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Chip Cravaack and Jim Oberstar

Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

Chip Cravaack as a football player at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati in 1977.

Feed Loader, Star Tribune

Chip Cravaack gets ready to report for duty

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ AND ERIC ROPER
  • Star Tribune
  • November 13, 2010 - 8:39 AM

Chip Cravaack, an ex-Navy pilot, was driving down the road, obeying a call from afar.

It was a hot day in August 2009, at the peak of Tea Party fervor. A radio talk show host was railing against the Democrats' health care plan: Visit your congressman -- the talker said -- demand a town hall meeting.

"I had my kids in the back of the car," recalls Cravaack, 51, a self-described stay-at-home dad with two boys, ages 8 and 6. "I was going down Highway 14, towards North Branch."

It was a trip that would put Cravaack on a course for Congress, where he will arrive Sunday, victorious over veteran Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar, 76, the longest serving congressman in state history. Part of the GOP's 84-member freshman class of 2010, Cravaack is among the dragon-slayers, an unheralded newbie who marshaled his military discipline to get a job done.

It was a distant hope just a year ago. Cravaack was living the quiet life of a medically retired Northwest Airlines pilot, grounded at 48 with sleep apnea. "I can't even fly a kite," he said with the gallows humor of an airman who once taught formation flying and aerial acrobatics.

Heeding the call on the radio, Cravaack set out from his upscale family home in Lindstrom, where he and his wife, Traci, are raising their two boys, to North Branch, where Oberstar has a district office.

There, Cravaack and about 25 other fellow travelers met with congressional staffer Blake Chaffee. "We were all there, saying, 'Hey, we want to talk to our congressman,'" Cravaack said. "After about two and a half hours, the place was packed and it was getting hot."

But Oberstar wasn't in. It would be the catalyst for Cravaack's decision to enter politics.

"To use the old Navy adage, make sure if you come into the skipper's office with a problem, you better have a solution," Cravaack said. "And that's when I thought to myself, it's time to quit complaining and do something."

Cravaack's single-minded determination against all odds does not surprise those who knew him as an aviator. "He was a linear thinker, he wasn't an abstract thinker. I've got to do A, then I have to do B, then I have to do C," said Mark Innerbichler, who was a local leader of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). "He was very mission oriented."

Delta Airlines pilot Steve Swazee worked alongside Cravaack in the Naval Reserve during the mid-1990s -- primarily in Minneapolis. He said it mostly involved administrative work supporting an aircraft carrier, which often meant poring through "wads of paper." Active-duty pilots in the Reserve joked they flew "LMDs" -- large mahogany desks.

"You really start to figure out who's there to just plug the weekend and who's there because they're committed to the defense of the United States, if you will," Swazee said. "It was very, very evident by the number of hours that Chip Cravaack worked that he was the real deal."

Not a political family

If Oberstar dismissed Cravaack as just "another Republican candidate," Cravaack could understand why. "It's been very safe in this district for quite a long time."

Indeed, no other Republican has represented northern Minnesota's Eighth District since 1947. That was William Pittenger, who died in 1951, eight years before Cravaack was born.

His father, Ray Cravaack, was involved with a local Republican club in the Cincinnati suburb where he grew up, but politics weren't a centerpiece of dinner conversations. "We were not highly involved in politics at all," his father said.

Beyond his role as a union picket-line boss in a pilots' strike, Cravaack had never been very political before.

While Democrats blame their bad showing in the midterm elections on the economy, Cravaack believes the health care bill was the central battleground in his race -- particularly the debate over abortion.

"I think Congressman Oberstar underestimated the pro-life issue of the health care bill," Cravaack said.

Oberstar, like Cravaack, is a Roman Catholic who opposes abortion rights. As a senior House Democrat, Oberstar had a hand in negotiating an 11th hour compromise providing an executive order guaranteeing that no public funds can be used to cover abortion.

But the deal did not pass muster with anti-abortion groups like Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, which turned against Oberstar. "We all know legislation trumps executive orders, otherwise we'd have a king," Cravaack said.

The abortion issue provided a strong undertow in the socially conservative district. On April 11, just after Cravaack's endorsement by the Minnesota GOP, the newly minted candidate posted a comment on duluthpolitics.com, a citizen blog, saying that the health care bill not only funds abortion, but "promotes euthanasia for our seniors." It was an echo of the Tea Party "death panels" that Democrats decried as false and alarmist.

In an interview after the election, Cravaack modulated his health care rhetoric, saying, "What I have said is it will ration care. Just like the majority of socialized medicine that I have seen."

Pilots and picket lines

Just like his congressional campaign, which was structured like a military operation, nearly everything about Cravaack's life has been inspired by his Navy service, his first career after graduating in 1981 from the U.S. Naval Academy.

A Chrysler registered to Cravaack bears the personalized license plates "USNA81."

Military service was a family tradition. He set his sights on becoming a Navy pilot in the seventh grade. His father was a Navy corpsman during the Korean War. His grandfather fought in World War I.

Cravaack also attended night school to get a masters degree in education, readying for a post-Navy career. The next move would either be teaching or flying for the airlines. "The airline pilot gig turned out first," he said.

Craavack started at Northwest Airlines in 1990, moving to Minnesota just as the airline was headed for a period of financial and labor turmoil.

"I became familiar with what a union was," said Cravaack "I have all the union 'patches.' I've been on strike, walked the picket line. I've been laid off for two years."

He got through a 1992-94 furlough teaching on flight simulators. After a stint of getting unemployment, he considered applying to drive a school bus.

The 1998 Northwest Airlines pilots' strike continued the tumult. As a strike coordinator, Cravaack brought a military bearing to the picket line.

"I was a brigade drill officer at the Naval Academy, and the deputy strike preparedness coordinator was actually my XO [executive officer] at the Pentagon," Cravaack recalled. "He called me up and said, 'Chip, I need you to put together a professional group. ... We don't want to be a bunch of rabble rousers on the picket line.'"

Cravaack taught his civilian counterparts how to do proper right and left turns, held inspections, and put on picket lines worthy of the parade grounds in Annapolis.

'Reporting on board a carrier'

Cravaack's sleep apnea ended his flying career in 2007, two years after he retired from the Navy Reserve.

Though Cravaack was able to use his experience in the pilots' union to bolster his labor credentials on the Iron Range, he has been afforded a comfortable living on Northwest Airlines' (now Delta's) long-term disability plan, which last year paid him $79,091, according to a U.S. House financial disclosure statement.

He says he still contributes to ALPA for the sake of aviation safety, even though the union's political action committee gave $10,000 to Oberstar.

Cravaack's wife contributed $220 to Novo Nordisk's federal PAC last year. She's a senior account executive at the Danish pharmaceutical company, but she does no Washington lobbying. "It doesn't influence me one way or the other," he said.

Although he is going to Congress as a champion of conservative, free-market principles, he is reluctant to talk specifically about the spending cuts he says are necessary to make Washington balance its books.

"It just wouldn't be fair," he said. "I've got to educate myself. I'm like a new officer reporting on board a carrier. There's a lot to learn."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. kdiaz@startribune.com eric.roper@startribune.com

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