Jim Oberstar passed away in his sleep on Friday night, ending a 79-year life of political service. Love or hate his views, the Chisholm native was a giant on the northeast Minnesota political stage over the past forty years, and his impact spans generations. The eighteen-term representative and former Transportation Committee chairman was arguably the most powerful Minnesotan congressman of the last half century, though unlike some of his better-known contemporaries, he did most of his work behind the scenes. His time was not a happy one for the region he represented, and most of that for reasons beyond his control, as the mines shut down and the manufacturing jobs dwindled, a decline that was followed by a long period of stasis. Like any good long-tenured congressman, he brought home the bacon and did some work to stop the bleeding. Many of the little factors that have helped spur Duluth’s burgeoning optimism, from its emergence as an aviation industry hub to its networks of trails, have their roots in Oberstar’s work.
Oberstar began as a classic northern Minnesota DFLer, a proud member of that generation of Minnesota liberals who gave the state its national political face. As the son of an Iron Range miner, he captured the DFL’s base with his emphasis on labor and taxation on the wealthy. He traveled far beyond the Range in life, though, studying in Belgium, Quebec, and at Georgetown, and was fluent in French. Never much of a revolutionary, by the time I came along Oberstar had the air of a patrician doing what he could to gently steward his district. Still, he never entirely abandoned his working class roots, and there were wrinkles in his platform—most notably, his consistent pro-life stances—that cut against the grain of the liberal elite. His ability to balance his ambitions and worldliness with his Iron Range core was perhaps his most admirable trait, and he made that balance work for a very long time.
Oberstar’s political career came to a stunning end in 2010, when he was taken down in one of the greatest coups of the Tea Party wave election. With its population in decline, Minnesota’s Eighth District had slowly leached south into Michele Bachmann territory, and political rookie Chip Cravaack took advantage of the changing demographics. The real nail in Oberstar’s political coffin, though, probably had more to do with his declining support in his home territory up on the Range. His patient, piecemeal approach and congeniality clashed with growing frustration over decades of economic stagnation, and there was a notion that his balancing act had finally fallen, that he had lost touch after so many years in Washington. Setting aside Cravaack’s own hypocrisy on that front, it was a critique with some merit: every political era must come to an end, and 36 years is quite the tenure. The time for fresh blood had come.
His passing is just another in a slow but steady series of markers of the end of an era. Northeastern Minnesota’s influence on the state political scene has dwindled some—witness Gov. Mark Dayton’s apparent “suburban strategy” for re-election—and the current congressman, Rick Nolan, a DFLer of Oberstar’s generation, is probably only a placeholder. It’s possible that someone of a similar disposition will come along, much as Amy Klobuchar has taken up the torch of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale in the Senate. But the man best positioned to fill that DFL vacuum, Duluth mayor Don Ness, has taken the cautionary tales of Oberstar’s disconnect to heart. As a profound family man, he seems unlikely to run.
Beyond Ness, the regional DFL machine is in a complicated place in the post-Oberstar era. As the name implies, it’s a coalition with some unusual constituents, from Duluth’s east side elite to the fraying but enduring big labor camp, from the environmental activists to the working-class Rangers who support new mining projects. There might be a window for some new coalitions to emerge, though the inertia of the existing parties may be enough to hold things together, and any challenge from the right will need to develop a coherent policy agenda to gain any traction north of Hinckley. It’s hard to know quite what will come next for the politics of the region, but whatever happens, it will all be somewhere in the shadow Jim Oberstar.