The town is tiny Chisholm, Minn. The speaker no longer is a boy, but a septuagenarian widely regarded as one of the most powerful and effective congressmen on transportation issues.
Young or old, Oberstar’s voice takes on an awed lilt as he answers the question, “Do you ever wonder what a kid from the Iron Range is doing here?” His eyebrows rise, he gestures around his Rayburn Building office, and he cracks a grin as he slaps a knee.
“I think about it every day!” he replied. “When the ambassador of China comes here to talk with me, I’m saying to myself, ‘This guy represents 1.3 billion people. I come from Chisholm, population 5,000 people. It’s extraordinary.’ Yes indeed, I think about it every day.”
This isn’t an “aw, shucks” line from a slick politician trying to come across as in touch with his roots and his district. This is the real, unvarnished Jim Oberstar – a miner’s son who scraped together enough quarters to get a College of St. Thomas degree 50 years ago and now has a long list of ambassadors, executives, union officials and government bureaucrats waiting patiently to enter his office for a little face-to-face time.
Those in power aren’t the only ones who walk through 2365 Rayburn to meet with Oberstar. No ambassadors were in sight one day in early April, but representatives from a California ranch, an airports association, a writing center, an air traffic controllers union, a bicycle equipment manufacturer, an adoption organization and a medical foundation all got in to see the man who has served in Congress longer than any other Minnesotan.
Oberstar and one or more staff members listen intently to the stories, the pitches and the pleas. He is a patient listener, but he isn’t afraid to jump into a conversation with an opinion always backed by facts and numbers. Observers marvel at his ability to juggle so many visitors from so many constituent groups and to keep track of names, faces and, of course, numbers.
“It’s like this every day,” he said. “One day I had 18 issues. I sat in on 18 meetings. It’s not at all that unusual.
“I tell students: ‘Don’t complain about homework. It’s with you all your life.’ I take that stuff (he pointed to four foot-high stacks of paper) home at night to read; to be prepared to do my job right. Learning is a lifelong process.”
Oberstar was told early in life that the way to get ahead was to learn and to get a good education. His dad, who worked in an underground iron mine and the open pits, and his mom, a shirt factory employee, wanted a better life for their three sons.
At a St. Thomas luncheon several years ago, Oberstar recalled how he went through his dad’s belongings after his death and found an old financial passbook with scores of entries.
“Every payday, dad went to the home of the S.N.P.J. (Slovenian) Lodge treasurer and put 25 cents in an account,” Oberstar said. “That was the equivalent, then, of an hour’s wage in the depth of the Depression. He couldn’t afford to do that, but he did it. Those quarters added up, and they helped me go to college.”
Oberstar graduated summa cum laude from St. Thomas in 1956 with majors in political science and French. He always has tales of his St. Thomas days, and on this spring day in Washington he recalls two learning experiences.
The first was an encounter with G.W.C. Ross, who taught English constitutional history. “Dr. Ross said that we would memorize the succession of English kings,” Oberstar said. “I told him, ‘I’m not so good at memorization.’ He said, ‘Well, young man, you’ll need to be.’ ”
The second was the announcement by James McGraw that students would learn how to write a simple declarative English sentence. “I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I can write. I got A’s in English.’ I got my first paper back – all torn apart. We spent three weeks writing sentences and a month writing paragraphs. Only at the end of the semester were we able to write an essay.
“Precision in language is so important. Clarity. Succinctness. You know, I can sit on the House floor, close my eyes and tell you if the person is speaking or reading. I try to remember what Horace said: ‘In whatever you say, be brief.’ ”
After graduation, Oberstar won a scholarship to the College of Europe in Belgium, where he earned a master’s degree in European Studies. He taught French and Creole in Haiti for three years before returning to the United States to become a congressional aide to Rep. John Blatnik, who served as chairman of the Public Works Committee before retiring in 1974. His aide became his successor, and in 1975 Oberstar began the first of his 16 terms in Congress.
“My dad told me on the evening of my swearing-in that his dream as a kid was to go into the Merchant Marine,” Oberstar said. “But he couldn’t. He had to leave high school in the 10th grade, go to work and help support eight siblings. When I called him and told him I had been appointed to the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, I thought he was going to cry.”
