions. He seems sincere, but generically so. Regardless of your opinion of his politics, Cravaack represents the new political model for the region, only more so now that the DFL is ramping up against him.
A couple of weeks ago, former state Sen. Tarryl Clark of St. Cloud made news when she bought a place in Duluth and announced her candidacy to challenge Cravaack in 2012. Clark had made her name running against conservative stalwart Rep. Michelle Bachmann in Minnesota's Sixth District, losing by a margin neither wide nor close nor remarkable. The reaction to her transplantation has been rough, garnering harsh rebukes from editorial boards in Duluth and on the Iron Range. They called her a carpetbagger. She responded with an op-ed using as many names of 8th District towns as one reasonably could while leaving room for verbs and her name.
And this is how it will be.
Yes, a host of other DFL candidates is jockeying for position, many of them with deeper ties to the region. Some of them might even have a better chance than Clark, though that's not yet of concern to most.
For the DFL in the 8th District, 2012 represents an unexpected reckoning with a new century. For Republicans, the race is one to preserve a long-sought prize, their first victory here since World War II. For both parties this will mean talking to independent voters they haven't had to woo since the advent of personal computing. And though the district may still lean DFL in large-turnout scenarios, it will remain competitive for a decade or more.
When I think back to the closing days of the 2010 election, I recall the political ads. Cravaack's most effective piece was an earnest delivery straight to camera, a respectful criticism of Oberstar's record. Oberstar's camp threw together a choppy attack ad against Cravaack, a piece that seemed almost adorable in its efforts. In both cases, hardened political observers would probably have chuckled at the naive innocence of all concerned.
Rest assured, in 2012 a foul cloud of poisonous propaganda will scorch Minnesota's north woods. Mercenary political auto-bots will swing madly at each other, destroying their surroundings like the papier-mache Tokyo of "Godzilla" movies. Conservative and liberal interest groups will double or triple the spending of Cravaack and the eventual DFL nominee. Minnesota's 8th District will join much of the rest of the state in the cultural identity war of modern politics.
The immigrant peoples, entrepreneurs and organizers of this region's mines, forests and ports built this nation into a superpower. The border country stands a resourceful sentry along our northern reaches. The Brainerd Lakes and central Minnesota corridor grow fast, blasting the region with new people and ideas. This is a wonderful place. May it find deserving political discourse and candidates who know the back roads.
Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer, radio commentator and college instructor. He is the author of the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and the book "Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range."
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