Jim Oberstar, Iron Range's longtime congressman, dies at 79

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Former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, a lion in northern Minnesota politics and the state’s longest-serving congressman, died in his sleep early Saturday in his Maryland home. He was 79.

The veteran Democrat served 36 years — 18 terms from 1975 to 2011 — as a representative from northern Minnesota.

“His impacts are almost indescribable,” said former state House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, a DFLer from Oberstar’s hometown of Chisholm. “You can’t travel down a road, or a bridge, or an airport or a trail in northeastern Minnesota without his fingerprint on it.”

The son of an underground miner from Chisholm, Oberstar rose to become chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, one of the most powerful committees in Congress. He was revered by many in his district for bringing countless road, bridge and trail projects to the area and the rest of the state.

Oberstar mentored several Minnesotans who are in politics today and grew to become an almost bigger-than-life character in his region until his stunning defeat in 2010.

Fluent in French and a passionate cyclist, Oberstar traveled the country and the world — often on a bike. Oberstar was regarded as one of the more liberal members of Congress, but he remained a strong opponent of abortion and tougher gun laws. He became an international expert in aviation and a crusader in the effort to boost federal spending for roads, bridges and public transit systems.

After the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007, Oberstar ensured rapid passage of $250 million in federal money to build a replacement.

“When other people were running to TV cameras and doing other important work, he was already working on legislation to get that done right away,” said Sertich, who is now commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.

Sertich was 5 years old when he first met Oberstar, only knowing him as a kind, well-dressed man with the booming voice singing hymns in the back of the church. When Sertich first was thinking of running for office, Oberstar treated him to dinner at Valentini’s Supper Club in Chisholm and urged him to run.

“He embodied the words ‘public servant’ more than anybody I know,” Sertich said.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness credits Oberstar for his decision to get into politics. Ness became Oberstar’s campaign manager after college, a position he figured he would hold for a couple of years before going into business.

“In Jim, I saw the potential of public service,” Ness said.

Oberstar served until he was defeated by Republican Chip Cravaack in 2010 — one of most stunning political upsets in the nation at the time.

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat, came out of retirement from politics to defeat Cravaack after one term and continues to hold the seat in Minnesota’s expansive Eighth Congressional District, which includes the cities of Duluth, Brainerd, Grand Rapids and International Falls.

After the 2010 election that unseated him, Oberstar said he was proud of his legacy of service in Minnesota, citing the lakewalk in Duluth, new overpasses on I-35, a new airport terminal in Duluth, tunnels on the North Shore’s Hwy. 61, the Paul Bunyan bike trail that has seen 650,000 users, and the ­Gitchi-Gami trail.

“Sometimes when people lose their seat, they’re never the same,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. “He never wallowed on losing that election. He just moved on with his life.”

Known for intellect, humor

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  • Oberstar through the years

    1934: James Louis Oberstar is born, the son of a miner in Chisholm, Minn.

    1956: Oberstar receives bachelor’s degree from the College of St. Thomas.

    1957: Oberstar receives master’s degree from the College of Europe in Belgium.

    1959-63: Oberstar works as a language instructor in Haiti.

    1963-74: Oberstar serves as chief assistant to Denocratic U.S. Rep. John Blatnik.

    1974: After the DFL convention, Oberstar challenges party-endorsed candidate Tony Perpich, younger brother of then-Lieutenant Governor Rudy Perpich, for the Eighth District U.S. House of Representatives seat, winning both the primary and the general election.

    1975: Oberstar begins the first of his 18 terms in the U.S. House, eventually becoming the state’s longest-serving congressman.

    1989: Oberstar is appointed chairman of the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, building his reputation as “Mr. Aviation” of Capitol Hill.

    1991: Oberstar’s first wife, Jo, mother of his four children, dies of breast cancer.

    1993: Oberstar marries Jean Kurth, an aviation consultant.

    2001: In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, Oberstar pushes for a greater federal role in aviation safety and a $15 billion airline bailout.

    2005: Oberstar secures $50 million in federal funds to help finance the refurbishing of St. Paul’s Union Depot.

    2006: Oberstar defeats challenger Rod Grams, a former U.S. senator, and becomes chairman of the powerful House Transporation and Infrastructure Committee.

    2007: After the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Oberstar ensures rapid passage of $250 million in federal funds to build a replacement.

    2010: In an upset, Oberstar is defeated by Republican Chip Cravaack, a former Northwest Airlines pilot.

    2014: Oberstar dies in his sleep in Potomac, Md., at age 79.


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