Longtime Minnesota Congressman Martin Sabo Dies At 78

Former Congressman Martin Sabo is being remembered as political power player, an outstanding public servant and a champion of transportation projects in Minnesota. Sabo died Sunday at the age of 78.

Sabo was first elected to the Minnesota legislature in 1960 at the age of 22. He became the first Democrat to serve as House leader in 1973. He won election to Congress in 1978 and was reelected 13 times without serious opposition until he retired in 2006.

“I was interested in politics from the time I was a little kid growing up in North Dakota,” Sabo said in a 2006 documentary about the history of the Minnesota legislature. “For what reason I have no idea.” Sabo was involved in politics in college and was stuffing envelopes for a campaign when DFL leaders convinced him he should run for the legislature.

Sabo was a big supporter of bicycling. The Midtown Greenway Bridge in Minneapolis was named the Martin Olav Sabo Bridge to acknowledge his work in Congress advocating for biking as a mode of transportation.

More: Political leaders recall Sabo and his career. Sabo in his own words from 2006 documentary.
Video at top: Sabo appears in a 2006 documentary about the history of the Minnesota legislature.

“Congressman Martin Sabo was a great political leader and an outstanding public servant. Important infrastructure projects throughout Minnesota exist because of Martin’s senior position on the House Appropriations Committee,” said Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton in a statement from his office.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar called Sabo a mentor, crediting him with helping her win her first election as county attorney.

“Martin Sabo was my friend and mentor as he was to so many who learned their politics the Martin Sabo way: do what is best for your district, stand up for the people you represent, and don’t forget to have some fun while you’re at it.

At a time when our politics has become increasingly coarse, Martin knew how to be strong but civil, effective but kind. In his quiet Scandinavian way, he was a fierce progressive who got things done for his district and our state. And whether it was playing on the congressional softball team or bringing home the funding for a road or a housing project, Martin Sabo truly enjoyed his work.

In my early days in politics, Congressman Sabo never minded if I tagged along with him to his Minnehaha Park picnics or senior citizen door knocks, and, even though my last name was twice as long as his, he agreed to do joint lawn signs when I first ran for county attorney. He was a veteran congressman and I was a political rookie, but he didn’t hesitate to help. He saw it as part of his job to help young people get started in politics. And Martin was so popular that those signs may have well been the reason I won (by less than nine votes per precinct!) that first election.

Martin was an extraordinary and exemplary public servant who also stayed active and involved in his community after leaving office. He rarely missed a major gathering or a political event, especially if it involved his beloved Norway.

My thoughts and prayers are with Sylvia and all of Martin’s family.”

Rep. Keith Ellison who succeeded Sabo as Minnesota’s fifth district Congressman offered praise and condolences.

“This is a sad day for our country. For more than 40 years of public service, Martin Sabo stood up for every Minnesotan – no matter their age, race, or economic standing. He was a true progressive, and cared more about fighting for the American people than getting his name in the press. He was a man of substance who worked tirelessly to preserve Social Security, take care of our veterans, improve our public infrastructure, and pass budgets that were fair to working Americans.

“We owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for his service. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

DFL party leader Ken Martin recalled that Sabo was a leader who worked across the aisle with Republicans to find solutions. “Sabo’s quiet leadership style and dedication to his district are a true inspiration. He showed us the progress that can be made when Democrats and Republicans work across the aisle for the common good.”

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman commented on Sabo’s passing: “Congressman Sabo represented the best in Minnesota politics. A man of few words, he led by example. He understood that being a leader, whether Speaker of the Minnesota House or Chair of the U.S. House Budget Committee, meant bringing people together around important work.

“His legislative record in the Minnesota House, the complicated consensus that allowed construction of the Hiawatha LRT Line to go forward, the Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 and a balanced federal budget will all stand as testament to the respect he engendered on both sides of the aisle. And when it was time to return to private life, Martin devoted his time to encouraging young people to be involved in the issues of the day.

“I will miss his intellect, his humility and his unwavering optimism about what we, together, can accomplish.”

Memorial services for Sabo will be announced at a later date.

Sabo’s career

Martin Olav Sabo (February 28, 1938 – March 13, 2016)

The following information is from Mike Erlandson who worked for Sabo while he was in Congress.

He was born in North Dakota to Norwegian immigrant parents. His childhood home in Alkabo, ND did not have electricity until he was ten.

Martin is survived by wife of 52 years Sylvia (Lee) Sabo, daughters Karin (Mantor) and Julie, their husbands Nicholas Mantor and Peter Baatrup, six grandchildren Emily, Thomas, John, Sarah, Jakob, and Oskar and sister Anna Marie Huesers and nieces Klara and Christine.

After family and friends his passion was politics and public service. Martin received his B.A. from Augsburg College in Minneapolis in 1959. He was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1960 at the age of 22. He served as minority leader from 1969–72 and was the first Democrat to serve as House Speaker 1973–78.

During his tenure in the state house he was instrumental in passing what has become known as the Minnesota Miracle. He served as president of the National Conference of State Legislatures and of the National Legislative Conference and was a presidential appointee to the National Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. He was most proud of his time in the Minnesota House and relished the life-long friendships he made serving Minnesota.

Speaker Sabo was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November 1978 and was re-elected thirteen times. During the 103rd Congress, he chaired the House Budget Committee. As chairman he shepherded the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 through the House.

The legislation was critical to moving the federal government from a deep deficit to its first surplus in decades. Following this success, he was disappointed to see many of the deficit reduction measures reversed and the nation return of budget deficits.

He served on the House Appropriations Committee his entire career in Congress where he was a leader on the Transportation, Defense and Homeland Security Subcommittees. He prided himself in properly setting spending priorities for the nation while delivering critical resources to projects in Minnesota and the 5th Congressional District.

Martin was very proud of the funds he secured for roads, bridges, bike paths, light rail transit, housing, law enforcement, and national security. Projects included the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, Hiawatha Avenue, research funding for the University of Minnesota, securing the cleanup of the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP) site, countless busses for the metro transit, just to name a few.

Congressman Sabo served 46 consecutive years as an elected official, eighteen in the MN State House and twenty-eight in the US Congress. He had the second-longest tenure in either house of Congress in the state’s history. At the time of his death he was the longest consecutively elected public official in the state’s history.

Martin had an unmatched passion for sports that started when he was a young man in North Dakota and never subsided. He was never more honored then when his colleagues picked him to manage their baseball team. Coach Sabo led the Democrats in the annual Congressional Baseball game for 18 years. While winning the game was important, the friendships built on the baseball diamond fostered civility and legislative partnerships that were often critical to legislative accomplishments.

In 2011 he was honored to be appointed by Governor Dayton to the Ballpark Authority overseeing Target Field and enjoyed attending almost every Twins home game.

After his retirement from Congress, Martin continued his public service. He served as co-chair of the National Transportation Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He worked with the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg, relishing the interaction with future leaders especially the Sabo scholars. He also served on the board of Growth and Justice advocating for public policy to make Minnesota’s economy more prosperous and fair for all.

The University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs has a Public Policy Lecture Series and endowed scholarships that carry his name. The Midtown Greenway Bridge in Minneapolis was named the Martin Olav Sabo Bridge to acknowledge his work in Congress advocating for biking as a mode of transportation.

Memorials: Sabo Endowment Fund at Augsburg College, 2211 Riverside Avenue Minneapolis, MN 55454 or Trinity Lutheran Congregation, 2001 Riverside Avenue Minneapolis, MN 55454.

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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