Jim Oberstar: a memory held up by union steel

Jim Oberstar, the boy seen here on the right, was a gifted Iron Range politician who successfully navigated the world of red mud and hard times he knew growing up and the Washington political class where he made his mark.

Jim Oberstar, the boy seen here on the right, was a gifted Iron Range politician who successfully navigated the world of red mud and hard times he knew growing up and the Washington political class where he made his mark.

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.

# # #

UPDATE: I shared another story, this one more amusing, in a post for my Up North Report blog at the Star Tribune.


  1. Thanks.

  2. David Gray says

    You are right that for most of his career Oberstar managed to keep pro-life voters on board. His vote for Obamacare destroyed him politically. His margin of defeat was more than encompassed by the swing against him in Crow Wing and Morrison Counties, two very pro-life counties.

  3. I think the MCCL backing away from him in 2010 was a major factor. Probably not the only factor, but had MCCL stayed with him I don’t think he would have lost. I think wading into the Affordable Care Act as a pro-life/pro-choice litmus test opens up all kinds of arguments about what pro-life even means. If its solely focused on the health and wellness of the unborn, that’s one way of seeing it. But if it’s focused on the health and wellness of all human life, well, I fail to see what Jim Oberstar did wrong. But, perhaps that is a political argument for another time.

  4. Ranger47 says

    The guy didn’t live in Minnesota for years. He voted accordingly:

    Voted NO on Constitutionally defining marriage as one-man-one-woman. (Jul 2006)
    Voted NO on protecting the Pledge of Allegiance. (Sep 2004)
    Voted NO on constitutional amendment prohibiting flag desecration. (Jun 2003)
    Voted NO on military border patrols to battle drugs & terrorism. (Sep 2001)
    Voted NO on subjecting federal employees to random drug tests. (Sep 1998)
    Voted NO on vouchers for private & parochial schools. (Nov 1997)
    Voted NO on authorizing construction of new oil refineries. (Oct 2005)
    Voted YES on $2 billion more for Cash for Clunkers program. (Jul 2009)
    Voted NO on establishing nationwide AMBER alert system for missing kids. (Apr 2003)
    Voted NO on implementing US-Australia Free Trade Agreement. (Jul 2004)
    Voted NO on implementing US-Singapore free trade agreement. (Jul 2003)
    Voted NO on implementing free trade agreement with Chile. (Jul 2003)
    Voted YES on withdrawing from the WTO. (Jun 2000)
    Voted YES on Senate pay raise. (Jun 2009)
    Voted NO on requiring photo ID for voting in federal elections. (Sep 2006)
    Voted NO on restricting frivolous lawsuits. (Sep 2004)
    Voted NO on establishing tax-exempt Medical Savings Accounts. (Oct 1999)
    Voted NO on more immigrant visas for skilled workers. (Sep 1998)
    Voted NO on permanently eliminating the marriage penalty. (Apr 2004)
    Voted NO on making the Bush tax cuts permanent. (Apr 2002)
    Voted NO on treating religious organizations equally for tax breaks. (Jul 2001)

    You be the judge if he’ll be missed

  5. Quite a laundry list there, Ranger. Of course, those were all stand-alone bills, with no other considerations involved. What right wing website did you dredge them up from?

  6. Jackie,

    It’s a safe guess that R47 religiously reads the usual and predictable extreme right media outlets and absolutely nothing else.


    Wow, there are still people that believe “voter fraud” is a real thing and widespread. This imaginary problem has been debunked over and over again beginning with the Bush Justice Dept showing scant evidence of voter impersonation. Voter impersonation is “virtually non-existent” concluded the News21 exhaustive study from 2000 to 2012 during which there were 2068 ALLEGED fraud cases. Since 2000, News21 found 10 cases of in-person voter fraud, about one case for every 15 million eligible voters. In MN there were 10 total cases of reported fraud and ZERO cases of voter impersonation.

    Voter photo ID only detects the rare case of in-person impersonation fraud. To commit voter impersonation that person would have to:
    know the name of another person who is registered at a particular polling place,
    know the address of that person,
    know that person has not yet voted and also
    know that no poll workers will realize the impersonator is not the legitimate voter.
    The odds of a person attempting this and succeeding are almost nil and no one with a working brain would do it.

    R47, the question you should be asking is why voter photo ID laws which disenfranchise millions of legitimate voters has been pushed so hard to prevent the extremely rare case of voter impersonation fraud.

    • David Gray says

      Any reasonably educated person should accept that voter fraud occurs. The only question is just how pervasive is it? Given human nature it is almost always going to be more pervasive than we know. There is plenty of evidence of voter fraud if one wants to know about it. As a former election judge it is my opinion that the bulk of fraud occurs in registration. Voter ID makes it hard to vote as a fraudulently registered voter. That is another reason why mail voting should be disallowed except in people with extreme requirements, primarily military and diplomatic personnel stationed away from their official residence. Voter ID laws, which the Supreme Court has fount to be constitutional have actually shown an increase in voting levels. The whole disenfranchisement argument is a canard provided the voter ID law is properly drafted.

