A political giant
Jim Oberstar, the longtime 8th District U.S. representative who died Saturday at age 79, was a public servant and a man of contradictions.
The son of a Chisholm miner, Oberstar was a survivor in the rough and tumble world of Iron Range DFL politics. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy mixing it up with public officials and constituents in the small towns of the 8th Congressional District. Yet, without prompting, he could launch into a serious analysis on complex public policies. When the occasion called for it, he surprised audiences by demonstrating his fluent French.
A solid liberal vote throughout most of his 18 terms in Congress, he was also an opponent of abortion and restrictions on gun rights — positions that put him at odds with many fellow Democrats.
At an age when many start to slow down, Oberstar kept up a busy schedule as a consultant on transportation issues. The 79-year-old’s idea of relaxing was to embark on a marathon bike ride, with the vigor of someone half his age. His annual “Ride with Jim” on the Paul Bunyan Trail was just one of the many ways he supported the state’s bike trails.
His energy level and zest for the political life never seemed to wane. Even after his unexpected defeat at the polls in 2010, Oberstar was gracious in defeat and never publicly expressed any bitterness or regret. While some longtime incumbents who were bounced out of office tried to reclaim their former office, Oberstar seemed to accept the notion that that particular phase of his public service was completed and he was moving on to the next challenge.
In 2013, when his name came up briefly as a possible choice to replace retiring U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, he candidly stated that he’d like the job and that he was qualified for it. That Cabinet post went to someone else, but his enthusiasm at the possibility of that job opening up spoke to his unflagging enthusiasm for government service.
His legacy will live on the infrastructure he supported for northeastern Minnesota: bridges, airport terminals and trails.
It’s clear, even to voters who disagreed with Oberstar’s politics, that the Chisholm native devoted his energy and intellect to a life of public service with unflagging zeal.