Oberstar has served on many committees, but chose to follow in Blatnik’s footsteps and make his mark on what now is known as the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. His longevity has made him the senior Democrat on the committee, and he is a past chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, where he became known as Mr. Aviation – a moniker that fits to this day. He has been influential in shaping the reauthorization every six years of legislation that funds highways, bridges, mass transit and other transportation projects.
Minnesota will realize an increase of 46 percent in transportation funding as a result of the 2005 reauthorization, Oberstar proudly notes. Many of those dollars are targeted for projects in his home 8th District of northeastern Minnesota. He dismisses critics of “pork” and insists each project underwent a rigorous review, with safety as the top criterion. He cites two such projects:
· Fifty-seven people died in traffic accidents in 15 years on Highway 8 northeast of Interstate 35E in Chisago County. Oberstar went to a community meeting about the issue in 1994, “and 800 people showed up on a Friday evening. They carried 57 candles and 57 wooden crosses.” He found $13 million for road improvements, “and we haven’t had a fatality since then.”
· Seven people died in accidents north of Virginia on a narrow Highway 53 section under a railroad bridge. A staff member was behind one accident in which two people died. “She called me and said, ‘You have to do something about this,’ I told her, ‘No, you have to do something.’ She got moving.” A $23 million realignment occurred, and there since have been no fatalities.
That kind of success, engendered by Oberstar’s seniority, has brokers and lobbyists from all sectors of the transportation industry lined up at his door. While he takes their concerns seriously, he always remembers who got him where he is.
“I’ve been given the responsibility by the Democratic caucus to be an advocate, not just for my district or state, but for the nation on transportation issues,” he said. “But my first priority is to the people of the 8th District and what’s important to them. How do I address their needs? There is a myriad of issues … economic development, housing, low-income families.
“Some days I say, ‘I’m a captive of all of these national concerns. I spent the whole day on someone else’s problems, and not those of my own district.’ Then I realize there is a tradeoff – I will need (that someone’s) vote on an 8th District issue, and I have the capability to create that capacity because of my seniority.”
As necessary as horse-trading may be in politics, and as skilled as Oberstar is in its practice, he seems to most enjoy the day-to-day interaction with constituents, sitting in a circle in his office. Regardless of their cause, he takes a genuine interest in what they have to say and in discussing solutions to vexing issues, some of which don’t involve dipping into the federal purse. Examples:
· Airports Council International.
Its leaders say mid-sized airports are feeling pressure from airlines to take over jobs such as ground handling and that airports need improvements such as digital radar, imbedded runway sensors and better training for controllers. They find a supportive voice in Oberstar. “I love to go to meetings,” he said, “and tell the airlines the airport is what stands between them and travelers, that the airport is the voice of the citizen traveler.”
· Minnesota Writing Project. Based at the University of Minnesota, it works to improve students’ writing skills and strengthen instructional skills in 2,500 K-12 schools. The project receives a third ($50,000) of its funding from the federal government, a third from the U of M and a third from contracts with schools. Its leaders lament that too many students don’t know how to use “that” and “which,” and Oberstar recalls his semester writing sentences. “When people apply for jobs, I ask them what they want to do and they say they want to write policy,” he said. “I look at them and say, ‘OK, but can you write a simple declarative English sentence?’ And they just look at me. …”
· National Air Traffic Controllers Association and Transportation Trades Department, both affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Their presidents are negotiating new contracts with the Federal Aviation Administration and are unhappy the FAA is demanding $600 million more in concessions than the $1.4 billion offered by the unions. Oberstar shares their dismay and calls FAA actions “a PR gimmick” to be fought by making a clearer case to Congress and the media.
· Montague Inventive Technologies. The owner of this Massachusetts company stops by to show Oberstar a new quick-release mechanism that will allow easy changes of front bicycle tires. Oberstar, who bikes more than 2,500 miles a year, has had his fair share of flat tires and is in-trigued. He shows his visitors a pair of gold-plated brake levers given to him in appreciation for his support of federal funding for bike trails and says, “If your device makes biking safer at the starter end of the market, you’ll have customers for life.”
· Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Oberstar, who adopted his oldest son, has been active in this bipartisan caucus for 20 years and is its president this year. (He has three other children and two stepchildren, having remarried after his first wife died.) He reviews a May board agenda with the coalition’s executive director and discusses fund raising and governance issues.
