Former US Rep. Jim Oberstar dies at 79

U.S. Rep Jim Oberstar
U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar speaks to delegates at the 2010 DFL convention at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center Saturday, April 24, 2010 in Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery/For MPR News

Former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, a DFLer who represented Minnesota's 8th District from 1975 to 2011, has died. Oberstar was 79.

According to family members, Oberstar died in his sleep this morning in his Maryland home.

Photos: Oberstar's life and career
Minnesotans share their memories
Oberstar timeline

DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said Oberstar's death is "a huge loss."

"There's probably no one who's contributed as much to public policy on transportation issues in this country as Jim Oberstar," Martin said. "He'll go down as truly one of the best Congressmen we've ever had in the state of Minnesota."

Former state Rep. Tony Sertich remembers his first encounter with former 8th Congressional District Rep. Jim Oberstar clearly.

"My first experience with him was hearing his booming voice in St. Joseph's Church singing when he was home from Washington, D.C.," said Sertich, who is now the commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. "Then I remember as a young kid going to Washington, D.C., and there was that same gentleman with that same big, booming voice. That's when I made the connection that there's someone out in Washington D.C. from my hometown who is fighting for the people of northern Minnesota."

Jim Oberstar
In a Monday, Feb. 21, 1983 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, left, leaves a food shelf store in Gilbert, Minnesota, with U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn.
Jim Mone/Associated Press

Oberstar used that booming voice to represent the people of northern Minnesota for 36 years, using his clout in Washington to bring home millions in transportation projects to the state.

To Sertich, who counts Oberstar among his key professional mentors, Oberstar was the consummate public servant. He came from a small town and worked his way to the top of the transportation committee, one of the most powerful committees in the U.S. Capitol, all while never forgetting the people he was sent to Washington to represent.

In Washington, Oberstar became a renowned expert on transportation issues, Sertich said. But he also used the perch to transform the rural, rugged landscape for Northern Minnesota permanently.

"You can't travel anywhere in Minnesota but especially north eastern Minnesota, be it on a road or a bridge or a bike path, that Jim Oberstar didn't help fund and get there," Sertich said.

Nov. 2010: Oberstar defeat ends era of transportation policy influenceNov. 2010: Oberstar says the people have spoken, bids goodbye
Jan. 2011: Oberstar interview

Early life

Oberstar was born in Chisholm, Minn., the son of an underground iron miner. Bill Richard, who worked for Oberstar for 29 years, said the elder Oberstar's profession wasn't just a job, it was a way of life for the family.

"[Oberstar's] favorite story is that his father had United Steel Worker local card #1 in the underground mine," Richard said. "It was not by chance. He was an underground miner before the unionization and he supported the unions."

Minnesota Democratic U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar said Oberstar's life was "really an American journey."

"He literally went from being a miner's kid up in those hardscrabble mines to chairing one of the most powerful committees in Congress and not everyone can do that," she said.

Oberstar earned a bachelor's degree from the College of St. Thomas and his masters from the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. His ability to speak French landed Oberstar a job teaching English to Haitian military officers in Haiti from 1959 until 1962.

"Mr. Oberstar is a talented, zealous, highly intelligent young man whose services to the United States in Haiti have made him too valuable for us to lose," wrote former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Richard Newbegin when Oberstar's contract was about to expire, according to U.S. Naval Mission to Haiti by Chris Williamson. The time Oberstar spent in Haiti was pivotal, said Sertich. The country, and its ongoing infrastructure woes, became a particular cause for Oberstar during his political career, serving as an election observer there in 1990 and advocating for the Obama administration to dedicate more money to the country after a major earthquake in 2010.

The start of a political career

When Oberstar returned to the United States, he worked for former Minnesota U.S. Representative John Blatnik, a job Oberstar held for more than a decade. During that time Blatnik, who was also from Chisholm, served as the chairman of the Public Works Committee, now known as the Transportation Committee. That's where Oberstar learned the ropes, working as an aide to Blatnik but also as a staffer for the committee.