  7. DG
    Were you an election judge in small town/rural MN? If so, do you believe that there was a lot if any voter fraud going on in this area? I’ve never heard of this happening in St. Louis Co. Any discrepancies in voting are registering to vote are most commonly simple mistakes and not deliberate. In MN any info for a first time voter or a new resident are easily found on MN Sec of State website.

    Why would the number of people deliberately, fraudulently registering to vote be any less rare than people fraudulently voting? There aren’t many Americans, no matter where they live, that are going to deliberately misrepresent information to register to vote. What would be the benefit? There are only criminal risks. It’s not logical to assert there is widespread voter fraud. There certainly wouldn’t be enough people doing this on purpose to affect election results. It would have to be done on a large scale, an alliance of people with the goal to skew the votes which would be pretty noticeable. Again, big risks for little benefit to fraudsters.

    Oregon has had voting by mail exclusively since 1998. Voters like the convenience and Oregon has only a small amount fraud even though there is more voter participation.

    Voting is a right and we should be making voting smoother not putting up huge barriers for legitimate voters. I know some elderly people, life long voters, some in their nineties, who would be pretty darn upset if they were told they don’t have the “right” ID anymore which has happened to many seniors across the country. Voter ID laws don’t prevent voter fraud, voter ID laws decrease voter numbers.

    • David Gray says

      I”m not saying I believed I witnessed fraud but rather that the weak link in the system is registration. We have had incidents of individuals registering multiple times. Without ID that person can vote that many times. Each fraudulent voter disenfranchises a legitimate voter so those who do not wish to safeguard against fraud are for disenfranchising voters. Please care about disenfranchised voters.

      You ask what the benefit of fraud is? Power of course and with power goes money. Voting is a right but only for those casting a legitimate ballot. We need to stop disenfranchising honest voters by tolerating dishonest ones.

      And BTW voter id laws have been shown not to reduce turnout. And voter ID laws obviously reduce voter fraud. The only reasons I can imagine for arguing otherwise are an inability to comprehend the issue or that your party of choice benefits from such fraud.

  8. MN has a petty good track record of catching those incidents which were not deliberate in majority of cases.

    Implementing voter ID laws costs states millions, in MN it was est $10 to 12 million, annually. Do you think counties and townships can afford this? Is it worth it for the few or zero cases of voter “fraud”? I wonder how many taxpayers would agree. I guess, for voter ID supporters, the US voter fraud rate of .00002% is just too darn high! That would be just 40 Americans determined to commit voter fraud out of 197 millions voters in 2012.

    Tell grannies who can’t vote anymore that voter ID laws haven’t disenfranchised them. Tell all the people who waited 8 hours in line to vote and never got to vote that voter ID laws and all the other new voting laws restricting voting polling places, polling times, etc., etc, etc are not disenfranchising them.

    I don’t know if you are not paying attention or just don’t want to believe it is a concerted effort to stop people from voting. It’s not like it’s hush, hush anymore. As Mike Turzai said in 2012, “Voter ID is gonna allow Governor Romney to win Pennsylvania, done.” And he’s far from the only one to openly admit it.

    • David Gray says

      Of course voter ID is good for Republicans, the Democrats are the party with the historic commitment to voter fraud going back into the early part of the 19th century. That’s how we got President Polk instead of President Clay.

  9. Well, there you go. “Of course voter ID is good for Republicans” is fine by you. That’s a clear admission that winning, or by golly trying, using devious measures to deny Americans access to voting, cheating, is not a moral or ethical issue for you. You do realize that you are of no use nor worthy of attention to the oligarchy other than maybe your vote, don’t you?

    • David Gray says

      >> That’s a clear admission that winning, or by golly trying, using devious measures to deny Americans access to voting, cheating, is not a moral or ethical issue for you.

      Not at all. It simply acknowledging that Democrats are the primary beneficiary of voter fraud. Denying Democrats fraudulent votes is inherently good for all other parties. It is even good for Greens and Libertarians. The only party hurt by a crackdown on fraud is the Democrats because they are historically the party that practices voter fraud.

      Or do you think President Polk was worth practicing fraud? Or do you have a thing against Henry Clay?

  10. Unbelievable. You are using Polk who was president 170 years ago to excuse Republican election fraud schemes, cheating! I’d say you are a spoof but sadly, I think you have revealed, intentional or not, your true feelings.

    • David Gray says

      I must admit my true feelings are great hostility towards fraud and the disenfranchisement of honest citizens.

      And Polk was sworn in 169 years ago.

  11. Ah, I see, “honest” citizens. As opposed to ? Never mind. I know where you are coming from and it’s no place I want to visit.