As the last scheduled visitor departs, Oberstar smiles and says, “Now do you see why I like my job? It’s very stimulating.” More meetings and possibly a few votes lie ahead, followed by the inevitable “homework,” but he is invigorated by the conversations and the challenges.
“The legislative process is an intellectual process,” he said. “I don’t choose who comes to see me – they do. They are carrying out a provision of the Consti-tution – the right to see their congressman.”
More than one person has asked Oberstar why, at 72, he continues to do such a grueling job.
“I love what I do,” he said. “I don’t get up every morning and say, ‘Gee, why am I doing this?’ or ‘How do I get out of that?’ I know I’m in a position to help people.”
His senior staff feels the same way, and they stick around. Bill Richard, chief of staff, has worked for Oberstar for 25 years. Chip Gardner, legislative director, has been there 20 years; Mary Kerr, communications director, 11 years; and Jeri Sparling, scheduler, eight years.
“I see time in two-year intervals,” said Gardner, referring to the congressional cycle. “I always ask myself if I’m enjoying my work, and the answer is, ‘Absolutely.’ I can’t imagine working for another member. I feel good about the work I do for Jim and for the people of Minnesota.”
“Jim changed my life,” said Richard, a Vietnam veteran and one-time “hippie farmer” who admits that “I didn’t make the best life decisions” as a young man. He moved to Duluth to work in Oberstar’s district office in 1981 and then to Washington in 1990. “Jim has a brilliant political mind and instincts. He is able to motivate all of us to work on his behalf and on behalf of the people he serves. … He values our contributions. He says everyone counts or no one counts.”
Kerr worked for a Michigan congressman and practiced law before joining Oberstar. She handles several policy areas as well as communications duties. She recalls a conversation with a congressional archives employee when she dug up an old photo of her boss, and the woman said, “Oh, you work for Mr. Oberstar? He is such a wonderful man. This must be the highlight of your career.”
Sparling started as a front-desk receptionist for Oberstar before becoming his scheduler three years ago, and said he sets “a high bar. He has a lot of expectations, but that’s the way it should be.”
The staffers all talk about The Dream. If Oberstar is re-elected this fall – he faces a formidable challenge from Rod Grams, a former House and Senate member – and if Democrats regain control of the House, he would become chair of the Transportation Committee. He would be the first person who served as a committee staff director – when he worked for Blatnik – to become that committee’s chair. “He’s wanted that for so long,” Sparling said. “It’s his dream.” Added Richards: “And our dream. We’re focused on The Dream.”
Oberstar just smiles when asked about The Dream.
“I’d like to be chairman,” he admitted. “As chair you don’t get everything you want, but you get to set the agenda and initiate the action. There is so much to be done in oversight – to make sure agencies effectively carry out the laws that we have enacted.”
He lists a half-dozen initiatives he would pursue as chair – aviation safety, more funding for mass transit, port security, “healing” the Federal Emergency Management Agency and even re-establishing the Merchant Marine subcommittee. A lot of challenges remain, Dream or no Dream.
“I see old friends and say, ‘What do you do?’ And they say, ‘Well, I’m retired. I just can’t imagine retirement. I have all these books I want to read, but the real question is what I’d do with all of the knowledge that I’d get from those books.”
“Age is only a number. And a state of mind.”
Jim Oberstar: A lutefisk legend
· Congressman Jim Oberstar’s suite in the Rayburn House Office Building is full of memorabilia, including plaques, proclamations, photos, a 1-cent postcard announcing U.S. Steel’s acquisition of Minnesota Iron Co. in 1898 and packets of taconite pellets.
· Displayed prominently on a reception area wall is the Distinguished Alumnus Award plaque given by the St. Thomas Alumni Association in 1998. In his personal office hangs the Doctor of Laws degree citation and diploma conferred by St. Thomas in 2002.
· The smallest plaque in the suite is also the most intriguing: First place in the Third Annual Lutefisk Toss in July 1996 in Center City, Minn. There has to be a story here …
· “I entered him in the contest,” Chief of Staff Bill Richard said. “I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, but I hoped it wasn’t trouble.”
· Oberstar recalled the contest was held at a Swedish cafe run by an Irishman. Oberstar had to grab a square of lutefisk and toss it into a bucket. “Getting a good grip is a real skill,” he said, “and then letting go at the right time. Nobody got it the bucket. But I was closest.”
· He sighed and smiled. “Never before,” he said. “Never again.”