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At peace with his defeat, Jim Oberstar relishes family time, still shares transportation expertise

A new scholarship joins an ore boat, park path, roadside rest and riverside complex bearing the name of the former 8th District congressman.

The list of things named in Jim Oberstar‘s honor keeps growing.

On Monday, the former 8th District Democratic congressman was at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs for the awarding of the first-ever James L. Oberstar Fellowship.

This $10,000 scholarship, sponsored by the Minnesota Forest Industries, is just one of a long line of honors for the man who was defeated by 4,400 votes last year by Republican Chip Cravaack. There now are an ore boat and park path and roadside rest and riverside complex named for Oberstar.

There’s a good reason for all of those honors: During his 36-year congressional career, he directed millions of federal dollars into his district.

A stunning 2010 election defeat
All of that money and all of those projects — coupled with the fact that for 18 elections Oberstar won his district by 2-to-1 margins — made his defeat the most stunning in the nation in 2010.

Oberstar, who just turned 77, said he’s over the loss.

Jim Oberstar
Jim Oberstar

Maybe so, although there’s contempt in his voice when he talks of some of Cravaack’s “no” votes on several of Oberstar’s most beloved projects, including funding for the Northern Lights rail project, which would run from the Twin Cities to Duluth.

“Do you realize there are 5 million people a year going to the casino in Hinckley?” he said. “That’s just one stop. Think of the potential.”

So many of the big-vision projects of his career have been waylaid by the Tea Party-inspired election outcomes of 2010.

Perhaps the biggest vision of all was high-speed rail connecting Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis and St. Paul. It was there for the taking, Oberstar said. In 2008, all the players were lined up, but 2010 changes ended the dream.  

Still, he says he’s OK, because when he looks back at his lost election, he knows he carried the northern portions of the district “by 20 percent.”

That’s important to Oberstar, who was born in Chisholm. To have lost in the northern regions of the district would have been a rejection by the home folks.

“It was the fringe area that was the difference,” he said. “Those areas [the northern exurbs of the Twin Cities] were always marginal [areas of political strength] for me. That’s where Rove was working, Big Pharma. We had those things working against us and low turnout on the Range, and that’s the way it is.”

Overnight, from committee chairman to Grandpa
In one day, Oberstar went from being one of the most powerful members of the House (he was chairman of the Transportation Committee) to Grandpa. That’s not necessarily a downgrade, he said.

Before Monday’s ceremony presenting Wisconsin National Guard officer Jonathan Creed with the first Oberstar scholarship, Oberstar grabbed his iPad and showed what losing has allowed him to do.

There were pictures of his five granddaughters: This one’s a model for Kohl’s. This one has danced in “The Nutcracker” with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. This one played Anne in “The Diary of Anne Frank’ …

“Despite their grandfather, there is talent in this family,” said the former congressman as he proudly showed off the pictures.

Because there’s now more time in his schedule, this summer he was able to have a special time with his grandchildren at a family reunion at Wisconsin Dells. The reunion marked the 20th anniversary of his first wife’s death — the biological grandma the grandkids never knew. She died from breast cancer, and for a week this summer, he and family members “reflected” on her life.

“For four nights I told them who their grandma [Marilyn Jo] was,” he said. “They sat transfixed.”

A master storyteller, Oberstar told the grandkids of how he and Jo first met at a Washington, D.C., New Year’s Eve party. She was impressed because he could speak French fluently. He was impressed because she was a tall, beautiful redhead who worked at the New York Times.

Each night at the reunion, the story of Grandma and Grandpa continued.

A couple of years after that first meeting between the French-speaking Iron Ranger and the lovely redhead, he was about to go to Africa “to save the world” when he crossed paths with her in D.C., where he was visiting his legendary congressional predecessor, John Blatnik.

She was on Blatnik’s staff. Oberstar had tickets to a Mozart concert. After their date, he decided that saving Africa would have to wait. He joined Blatnik’s staff, too, married Jo and eventually succeeded Blatnik.

He won’t get involved in 8th District race
Oberstar, it should be noted, does not plan on getting involved in the upcoming 8th District race.

One of the reasons given for Oberstar’s loss is the feeling by some that he didn’t get back home often enough in his final terms in Congress.

In his campaign, Cravaack repeatedly said that Oberstar was “more Washington” than 8th District. Now it turns out Cravaack might have a bit of that perception problem of forgetting about the folks back home, given that his family recently moved to New Hampshire.

Oberstar says that his absences from the district never were a fair criticism. Although he has maintained his home with his second wife of 18 years in suburban D.C., he says he gets back to Minnesota at least a couple of times a month.

Although he may no longer have the clout of a congressman, he’s still in demand as a speaker.

“Now I can even get paid for giving a speech,” he said with a laugh.

He recently returned from France, where he gave speeches, in French, on transportation issues.

Transportation and urban-rural relationships remain of great interest to Oberstar.

Often, he said Monday, rural and urban people don’t seem to understand how interdependent they are. The wood-products industry, for instance, isn’t just important to people in northern Minnesota — of the industry’s 30,000 state jobs, half are in the metro area.

The tidbits and stats on highway and rail projects still roll off his tongue.

Train travel between Chicago and St. Paul is no faster now than it was in the 1930s. “What has Europe done in that time?” he asked, shaking his head sadly.

Suddenly, he was talking about high-speed trains between Brussels and Paris. In the next breath, he was talking about Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker rejecting federal money for rail transit.

And then he was looking back at the last election, when, he said with disgust, that Forum Communications, headquartered in Fargo, ordered its Duluth paper to endorse Cravaack.

He still is incredulous about that endorsement and made a little joke about Iron Rangers and Alzheimer’s: “You forget everything but a grudge.”

But he insisted he’s “made his peace.”

His life is full, he said. He’s got a brand-new super bicycle with a GPS unit on the handlebars. (He’s put 1,400 miles on the bike so far this summer.) He gets paid for speeches, and he has beautiful grandkids and a loving wife.

The son of a miner has scholarships named after him, and even a mighty ore boat was christened the Honorable James Oberstar in May. It’s an 806-foot ship, which carries more than 25,000 tons of taconite between Duluth and the mills near Detroit and Cleveland 60 times a season.

“It’s a great sight,” he said.  

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.