My Sunday newspaper column for May 11, 2014 was excerpted from the post I wrote after the passing of Jim Oberstar on Saturday, May 3. I am republishing that post today.
Early Saturday morning former Congressman Jim Oberstar died peacefully in his sleep at his Maryland home at the age of 79.
The news of Oberstar’s passing came as DFLers gathered in Nashwauk, on Oberstar’s native Iron Range, to convene the Eighth Congressional District DFL convention. Most of the delegates learned of Oberstar’s death as they arrived. The sad pall hung off the walls alongside the bunting and campaign signs as official business wore on.
I was 8 and I was wearing a sweater vest in Washington, D.C. The only of these details that made any sense was my age. Months earlier my mother had served me a birthday cake with eight candles and penguins made of frosting. “Happy Birthday” had been sung around the particle board table of the kitchen in our trailer house on the Iron Range. My mom also bought me the sweater vest after we learned I had won a national invention contest for kids in 1988. The prize included a trip to Washington to meet dignitaries. I was thrilled. I would later learn my young parents, a junkyard jack and a homemaker, were terrified.
Just four years ago, in 2010, 8th District DFLers had endorsed Oberstar for a 19th term. Two years ago he addressed the convention; in fact, this was the first one he did not attend in at least four decades. Still, while Oberstar had since embraced his retirement, his active schedule and good health had suggested a man who would be around a lot longer.
Everyone in Washington was well-dressed and tall. Women there wore high heeled shoes, something I had only seen women wear on TV. I couldn’t understand how they walked in those things. I heard other languages, and my own spoken differently by people of all races and geographic origin. I had met a senator from my state and he had spent 20 minutes talking to me and had given me a ginger ale. Now I was going to another 20 minute meeting with my congressman, someone named Jim Oberstar.
For 36 years, Oberstar represented northern Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District, a vast land of forests and lakes. Anchored by the industrial port town of Duluth, the blues and greens were tempered by the dark red of the Mesabi Iron Range, where Oberstar had grown up in Chisholm. MN-8 remained a DFL stronghold for most of Oberstar’s era. Even as rural districts around the country tilted from Democratic to Republican hands, Oberstar kept this one safely in the blue column, even through the rise of Reagan and both Bushes.
My family wasn’t political. My parents usually canceled out each other’s votes, when they voted at all. Life on the family’s junkyard was full of other more pressing drama, only some of which was visible to an 8-year-old boy. Sufficed to say, our last name was Brown and we were nobody special. When Jim Oberstar appeared in the room, he asked, “Would you like to see the Capitol?” Of course I did.
How Jim Oberstar kept his coalition together was a remarkable blend of political skill, strategic focus and deep knowledge of his district. He knew your name. He knew the history of your name. He knew how to keep devout pro-life Catholics, wily loggers, regional business owners and passionate liberal labor activists moving in the same direction. He was warm. He spent time with people, and treated them with respect.
The congressman’s voice was crisp, clear and resonant. We had been visiting a lot of people who wore suits, but none of them moved as fast as this guy.
To a political scientist, Oberstar and his predecessor and mentor John Blatnik would represent the fundamental shift in northern Minnesota politics, the coronation of the progressive labor movement after decades of hard struggle and four years of intense wartime effort.
After we had seen every corner of his office, he took us up and down the halls. We rode the special train for Congressmen only, visiting a place where the Capitol dome projected a whispered voice to a precise place on the other side of the building.
And of course, the transportation infrastructure Oberstar secured for northern Minnesota and the nation is a literal monument to his work. The airports of Minnesota’s 8th District are markedly better than other rural airports; so are the roads and bridges. There is an aviation industry here, where one would not have otherwise been.
We stepped onto the floor of the House of Representatives, which was in adjournment. I sat in the Speaker’s chair, which was the most amazing chair I had sat in to that point (retail chair technology has since caught up).
But in the abstract, Oberstar represented a culture of elevating the most talented kids among a working class population with education and community pride. The fact that he spoke French fluently, used advanced vocabulary, addressed middle schoolers as though they were adults; none of that was a negative, even though few here could replicate those feats.
A stool was procured and I was directed to stand on it, looking out over a podium and microphone. “Did you see the president speak on television a few weeks ago?” he asked me. I thought so. “He spoke from that place where you’re standing right now.
But demographics and political fortunes always change; it is the way of the world. Oberstar’s political career ended abruptly in 2010 with the upset victory of former Rep. Chip Cravaack, the first Republican to win the district since World War II. Though the district would swing back to the DFL in 2012 with the election of Rep. Rick Nolan (MN-8), the political world that Jim Oberstar mastered had forever dissolved into a new era: one of electioneering and fundraising, messaging and Twitter accounts.
We spent almost two hours with Jim Oberstar that day. In the years that followed, I would come to know him differently as I became a reporter and editor of the Hibbing Daily Tribune, and through later work on my northern Minnesota news blog. In that time I also learned that Jim probably gave that tour to every kid and visiting citizen he possibly could. Hundreds of people shared that experience. Rather than cheapening the story, I feel it only adds power. Because I don’t think I would be the same person I am today had Jim Oberstar not showed some typical Iron Range family the workings of democratic power. And if this experience was so powerful for me, think of the sum of its power for the many.
Jim Oberstar now leaves this world; but his mark on the place he loved and the times in which he lived were as deep as the mine pits of the Mesabi Iron Range.
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