Rep. James Oberstar (D)
Minnesota 8th District
In the 1860s, prospectors in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, northwest of Lake Superior in the low hills of the Mesabi Range, happened upon one of the nation’s largest veins of iron ore. They moved on, looking for gold. But in the 1880s, Duluth banker George Stone and Philadelphia financier Charlemagne Tower started mining the Iron Range and created the northern end of the lifeline of American heavy industry. Rail lines ran south from the Range to the port of Duluth, nestled on dramatic bluffs over the always-cold and, for long months every winter, frozen waters of Lake Superior—one of the most beautiful settings for a city in North America, though also one of the most isolated. Duluth was a grain-shipping rival of Chicago and the premier iron ore port. Its city plan was drawn up by architect Daniel Burnham, who also planned Chicago, and its splendid turn-of-the-century buildings still celebrate the triumph of technology and civilization over wilderness and the elements. Millions of tons of ore have been dug out of the Range and loaded into railcars for the ride to Duluth, and into Great Lakes freighters for shipment to Chicago, Gary, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo.
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For most of the 20th century, in this land where the Arctic winds blow down over the Canadian Shield’s thousands of inland lakes, about 100,000 people lived on the Iron Range and another 100,000 in Duluth, most of them descendants of America’s 1880-1924 wave of immigration: Italians, Poles, Serbs and Croats, Jews, Swedes, and Finns. In this punishing environment, they worked to the point of exhaustion, built solid houses with staunch central heating, and wore layers of warm clothing to survive the brutal winter, which can be as extreme as 50 degrees below zero. Life was rough. The work was hard, the hours long, and the pay low. The churches, a separate one for each ethnic group, were the main community institutions. Living conditions improved vastly in the decades of great economic growth after World War II, but life remains rough-hewn today, and there is still economic distress. As iron mines and steel factories got more efficient, they needed fewer workers, and employment is well below its 1970s peak. As water fills abandoned open-pit mines, as factories close and mines are shut down, the Iron Range looks bleaker. In 2007, Duluth’s population was down to 84,400, and the Iron Range’s was about the same. Economic growth is sporadic. In the 1990s, Northwest Airlines built a large repair facility in Duluth and a reservations center in the Iron Range, and the call center survived the 2008 merger with Delta Airlines. The port of Duluth still ships large quantities of grain, and in the late 1990s a new taconite and steelmaking factory was built—the first big new plant in more than 20 years. People here have made the best of the frozen climate. Automakers test their new models’ performance under extreme winter conditions at International Falls in Koochiching County. A new sports competition is the winter ultramarathon, a 135-mile endurance contest of walking, running, cycling, or skiing from International Falls to Tower.
The 8th Congressional District of Minnesota includes Duluth and the Iron Range, plus much of the north woods and lake country to the west and south. It extends all the way south to the boundaries of the Twin Cities metro area, to Isanti and Chisago counties, where young families are building new homes in pleasant old lakeside towns. This district has been a bulwark of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party since the DFL was formed in 1944, and has been considered safely Democratic for years. But there are signs of change. The fast-growing counties in the south and west have trended toward Republicans, while Duluth and the Iron Range remain Democratic. However, issues like gun control and environmental regulation have sometimes moved those areas toward the Republicans. In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry won here 53%-46% over President Bush. Four years later, Democrat Barack Obama had a similar 53%-45% win over Republican John McCain.
Rep. James Oberstar (D)
Elected: 1974, 18th term.
Born: Sept. 10, 1934, Chisholm .
Education: St. Thomas Col., B.A. 1956, Col. of Europe, Bruges, Belgium, M.A. 1957.
Family: Married (Jean); 6 children.
Professional Career: Navy civilian language teacher, Haiti, 1959–63; A.A., U.S. Rep. John Blatnik, 1963–74; A.A., U.S. House Public Works Cmte., 1971–74.
The congressman from the 8th District is James Oberstar, a Democrat first elected in 1974. He is the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Oberstar grew up in the Iron Range in the city of Chisholm. His father was an iron miner and union official who sent him off to St. Thomas College with $2,500 saved in quarters at the Slovenian National Benefit Society. He studied French in college and in Belgium. For four years, he was a civilian employee of the U.S. Naval Mission to Haiti, teaching French and Creole to Marines, and French and English to Haitians. (Oberstar also speaks Serbo-Croatian, Italian, and Spanish, and has been known to break into polkas sung in Slovenian at Democratic retreats.) In 1963, at age 29, he landed a job as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. John Blatnik in the 8th District. When Blatnik retired in 1974, Oberstar won a primary over Tony Perpich, brother of Gov. Rudy Perpich, and went on to win easily in the general election. The St. Paul Pioneer Press has described him as “part scholar and part Iron Range street fighter, part pothole-filling ward healer and part workaholic.”
