Former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Jim Oberstar passed away unexpectedly in his sleep, on May 3 at age 79. Oberstar helped pass key federal legislation, including the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
“Jim will be deeply missed,” President Obama said in a written statement. “Jim cared deeply about the people of Minnesota, devoting his 36 years of service to improving America’s infrastructure, creating opportunity for hardworking Minnesotans, and building a strong economy for future generations of Americans.”
Oberstar was born in 1934, the son of an underground miner who worked in the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota, and a shirt factory worker. He was inspired by the activism of his father, a union organizer who fought for fair wages and safe working conditions. Oberstar earned a master’s degree in European studies from the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, and spoke a half-dozen languages.
He arrived in Congress in 1963 to work for Minnesota congressman John Blatnik, also a Democrat. Blatnik led the House Public Works Committee, and Oberstar learned about earmarks, transportation and infrastructure spending during this stage of his career.
After Republican President Richard Nixon resigned in August of 1974, Oberstar was one of several freshman Democrats elected to Congress, nicknamed the “Watergate Babies.” Elected to eighteen successive terms, Oberstar held office from 1975 to 2011, becoming Minnesota’s longest-serving member of Congress. He represented Minnesota’s Eighth Congressional District, which borders Canada and encompasses Duluth and Grand Rapids.
Oberstar was a centrist in the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, known as the DFL, although he generally voted toward the left. For much of his career, he was backed by pro-life advocates and the National Rifle Association. Oberstar rose above party lines, however, developing close relationships with those who opposed him.
In 2006, Oberstar became chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure. He brought millions of dollars to Minnesota, securing funds for a commuter rail system in the Twin Cities, a state-of-the-art water treatment plant in Ely, and the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, among others. But his years in Congress were devoted to transportation safety, and to upgrading the infrastructure of the entire nation.
Oberstar was known worldwide for his expertise in air, water and ground transportation. He worked to secure funding for the dredging of Great Lakes shipping lanes, and to build airports, highways, bridges and community bicycle paths. He backed the implementation of Amtrak as a national rail system, as well as the involvement of labor unions in legislation related to infrastructure. He promoted “intermodality,” the concept of linking airports, highways, railroads, bus systems, subways and bicycle routes.
Thirteen people were killed when the Interstate 35W Bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007. Oberstar responded by calling for national infrastructure repairs, funded in part by higher gas taxes. His plea for an investment of $500 went nowhere in Congress. He had more success backing the 2009 stimulus program that raised demand for steel from the Iron Range region, where he grew up, as well as funding infrastructure projects that created jobs.
Along with five other Democrats, Oberstar threatened in 2010 to vote against President Obama’s health care plan if it included federal subsidy of insurance plans covering abortion. In the 2010 election, he faced Republican challenger Chip Cravaack, a Tea Party favorite who campaigned against “business as usual,” including the use of earmarks, a common practice for Oberstar. Oberstar was confident of his re-election, and gave away campaign funding. These factors may have led to his narrow-margin defeat during the Republican House takeover. (Cravaack was replaced in 2012 by Democrat Rick Nolan.)
Some of his remarks after leaving office include, “I go with peace of mind and heart, but with sadness…. I loved the opportunity to serve the people of this district…. “I can’t change and wouldn’t change any of the votes I cast this year to bring us out of this worst recession, chart a course for the future, to lay a foundation for a better America, a better quality of life, a better quality of health care, rein in financial institutions, to give everybody equal opportunity and a better quality of life…. I wouldn’t change any one of those things.”
After leaving Congress, Oberstar worked as a public speaker and became a consultant to Global Traffic Technologies in St. Paul, Minnesota, a technology company specializing in traffic-management systems. A Great Lakes freighter, and a fellowship at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, were both named for him.
Oberstar remained in the Washington, D.C., area and died at his home in Potomac, Maryland. Oberstar is survived by his wife, Jean, four children from his first marriage, two stepchildren, and eight grandchildren.
Oberstar’s longtime friend Shelly Mategko said, “Right up until (the week he died), he was still calling around the communities (in Minnesota) asking, are you getting what you need, can I help you with this, how are your bike trails coming along… He never left office, maybe formally he did, but in his mind, he was still there.”
He had been in good health and was an avid bicyclist. Richard Anderson, the chief executive of Delta Air Lines, said Oberstar was not ill, and that his death came as a surprise to everyone.
“He was active and vivacious and went to one of the grandchildren’s plays the night before,” Anderson said, adding that Oberstar had further plans with his grandchildren the day he passed. “It’s a surprise to everyone. I had lunch with him last week and he was in great shape, and alert and physically fit.”
Anderson described Oberstar as a wise and trusted friend who influenced air travel, and understood the need for strengthening the infrastructure.
“He wrote and rewrote every major aviation law going back to the 1970s,” said Ed Wytkind, executive director of the transportation trades department of the AFL-CIO. “He was at the center of every major rewrite of every highway bill, he was at the center of some of the most historic transportation laws in the modern era.” Of his concern for labor, Wytkind said, “(Oberstar) was the conscience of the House when it came to making sure the voices of workers were heard.”
According to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Oberstar “knew everything there was to know about our nation’s infrastructure, and fought tirelessly to rebuild and renew it.”
Janet Kavinoky, executive director of transportation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said “… his life was dedicated to and built around transportation and infrastructure.”
Former President Bill Clinton recalled that “Jim was a good friend, a true and tireless public servant…. Jim was a devoted friend and supporter of the Haitian people. I relied on him for advice on Haiti first as President and again after the terrible Haitian earthquake in 2010.”
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), Chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, wrote that “Congress, Minnesota, and the nation have lost a good man who dedicated his life to public service and our country’s transportation system. Jim Oberstar was respected and admired for his tireless advocacy for strengthening our infrastructure, first as a staffer, then as a member, and finally as the Chairman of this Committee…. I believe transportation was truly in his blood, and few possessed his breadth of knowledge and passion for these issues he understood to be so important to America. I will miss my good friend, and my thoughts and prayers are with his family.”