The Minneapolis Democrat will retire one of the nation's safest seats for an incumbent, setting off a DFL scramble to replace him.
WASHINGTON - Rep. Martin Sabo, a lion of Minneapolis DFL politics for four decades, is expected to announce his retirement today after 28 years in Congress, people familiar with his decision told the Star Tribune on Friday.
Sabo, who turned 68 last month, has scheduled a noon news conference in his Minneapolis office.
His departure is expected to set off a scramble within the DFL party for a replacement. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, a professor of justice and peace studies at the University of St. Thomas, already has opened a campaign office and challenged Sabo at last week's precinct caucuses. And Michael Erlandson, Sabo's chief of staff and the former chair of the state DFL party, is expected to run.
"If the right situation arose, I've spent 19 years in public service and public policy, and such an opportunity would be the opportunity of a lifetime," Erlandson said Friday.
State Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis, and DFL Minneapolis City Council Member Gary Schiff also said Friday that they would run.
Sabo's departure comes as a big surprise, especially since he could have become a committee chairman next year if Democrats recapture the House in this fall's elections. He had been campaigning for another term. One person familiar with the decision said the congressman's decision had nothing to do with his health or that of his wife, Sylvia, who had breast cancer.
The people who said Sabo would announce his retirement spoke on the condition that they wouldn't be identified, because they did not want to upstage Sabo's official announcement.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said he was stunned and saddened by Sabo's decision.
"There is no other politician who has had more of an impact on the character of Minneapolis, our roads, bridges, parks, schools," he said.
Rybak said that he met with Sabo two days ago in Washington and that Sabo said nothing about his retirement.
"He was the one single bright light in government who was always watching out for the city," Rybak said. "I am in awe of the man. He's one of those very quiet guys who delivers tremendously more than he would ever promise."
Sabo, who always took pride in his ability to deliver projects to his district, has helped Minnesota win tens of millions in dollars for the Twin Cities light-rail system and other transportation projects. Rybak said Sabo has an "enormous grasp of the big picture" and an "ability to get things done."
Minnesota now will have three of its 10 congressional seats open in the November election. Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton is retiring, and Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy is giving up his House seat to run for Dayton's seat. The last time Minnesota had three open seats was 1994.
Elected at age 22
Born in North Dakota, Sabo attended Augsburg College and was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1960 at age 22. He was elected House speaker at 34. He won a seat in Congress in 1978 and has consistently ranked among its most liberal members, a fit for his district, the staunchest Democratic district in the state.
Sabo, always soft-spoken and low-key, perhaps hit his pinnacle of power in 1993 and 1994, when he chaired the House Budget Committee, earning a reputation as a deficit hawk.
He has been a vocal critic of the Bush administration, consistently voting against the president's tax cuts, saying they were skewed to wealthy Americans. In an open letter to President Bush last month, he reiterated his opposition to the war in Iraq, asking the president how he can justify spending $5.9 billion each month on the effort. Sabo was one of 133 House members who voted against the war.
Even though the idea never went anywhere on Capitol Hill, Sabo vigorously pushed legislation that would cap tax write-offs when the pay for a company's chief executive officer exceeds 25 times the pay of the company's lowest-paid worker. In recent years, Sabo left a mark by promoting civil libertarians' concerns about airline passenger profiling. And Sabo, who was born to Norwegian immigrant parents, founded the Friends of Norway caucus in 1999.