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Longtime DFLer Martin Sabo dies at 78

Sabo, who died Sunday morning, understood power. But he also understood humility.

Martin Sabo shown in a photo from 2013.
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen

In 2010, the last season the Twins were playing in the Metrodome, I was standing in a short line waiting to buy a ticket for a ballgame. 

Glancing around, it appeared that most of those waiting were scruffy looking codgers, like me. One codger seemed familiar. Gray hair, rumpled khakis, hands in pockets. It took a moment before I realized it was Martin Olav Sabo, the powerful former U.S. congressmen, standing there alone, waiting with the rest of us. 

We said hello to each other, acknowledged how there are few things so pleasurable as going to a ballgame alone, bought our tickets and headed our separate ways. 

Sabo, who died Sunday morning at the age of 78, understood power. But he also understood humility. Most politicians get wrapped up in their own sense of self importance. At the least, they would have sent a minion to get their ticket. More likely, they’d have someone else call for a ticket and assume there’d be a red carpet rolled out for them when they arrived. Sabo stood with the crowd. 

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But in a political career that reached back to 1960, when he was elected to the Minnesota House at age 22,  Sabo used power adeptly. He was the Minnesota House minority leader by 1969, House speaker by 1973, and elected to Congress from the 5th District in 1978.

He was re-elected 13 more times, typically by massive 2 to 1 margins. Still, there was always that humility. Sabo was a nervous wreck in the days leading up to every election. Heading into a seniors’ apartment building, he was a purveyor of retail politics at its most fundamental. He’d start on the first floor, knock on a door. When that knock was answered, a campaign worker would knock on the next door, while Sabo talked to the person at door No. 1. He moved through entire buildings like that. Knock, talk, knock, talk. . . .When every door had been hit, he’d stop for a cigarette outside before taking on the next building. (Sabo, with great agony, quit smoking in 2003.) 

In Washington, he gained power by listening and dealing and handing out credit to all those around him. He didn’t seem to need the spotlight, which made him a unique politician. 

In a statement released Sunday, Rep. Keith Ellison, who succeeded Sabo in the Fifth Congressional District, made note of Sabo’s seeming lack of ego: “He was a true progressive and cared more about fighting for American people than getting his name in the paper.’’ 

It should be noted that Ellison was not Sabo’s choice to succeed him. Sabo had hoped that he would be followed in office by his long-time chief of staff and friend, Mike Erlandson. In fact, Sabo left the endorsing convention, which had selected Ellison over a number of candidates, steaming. He did not endorse Ellison in the 2006 race, but he did have a picture taken standing with Tammy Lee, an Independent Party candidate hoping to succeed him. 

In his statement about Sabo, Ellison referred to him as a “true progressive.” The reality is that many progressives in the Fifth District often found fault with Sabo’s positions on such things as defense spending. 

Sabo was best known, in fact, as a man dedicated to achieving fiscal balance in D.C. His greatest accomplishment may have come in 1993 when, as chairman of the House Budget Committee, he pushed “the Ominbus Budget Reconciliation Act’’ through the House. Briefly, deficits were replaced by surpluses in the U.S. budget. But, in ensuing years, Erlandson said, Sabo was deeply disappointed as many parts of the act were stripped away; deficits again ruled the D.C. landscape.

There were other disappointments as well, especially when he took on the role of manager of the Democrats’ team in the annual congressional baseball game against Republican House members. The Republicans had youth, vitality and some outstanding jocks — Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts had played professional football — on their side. The Dems were old and slow, and Sabo never was the sort who could give a fiery pep talk.  

But Sabo was far more than a deficit hawk and a baseball guy. A couple of decades before the gap between the one-percenters and the rest of us became a popular topic, Sabo attempted to take symbolic stabs at what he saw as a serious national problem. 

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On several occasions, Sabo introduced what he called the “Income Equity Act.’’ Under this act, corporations would be capped as to how much of executive compensation could be written off as an expense. For the purposes of taxes, any executive pay that was more than 25 times greater than the lowest paid worker in the corporation could not be deducted as a corporate expense. If, for instance, the lowest paid clerk was being paid $12,000 a year, executive compensation would be capped — for tax purposes — at $300,000. 

“I don’t worry about how much is made by those at the top of the income scale to the extent that I do about how little is made by those at the bottom,’’ wrote Sabo of his effort. 

Sabo understood that his proposal was going nowhere in the Congress. But he introduced it on several occasions, hoping that it would lead to discussions about the growing inequities between the top of economic scale and everyone else. 

And even though Sabo was concerned with the deficit, he also was a master at bringing federal cash home to his district. There’s hardly a bus, a light rail car, road, bike path, or bridge in the Twin Cities that doesn’t have his fingerprints on it. 

When the late Jim Oberstar was representing the 8th District and Sabo the 5th, the cash flow from Washington to Minnesota was at a level that likely will never be seen again. 

There have been, of course, words of praise and sadness pouring in from across the political spectrum. Sabo, who grew up in tiny Alkabo, North Dakota, in a house that didn’t have electricity until he was 10 years old, probably most would have appreciated the statement of AFL-CIO president Bill McCarthy. “He was a leader who delivered for his constituents, for Minnesotans and for all working people,’’ McCarthy said. 

Sabo who never seemed to forget that he was just one in the crowd, is survived by Sylvia, his wife of 52 years, two daughters and six grandchildren. Services have not yet been announced.