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Oberstar’s stunning defeat makes history

WASHINGTON — Not since 1948, when Fred Marshall knocked off 16-term Republican House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Knutson, has a political newcomer pulled off an upset as stunning as Chip Cravaack’s defeat of veteran Jim Oberstar.

Rep. Jim Oberstar
Rep. Jim Oberstar

WASHINGTON — Northeastern Minnesota’s sprawling 8th Congressional District is the home of the vast open pit iron ore mines that fueled America’s industrial might during and after World War II.

It’s also the home of iconic figures like Bob Dylan, Roger Maris, longtime American Communist Party leader (and four-time presidential candidate) Gus Hall, as well as the Greyhound Bus Lines, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, the westernmost deep-sea port to the Atlantic, the only operating gas station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and the incomparable pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness along the Canadian border.

Now, after Tuesday’s election, it’s also the home of one of the greatest political upsets in Minnesota, and American, history.

Not since 1948, when Democrat Fred Marshall knocked off 16-term Republican House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Knutson — the same year Harry Truman scored his legendary victory over sure winner Thomas Dewey — has a political newcomer pulled off an upset as stunning as Chip Cravaack’s defeat of veteran Democrat Jim Oberstar.

Not only was the 18-term Oberstar the longest serving member of Congress in Minnesota history and one of the most powerful figures in the House as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he also represented one of the safest Democratic districts in the nation. In fact, Democrats owned the district since 1946, when John Blatnik was elected the first Democratic-Farmer-Labor member of Congress.

But all that seemingly invulnerable power and prestige was swept away shortly before 4 a.m. Wednesday when the Associated Press declared the 51-year-old Cravaack the winner with 98 percent of the vote recorded. Cravaack’s final margin was a bare 48-47 percent, but enough certain to make him one of the freshman stars when the Republicans take control of the House next January.

As a Washington correspondent for newspapers in Duluth and St. Paul, I’ve known Oberstar since 1965, when he was an aide to Blatnik, whom he succeeded after the latter’s retirement 36 years ago. Like Blatnik, Oberstar rose to become chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, then known as the Public Works Committee.

No close races in the past
The 76-year-old Oberstar, who can converse in six different languages, including French and Creole, which he taught to U.S. Navy personnel in Haiti in the early 1960s, hadn’t had a really close race since his first one in 1974. Like Blatnik, he saw to it that tens of millions of dollars in federal aid was directed to his district over the years, especially since becoming chairman of the committee known as the pork barrel panel in 2007.

In one of his last press releases, Oberstar announced Sept. 30 that the Department of Transportation would contribute $16 million to help the Duluth Transit Authority build a $40 million multi-modal transit hub in downtown Duluth.

And on the same day, he put out a press release declaring that construction was underway or completed on $677 million in highway, transit and wastewater projects in Minnesota, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, part of nearly $34 billion in Recovery Act projects nationwide.

Ironically, Oberstar was one of the first Democrats in Congress to endorse Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. Yet Obama’s legislative agenda, especially his health-care plan, economic stimulus program and climate change legislation, provided Cravaack with handy targets of opportunity to use against Oberstar.

Rep.-elect Chip Cravaack
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Rep.-elect Chip Cravaack

Even though Oberstar, a Catholic, is strongly opposed to abortion, Cravaack and his conservative supporters charged that the health care law, which Oberstar voted for, opened the door to taxpayer funding of abortion. And Oberstar was booed at a faceoff with Cravaack in Duluth on Oct. 19 when he angrily responded to criticism of his support for climate change legislation by declaring, “Well, I’m sorry if the Flat Earth Society over here doesn’t believe it.”

Even though Oberstar raised more than $1.6 million for his campaign, more than four times as much as Cravaack, it wasn’t enough to hold off the tidal wave of voter frustration and dissatisfaction with Congress. In fact, for the first time in his career, Oberstar lost the endorsement of his district’s largest newspaper, the Duluth News Tribune.

Oberstar himself was unhappy with some of Obama’s policies. As he told me in an interview for The Hill newspaper last January after returning from Haiti as part of a delegation examining earthquake recovery efforts, he was sharply critical of Obama’s handling of the Recovery act.

“People just can’t get jobs,” he said. “That’s the failure of this administration. They have not done the job of documenting the Recovery Act. When Obama spoke to the Democratic Issues Conference [a day earlier], I said, ‘Mr. President, you announced 1.5 million jobs under the Recovery Act, half of which came from programs in our committee.'”

But he said the stimulus programs had not been focused on the kind of jobs needed for districts like his. “The president ought to be calling on the heads of his agencies every week and saying, ‘Give me a report,'” Oberstar said. “That’s what the administration is going to have to do and should have done in the first place, instead of coddling the Republicans in the Senate. He should tell them, ‘Fine, if you want to filibuster and oppose us, let’s have a vote.'”

Oberstar got his own vote on Tuesday, and was bitter medicine indeed. It ended a long and distinguished political career and marked what could be the beginning of a new era in Minnesota politics.

Note: An earlier version of this post contained a wrong calculation for the percentage of money Minnesota received from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. We have removed that reference.