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In the waning hours of an election he would ultimately lose, Rep. Jim Oberstar tried to bolster his supporters' spirits with an optimistic take on the future. ¶ "We're going to have high-speed rail in Minnesota!" he exclaimed to loud cheers. ¶ With his narrow loss to Republican neophyte Chip Cravaack in the early hours of Wednesday morning, that future seems less certain, especially for Oberstar's long-planned Northern Lights Express train from Duluth to the Twin Cities.
Oberstar's ability -- some would say chutzpah -- in snaring giant, multi-million dollar pork projects for his remote northern Minnesota district is legendary, fueled by the clout he wielded as the longest-serving Minnesota congressman in history.
The tally of roads, bridges, rail lines and bike trails that he earmarked or spearheaded in his 36 years in Congress measures in the billions of dollars, with the new Northstar commuter line the latest jewel in the trove.
Much of this federal largesse sprang from Oberstar's determination to develop a rural northland that he thought was too often overlooked by state transportation officials in St. Paul.
Making good on that determination depended heavily on a stature and a level of seniority that no successor will soon equal, lacking Oberstar's four decades of experience in Washington.
"He is an institution," said Jeff Anderson, president of the Duluth City Council. "When you think of northeast Minnesota, you think of Jim Oberstar."
Going back to 1947, Minnesota's 8th Congressional District seat was been held by only one other man, DFLer John Blatnick -- Oberstar's boss. When Blatnick retired in 1975, Oberstar, Blatnick's top aide and a fellow son of the Iron Range, ran and was elected.
Years of wins, then a 1 percent loss
Since then, he typically won re-election by double-digit margins. This time, Oberstar, 76, came up short by just a more than 1 percent of the vote, in one of the biggest upsets in a night of election upsets across the nation.
For Oberstar, the seemingly untouchable transportation committee chairman who could spray federal dollars at his state almost at will, the loss was a stunning rejection by an electorate that had soured on Washington's big-spending ways.
"I think a lot of people are in shock," said Kristi Stokes, president of the Greater Downtown Council in Duluth. "He has done so much for our community and was in such a powerful position."
Cravaack has suggested he might seek a spot on the Transportation Committee. But Cravaack also ran against the very congressional earmark process that Oberstar used to bestow federal benefits upon Minnesota. At a fundraiser in Mora in early October, Cravaack said flatly, "I am not getting any earmarks for me."
The particulars of Craavack's position as a fiscal conservative remain largely unknown, as does Cravaack, who received little press attention until October, when the retired pilot naval pilot and stay-at-home-dad's candidacy started to surge unexpectedly.
Since Oberstar's loss, Northern Lights Express leaders have announced efforts to seek his support. A Cravaack spokesman said Friday that the congressman-elect was focusing on assembling his staff" and was not going to comment immediately on the rail project.
A lake walk
What critics see as budget-busting pork, Oberstar called "constituent-inspired funding" -- money from government coffers that otherwise would be spent by faceless bureaucrats, not saved and returned to taxpayers.
In his concession speech on Wednesday, Oberstar made no apologies.
"The Lake Walk in Duluth will survive long after my service," he said. "People will be walking and biking and enjoying a better quality of life, bringing families together, and bringing travel and tourism to Duluth."
He named other projects that he said will remain "long after I leave office, and long after my successor" -- new overpasses on Interstate 35, a new airport terminal in Duluth, tunnels on the North Shore's Highway 61, the Paul Bunyan bike trail that has seen 650,000 users, and the Gitchi-Gami trail now under construction.
There were plenty of others he had a strong hand in but didn't mention: St. Paul's Union Depot, the new light rail transit system in Minneapolis, and a network of bike paths around the Twin Cities for which he helped procure money.
Oberstar's emphasis on jobs, stimulus spending, and infrastructure, combined with his past as a mine worker and son of a union boss, seemed to have cemented his labor credentials forever.
But as jobs in mining, manufacturing and steelworking left the Iron Range and Duluth, the district has come to include more agricultural and exurban areas that tend to be more conservative and Republican. Compounding Oberstar's problem was a declining margin of victory in his core stronghold of St. Louis County, surrounding Duluth.
Even as a socially conservative Democrat who opposed abortion rights, Oberstar had voted for "cap and trade" climate legislation and for the Obama administration's health care bill. Republicans portrayed both as bad deals for the economy and for workers. To union members like Slade Starkovich, a welder at the Minorca Mine company in Virginia, Minn., Oberstar seemed to have become removed in recent years.
"I've been a Democrat, but I'm just kind of against what he's for lately," Starkovich said.
To the bitter end, even as late returns had him running neck-and-neck with Cravaack, Oberstar went to bed on election night expressing confidence that he would win a 19th term in Congress.
Campaign aides delivered the bad news to him when he awoke in his Duluth hotel room Wednesday morning.
That afternoon, Oberstar gave an emotional concession speech from the Gerald Heaney federal courthouse, a building that Oberstar arranged to name in honor of another lion of the Minnesota DFL.
Staff writer Eric Roper contributed to this report. Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.
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