But it also provided Oberstar the opportunity to launch his own political career. When Blatnik had a heart attack and decided not to run again, Oberstar ran for the seat and won it, going on to represent northern Minnesota for 36 years.

Time in office

Oberstar is perhaps best known for being the leader of the powerful Transportation Committee, but he was on the committee for years before that serving as the panel's ranking member.

From that perch, Oberstar crafted policy that would shape the U.S. and northern Minnesota. For instance, Oberstar also secured funding for a national Safe Routes to School program to make it safer and easier for children to walk or bike to school.

And in 2005, Oberstar co-sponsored the largest surface transportation funding bill in the nation's history - $286 billion worth of highway and public transportation projects.

But the law also included some critical funding for Minnesota, including money to construct the Paul Bunyan State Trail from Walker to Bemidji, and other bike trails throughout the 8th District. The law also included $100 million for the Twin Cities and three other areas to fund pilot projects to increase walking and bicycling.

Rep. Jim Oberstar
U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, right, and his wife Jean Oberstar, left, talk to a crowd of supporters at the Holiday Inn in Duluth, Minn. on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

Increasingly, "earmarking" as the practice of setting aside money for district or state-based pet projects is known in Washington, has become somewhat tainted, said Norm Ornstein, Minnesota native and political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

"There are a lot of others that pushed the envelope on this, and in some instances that moved into corruption - there was never a hint of that with Oberstar," said Ornstein. "And almost everything he did wasn't to aggrandize himself or just to bring in a project because it was a project, but something that really did benefit the people of Minnesota."

He was also uniquely positioned to help Minnesota when, in 2007, the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed. Within days, Oberstar pushed through legislation that pledged $250 for a replacement.

While others were getting in front of the television camera in the wake of the accident, "[Oberstar] went to work right away to secure the emergency funding from the federal government to get it done," Sertich said. "That was just to sort of person he was."

Oberstar's fingerprints can also be found on transportation projects associated with making sure iron mined in his district could be brought to market.

Though Oberstar's focus was often on Minnesota's transportation issues, he was also a national expert on the topic, said former Minnesota U.S. Rep. Gerry Sikorski, who's now a lawyer at Holland & Knight in Washington, D.C.

"He was Mr. Transportation,"said Sikorski. "He could speak to intermodal challenges in Southern California, in Northern California, in Detroit, Miami and in New York City."

While transportation was Oberstar's primary policy interest, he was also a friend to labor in Washington - a topic closely tied to the transportation projects he championed.

Harry Melander, chair of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, said his appreciation for the working people of Minnesota likely stemmed from his father, a long-time union worker in the iron mines of the 8th Congressional District.

"From the stories that Jim would tell ... about his family, his father, the conversations they would have at the table about the importance of working hard, the important of organized labor in the workplace, those were just stories I'll always remember,"Melander said.

2010 loss

In the midterm elections of 2010, Oberstar was challenged by Chip Cravaack - and, much to the DFL Party's surprise, lost after representing the area for so long. Critics said Oberstar was out of touch with the district, having lived in the Washington area for so long.

Former staffer Richard said he doesn't think Oberstar took the criticism too personally. "That sort of thing is part of the political process,"Richard said. "He always maintained that connection with Minnesota."

Political scholar Norm Ornstein, who studies partisanship in Washington, says Oberstar was part of a dwindling breed in the nation's Capitol.

"We're seeing an end of an era, and Oberstar represented a good era in Congress," Ornstein said. "It was an era when people tried to get along, and tried to solve problems. Their main focus was: what can we do to make this country a better place."

Oberstar is survived by his wife Jean, four children and eight grandchildren.

Monday on MPR News Presents: an hour on the life of Oberstar. Political Editor Mike Mulcahy will host our retrospective Monday at noon.

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