Jim Oberstar represented Minnesota’s interests with intelligence, compassion, vitality and grit for more than a quarter of a century. He left a legacy that will endure long after his unexpected demise last weekend.
A renowned expert on transportation issues, Oberstar was responsible for channeling millions of federal dollars to improving roads and bridges in his district and across the state and nation. He authored and helped to pass the SAFETEA-LU act, a $295 billion program that funds transportation infrastruture, including highways, bridges and public transportation such as subways, buses and passenger ferries. Funds from that program helped pay for the improvements and an expansion of Highway 53 to four lanes between Virginia and Cook.
One of the more recent examples of his clout in Washington, D.C., was his ability to rapidly obtain $250 million in federal funds for the replacement of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis after its collapse in 2007. The bridge collapse helped draw attention to the crumbling infrastructure across the United States — an issue in which Oberstar was ahead of the curve.
But Oberstar left his stamp in other areas, as well.
In 1965, he helped create the Economic Development Administration, the only federal agency devoted to the creation and retention of jobs in economically-distressed communities.
The congressman took on the task of creating jobs to the region personally. He played a key role in bringing Cirrus Aircraft to Duluth and was instrumental in bringing together the Northern Aero Alliance, a group of 35 aerospace companies. William King, vice president of business administration at Cirrus, said Oberstar’s efforts helped create 2,500 jobs in Minnesota and at least 10,000 more across the country with the passage of the General Aviation Revitalization Act in 1994. In 2009, Oberstar received the Tony Janus Award for his distinguished leadership in the field of commercial aviation.
Oberstar was also a strong believer in the value of education, lending his support to the federal Head Start Program. He also supported the American Association of University Women, which has been a leading voice in promoting education and equality for women and girls nationwide.
Environmental issues were also on the congressman’s radar. He voted to pass the Energy and Environmental Law Amendments to develop a program to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and was a passionate advocate for protecting national treasures such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park.
Oberstar also played a hand in encouraging others to serve in political office, mentoring a number of politicians including Tony Sertich, former Minnesota House speaker and current Iron Range Rehabilitation and Resources Board commissioner, and Duluth Mayor Don Ness.
Despite his inclusion in the Washington, D.C., hierarchy, Oberstar never forgot his roots on the Iron Range. He was as comfortable chatting about the weather or fishing as he was discussing the details of a massive highway project, and was always approachable.
Oberstar’s death is a great loss to the state and nation as well as to his family and friends. The tributes pouring in from his friends and colleagues attest to the loss they so keenly feel.
As Gov. Mark Dayton observed, “Congressman Oberstar was a true champion for the people of the Eighth District, and for our entire state.”