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Rep. Chip Cravaack,

Andy King, Associated Press

Cravaack prepares to leave Minnesota, politics behind

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ
  • Star Tribune
  • December 21, 2012 - 7:36 AM

WASHINGTON - After unseating Minnesota's longest-serving congressman and interrupting 63 years of DFL dominance on the working-class Iron Range, political newcomer Chip Cravaack is moving on.

The one-term Republican, who stunned the political world when he defeated DFL stalwart Jim Oberstar two years ago, now says he will likely put politics and Minnesota behind him to be reunited with his wife, Traci, and their two young sons, who have moved to New Hampshire.

Having lost a reelection bid to former Congressman Rick Nolan, Cravaack gave his first indication Thursday about his future plans, all but ending speculation about a possible bid for statewide office, perhaps even for governor.

Despite a political legacy that will be remembered for his historic upset two years ago, it has come to this for the retired pilot and stay-at-home dad: Having been beaten by 9 percentage points in one of the most costly House races in the nation, he's been relegated to finishing his term in a basement cubicle in a House office building cafeteria.

It's Cubicle No. 13, a lucky number in his mother's Italian-American family.

While some Minnesota Republicans have encouraged him to run for office again, perhaps even challenge Sen. Al Franken in 2014, Cravaack says his future is likely back East with his family.

"It really depends on Traci," he said in an interview Thursday. "I've got a feeling I'll probably be heading back there, unless some huge opportunity opens up in Minnesota, I've got two small kids who need their dad."

The family's move to New Hampshire last year became a political liability in a district that already skewed heavily Democrat. The move came about after one of his boys, who is autistic, suffered a seizure while both parents were away. Cravaack and his wife decided that while he was in Washington, she and the two boys needed to be closer to her job as a pharmaceutical executive in Boston.

Cravaack, a 53-year-old ex-airline pilot and Navy aviator, expressed few regrets about leaving politics. "Being a congressman was never on a bucket list for me," he said. He said he likes to think of his short tenure in Congress as "a continuation of my service in the military," where he acquired the nickname "Crash" for a minor car mishap overseas.

'Not true, Mr. President'

Cravaack rode into Congress in the 2010 GOP wave intent on stopping President Obama's agenda on health care and the economy. This year, he fell victim to another wave election that favored Obama and the Democrats.

Between those political milestones, some Minnesota Republicans believe Cravaack scored enough legislative successes to make him a credible contender to win back the seat in two years.

"I think there's every reason to believe that if he ran in 2014 for the same seat, he could win it," said U.S. Rep. John Kline, the senior Minnesota Republican in Congress. DFLers acknowledge that Cravaack made his mark in Minnesota politics. But they see his 2010 victory in the state's 8th Congressional District as an aberration. "He does have a legacy," DFL Chair Ken Martin said. "But I don't think there's any chance for him to return to Congress, at least from the 8th District."

In a two-year term, Cravaack won House passage of a pair of bills to promote mining in northern Minnesota. Two other bills became law: One ends federal jurisdiction over fishing rules on Lake Mille Lacs, and another speeds up airport screening for soldiers in uniform.

He also developed a reputation for bluntness. When President Obama told a group of House Republicans last year that he expected them to oppose him at every turn, Cravaack shot back, "That's not true, Mr. President," -- a Minnesota Nice echo of another Republican member who had shouted "You lie!" during a State of the Union address.

Legacy battles

Like many neophyte House members, Cravaack tried to focus on his district, holding 29 in-person town-hall meetings, helping block a vehicle-miles-driven tax that would hurt rural drivers and championing improvements to Hwy 8.

But he also pushed a conservative agenda that Democrats say was out of step with the traditionally DFL-leaning district. As he promoted mining and logging on Minnesota's economically wracked Iron Range, he ran afoul of DFL activists, who fought his proposals to streamline environmental approvals.

He also stepped on some Democrats' toes by speeding up plans to swap federal and state lands to promote industry around Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He won House passage for the plan along narrow partisan lines, but there has been no action yet in the Senate.

"It was essentially a giveaway to the mining industry," said Ken Bradley, director of Environment Minnesota, a group that battled Cravaack on the wilderness plan.

At the same time, Cravaack's conservative positions on guns and abortion played well among working-class voters on the Iron Range, where he stepped out of the GOP mold and tried to make inroads with union workers.

Cravaack calls getting a "Buy America" provision into a major road bill his proudest achievement. "I knew it would directly impact jobs in the district," he said.

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

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