  12. David Gray says

    >>As opposed to ?

    People who practice voter fraud.

    >>I know where you are coming from

    I see no reason to see that you have a clue.

  13. “And BTW voter id laws have been shown not to reduce turnout” . I imagine you have VALID sources to make such a statement?
    There is little doubt Republicans are making concentrated efforts to disenfranchise Democratic voters because their party can’t win based on merit.
    Kissa has presented the truth very well. Very sad so many Conservatives can’t /won’t admit the onerous voter ID measures promoted by the Republicans are antithetical to the democratic process. Shameful, just shameful

  14. Jackie,

    It doesn’t matter what the facts and hard numbers are. Real data is dismissed because their feelings are the only validity they heed or need. Someone recently described this well. They feel the world is not supposed to be this way, therefore, it cannot be this way. And a tweet: Overwhelming inarguable scientific evidence is no match for a guy who “just knows”.

    I’ve had a lot of conversations with hard conservatives and what disturbs me is that the feelings that come out are hostility or anger/rage or hate or all at the same time. Those emotions run the show and there’s no room for anything else even when it’s against their own self-interest or well-being. Their anger is always directed at who they label the “undeserving”, the “dishonest”, the “takers” who somehow are taking something from them, the genuine deserving. Scratch the surface for awhile and this stuff always oozes out eventually which you probably have experienced too.

    • David Gray says

      If you don’t feel people who commit voter fraud are dishonest then we’ve nothing to talk about.

      If you believe voter fraud doesn’t exist, despite the substantial track record, then I”m not likely to make headway.

      I don’t hate you, I’m sorry that you have chosen to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution, in all likelihood without grasping what you are doing.

    • David Gray says


      Just for you.

      Voter turnout in Texas nearly doubles under new ID law



      Now there may be other reasons for increased turnout but it hardly indicates a problem with turnout. Additionally you can find work by Nate Silver on the radical right wing news sight called “The New York Times” which indicates that voter ID will only slightly reduce turnout with results that are pretty much a wash for Republican vs Democrat. Of course that doesn’t take into account the real fraud which will be inhibited but still hardly a hard core right wing plot. If the New York Times is too right wing for you I will have to confess I haven’t checked the Daily Worker in some time.

      • Listen, this is a post memorializing a man, so I’m not going to spend too much time on this. Since the knives are out I’ll merely suggest that you are arguing past each other. Yes, as David points out, there is voter fraud. Yes, as kissa says, very little fraud involving false registration takes place. Most voter fraud comes when people who do not have the legal right to vote who vote anyway on old registration information. Most of these folks are felons who have their franchise stripped until they finish their probation. This is a problem. And voter ID laws do almost nothing to prevent this from continuing because they have valid IDs. But jeez, people. JEEZ!

  15. Ranger47 says

    Listen to yourself kissa….David presents logical, fact-based arguments and what do you counter with? – “their feelings are the only validity they heed or need”, “the feelings that come out are hostility or anger/rage or hate”, “their own self-interest”, “their anger is always directed at”. None of that has been displayed. Where are you coming from? You sound depressed.

    A study by Dustin Wood, professor of psychology at Wake Forest, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology states: “Your perceptions of others reveal so much about your own personality.” By asking study participants to each rate positive and negative characteristics of just three people, the researchers were able to find out important information about the rater’s well-being, mental health & social attitudes. Negative perceptions of others are linked to higher levels of narcissism and antisocial behavior. “A huge suite of negative personality traits are associated with viewing others negatively,” Wood says. “The simple tendency to see people negatively indicates a greater likelihood of depression and various personality disorders”.

    You might consider getting help.

  16. In the 1980s, Oberstar would periodically visit our small Iron Range school. In my teens, I thought he was sort of a funny old guy always getting all fired up about “American steel” and “Minnesota ore” and stuff that seemed pretty unimportant to me.

    I’m older now, and I understand why that actually made him a pretty cool old guy.

    RIP, Representative Oberstar.

  17. Oh, really , Ranger, you have outdone yourself. You might impress your fellow travelers , but not the rest of us.

  18. R47, So sweet of you to be concerned but rest assured, I’m a very happy camper grateful every day for wonderful family, friends and interests because that’s what counts the most in life.

    Recently I read that the minimum wage is evil, being forced to “give” anyone something for nothing makes the recipients lazy and the “giver” feels nothing but resentment for being stolen from. I can’t imagine why I would think anger fuels the world views of many.

    DG, Austin Chronicle noted that several TX local ballot issues boosted 2012 turnout initially but final voter turnout had increased by only 0.4% over 2009. TX has low voter turnout, 9 out of 10 Texans stayed home contrasting with MN’s 71% voting.

    Mr. Brown, I apologize for my part in derailing the comments and will try to refrain from repeating it, as tempting as it is to poke sometimes.

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