|James Oberstar (DFL)||241,831||(68%)||($1,409,685)|
|Michael Cummins (R)||114,871||(32%)||($15,751)|
|James Oberstar (DFL)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (64%), 2004 (65%), 2002 (69%), 2000 (68%), 1998 (66%), 1996 (67%), 1994 (66%), 1992 (59%), 1990 (73%), 1988 (75%), 1986 (73%), 1984 (67%), 1982 (77%), 1980 (70%), 1978 (87%), 1976 (100%), 1974 (62%)
Oberstar’s views are in the liberal Catholic tradition. He believes in an economically active government and has little faith in economic markets. He was long dubious about American military involvement abroad. He voted against the Iraq war resolution in 2002 and has decried the results of U.S. intervention there since. He is an opponent of abortion rights and a backer of adoption, sponsoring bills to ensure family and medical leave and dependent deductions for families in the process of adopting. When he first proposed a $1,500 adoption tax deduction in the 1970s, he was not taken seriously by the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. Today, thanks in large part to his effort, there is a $5,000 tax credit. From this North Country district, Oberstar has been a supporter of local hunting and fishing activities and of the steel industry. When the issue of normalizing trade relations with China came before the House, he tried to get an amendment to treat steel slab imports as a direct threat to taconite miners. When the Bush administration wasn’t interested, he voted against the bill.
Since October 1995, Oberstar has been the top Democrat on Transportation and Infrastructure—a position of real power. The committee has a long tradition of bipartisanship, and of sponsoring members’ roads and public works projects. At 75 members, it is the largest in the House. For six years during the Republican majority, Oberstar worked with GOP Chairman Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania to make it more powerful than ever. Their great monument was the 1998 transportation bill, with $217 billion in spending, including $10 billion in projects earmarked by individual lawmakers. In April 2004, Oberstar and new Transportation Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, persuaded the House to pass a $275 billion, six-year transportation bill; the Senate passed a $318 billion bill. The White House insisted on capping spending at $256 billion, and the deadlock resulted in no bill getting passed in 2003 and 2004. Oberstar and Young were unfazed. Finally, in July 2005, both chambers passed a $286 billion bill, with $24 billion for more than 6,000 earmarked projects, and Bush signed it.
Oberstar himself is a bicycling enthusiast, and logs 2,700 miles a year in Washington, D.C., in Duluth, on the Range, and in the Tour de Frog in St. Cloud. A special project of his is Safe Routes to School, grants for sidewalks, bike paths, and safe crossings to encourage kids to walk to school. Over five years, he pushed spending from an initial $20 million to $612 million in 2006. “I would say in time it will be the best thing I’ve ever done,” Oberstar once said.
Oberstar was one of the architects of the airline bailout bill in 2001 and strongly pushed for federal rather than private employees in airport security. In 2006, the House adopted an Oberstar amendment to continue barring foreign companies from owning more than 25% of any U.S. airline stock. Also that year, he came out against plans backed by the Bush administration and many airlines to fund the Federal Aviation Administration entirely on user fees based on miles flown, with a quasi-governmental commission making spending decisions on air traffic control management and other matters. “There are some functions government must undertake in the public interest,” Oberstar said. After the JetBlue airline left dozens of passenger-filled planes on the ground for 10 hours in February 2007, Oberstar called for hearings on flight delays.
Taking over as chairman of the Transportation committee in 2007 after Democrats won majority control, Oberstar spearheaded the passage of a $23 billion water resources bill, the first in six years. When Bush vetoed the measure, Congress overrode it easily. After the collapse in August 2007 of the Interstate 35W bridge in the Twin Cities, Oberstar quickly got passed a bill to fund reconstruction. The House also passed his legislation to tighten bridge safety standards and to require immediate inspection of all bridges deemed “structurally deficient.”
Also that year, with approval from the Air Line Pilots Association, he won House approval of a bill to raise from age 60 to 65 the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots. In 2008, he vehemently opposed the merger of Minnesota-based Northwest Airlines with Delta as “the worst development in aviation history,” not least because his constituents feared higher prices and a decline in service. While unsuccessfully urging the Justice Department to reject the deal as anti-competitive, he could do little to thwart approval by the Bush administration.
In 2009, with the transportation bill set to expire, Oberstar prepared for what was heralded as the most expensive public works bill in the nation’s history—possibly $500 billion over six years. He was prepared to raise the gas tax, if necessary, to pay for expedited construction. But Oberstar was disappointed that Democratic leaders and appropriators signed off on less money for infrastructure than he had wanted in the anti-recession economic stimulus bill that passed the House in January 2009. Oberstar had called for $85 billion for highways, mass transit, rail, aviation, and clean-water programs, but the legislation provided for $66 billion. The stimulus bill was drafted chiefly by the Appropriations Committee, the longtime nemesis of the Transportation panel.
At home, Oberstar has worked to upgrade and widen to four lanes U.S. 53, which runs from Duluth through the Iron Range to the Canadian border. He succeeded in getting a dangerous interchange and railroad overpass rebuilt. On another issue, he favors more dredging of the Great Lakes, since lake levels have fallen in recent years.
Oberstar won tough primaries in 1980 and 1984, but he has been re-elected by wide margins. Longtime DFL voters may be moving away from Democrats higher up on the ticket, but they remain faithful to Oberstar. His one political setback came in 1984, when he ran for the Senate but did not get an endorsement by the liberal DFL convention. He is the longest-serving member of Congress from Minnesota.