Minnesota’s Longest Serving Congressman, Jim Oberstar, Dies At 79

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Rep. Jim Oberstar during a tribute on the House floor

Rep. Jim Oberstar during a tribute on the House floor

Minnesota’s Longest serving Congressman Rep. Jim Oberstar passed away in his sleep Saturday morning. He was 79.

Oberstar was first elected to represent Minnesota’s northern congressional district in 1974. He was re-elected 17 times before being defeated in 2010 by Tea Party conservative Chip Cravaack.

Because of his long tenure in Congress, Oberstar rose to be Chairman of the powerful Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in 2006. From there he was able to address one of his passions — better roads, bridges and transportation funding.

He recalled his legacy in transportation in his farewell address to Congress in December 0f 2010 – noting how many miles of pavement his committee had been responsible for adding to the nation’s highway system.

In that same address he said one of the highlights of his career was when Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn) addressed the House. Senators are rarely accorded that privilege. Oberstar remembered that Humphrey said “I have waited so long to be here” as he stood where the President of the United States usually stands to deliver his State of the Union address. Humphrey had run for president in 1968 and lost to Richard Nixon.

In concluding Oberstar says: “As you leave, remember why you came. Why I came is to serve the people…and to leave this nation a better place than I found it. I hope I’ve achieved that goal”

Political World Mourns Loss Of Oberstar

President Barack Obama:
“Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Congressman Jim Oberstar. 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. Jim will be deeply missed and Michelle and I send our condolences to his wife Jean, his children, and grandchildren.”

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton:
“Congressman Oberstar was a true champion for the people of the 8th District, and for our entire state. He worked tirelessly to bring jobs, economic growth, and a better quality of life to his constituents. I extend my deepest condolences to his wife Jean, and his family.”

Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn):
(Via Twitter) “Congressman Jim Oberstar was a giant of a man who devoted himself to serving others. This is a terribly sad day for all of us. ‘ll never forget the day Jim Oberstar returned to the House last year. The entire Floor stood up to cheer for a great leader & friend.”

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn):
“Our country and its infrastructure are a better place because of the work of Jim Oberstar. He was a brilliant man and a dedicated public servant,” Peterson said. “His work helped to create countless jobs and keep our nation’s roads, bridges, airports and trails safe. My deepest condolences go out to Jim’s wife Jean, and his children and grandchildren.”

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn):
“During his over thirty years of service to our state, Jim always put Minnesotans first. He was a public servant above all else. He had a gifted mind and an uncanny memory that helped him master a number of languages, including Haitian Creole. Jim’s passion for helping people get from one place to another safely was contagious and his vision for Minnesota’s future will live on as the projects he fought for as chairman of the Transportation Committee are completed.

“Jim was a great friend who helped me find my feet after I was elected in 2006. My deepest condolences to his family, his wife Jean, their children and grandchildren. His spirit, ideas and energy will be deeply missed.”

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn):
“I am deeply saddened by Jim’s passing. Jim Oberstar was a friend, a mentor, and a public servant of epic stature. Throughout his career Jim’s commitment to improving America’s transportation system saved thousands of lives, kept millions of Americans on the job, and strengthened Minnesota’s and our nation’s economy. Most of all, Jim Oberstar was a truly wonderful man who was filled with joy and compassion.”

“I wish to extend my sincere condolences to Jim’s wife, Jean, his children, grandchildren, and all of his former staff, especially Bill Richard, Congressman Oberstar’s long-time friend and chief of staff.”

Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn):
“For 36 years, Jim Oberstar diligently served the people of Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District. Along with representing his constituents in the U.S. House of Representatives, Jim was a national leader and expert in the area of transportation safety—helping institute important measures that keep Americans safe. While we only served together in Congress for one term, Jim’s legacy will be felt by me and the rest of the Minnesota delegation for years to come. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Jean, and the rest of the Oberstar family at this time. He will be greatly missed.”

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn):
(Via Twitter) “Vicky and I would like to extend our thoughts and prayers to the family of Jim Oberstar. Sad to learn of the news.”

Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn):
“I’m deeply saddened to learn of Jim’s passing. A titan of the Transportation Committee, Jim put people before politics and always fought tooth and nail for his constituents. He was the true definition of a public servant and someone I was proud to call a mentor and friend. While Jim may have passed, the legacy he left behind will live on for generations to come.

“My wife Gwen and I extend our deepest sympathies to his wife Jean, their children, and grandchildren. He will be deeply missed.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn):
(Via Twitter) “Former congressman Jim Oberstar died last night. He was a mentor and friend and a man of true purpose and grit. We will miss him dearly.

“Jim Oberstar’s life journey took him from the mines of northern MN to the chairmanship of 1 of the most powerful committees in Congress.

“Every miner should remember Oberstar for work on mine safety, every biker & hiker for his trails, every citizen for his passion for country

“Jim Oberstar’s wife Jean reminded me how he lived his life w/zest. To the end he loved family, bicycling, No. MN & always…transportation!”

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn)
(Via Twitter) “Franni & I are saddened by the passing of former Cong. Jim Oberstar. We’re better people having for having known him, & we’ll miss him. -Al”

Minnesota House Speaker Paul Thissen:
“I am saddened to learn of the passing of Congressman Jim Oberstar, a true leader and public servant for the people of Minnesota.

Congressman Oberstar brought passion to public service and defined what it means to leave things better off for the next generation – especially our transportation system. He loved his work, his state and the people he represented and Minnesotans will miss him greatly.”

Minnesota State Sen. Julianne Ortman, Republican who is running for U.S. Senate:
“Ray and I send our sympathies to Jean Oberstar and her four children on the passing of her husband Congressman Jim Oberstar. Jim was a public servant dedicated to the people of the State of Minnesota. His service and dedication to nation and state were truly admirable.”

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman:
“Connie and I are saddened to learn of the passing of Jim Oberstar and our thoughts and prayers are with Jean and their family. Our city, state and nation lost today one of our greatest public servants. An Iron Ranger to the core, he never forgot where he came from and fought tirelessly to strengthen local communities here at home and across the country. As we prepare for our Twin Cities to be connected for the first time by light rail transit when the Green Line opens next month, it is a shame that our greatest champion for transit won’t be there with us.”

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak:
(Via Twitter) “Deeply sorry to lose hero and mentor Cong. Jim Oberstar, Patron Saint of Minneapolis Biking, and so so much more.

“During biking events in Minneapolis I often got people to turn to the East and bow, to our amazing friend in Washington, Cong. Jim Oberstar”

How Oberstar lost his seat

Oberstar was a late supporter of the Affordable Care Act aka “Obamacare”. He held out on his vote until he was assured that a Medicare formula that has shorted Minnesota health care providers for many years was fixed. In the above video announcing his decision, he talked about a “touching” phone call from a woman in his district. She lost her son to heart disease because he did not have health insurance.

Tea Party activists seized on Oberstar’s vote and behind Cravaack launched an aggressive campaign.
Cravaack supporters jeered Oberstar at a debate in Duluth where he was constantly interrupted by the crowd as he tired to answer questions. The next debate between the two was held under tight security and was much more civil.

Oberstar ended up losing the election by only 4,400 votes, 48 percent to 47 percent, conceding early the next day

Other Oberstar videos:

Michael McIntee

Michael McIntee is a former network TV news executive with more than 30 years of broadcasting experience. He began his broadcasting career at the University of Minnesota's student radio station. He is an expert producer, writer, video editor who has a fondness for new technology but denies that he is a geek. More about Michael McIntee »

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