James L. Oberstar told folks he wasn't born a congressman, though with 36 years in the role it sometimes may have felt that way. But he was born into a world dominated by labor and laborers. That passion came to strongly influence his personal and professional life up until his death Saturday night at his home in Potomac, Md., at the age of 79.
Oberstar was born and raised in Minnesota's Iron Range, a seven-county region in the state's northeast corner known for ample iron ore deposits, unrelentingly harsh winters, and a fondness for organized labor and the Democratic Party that nourished it. His father, Louis, an iron ore miner, was believed to be the Range's first card-carrying member of the United Steelworkers union.
Louis' son headed to Washington instead of following his father into the mines. But it became apparent, especially in the latter years of his tenure, that when it came to ideology, Oberstar had never really left the Range. He had great affinity for the people who made stuff and seemingly less for companies that hauled it.
Once assuming the chair of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee in 2007 after serving on the committee from his first day in Congress, Oberstar crossed swords with the modes. He tried to get FedEx Express, the air and international unit of giant FedEx Corp., reclassified as a carrier under the National Labor Relations Act instead of its current, and in the company's view, more favorable status under the Railway Labor Act. The proposal so enraged FedEx Founder and Chairman Frederick W. Smith that he threatened to cancel orders for 30 Boeing Co. freighters if it ever became reality. It didn't.
Oberstar sought to end antitrust immunity enjoyed by steamship lines to set prices and vessel-sharing arrangements. He tried to crack down on ocean carrier surcharges, saying they were "not always a reflection" of carriers' costs. He also took aim at the railroads, saying customer service had suffered over the decades as the industry went from dozens of large carriers to four large east-west rails that controlled over 90 percent of the nation's rail traffic. "There is less competition and more complaints" about rail rates and service from shippers, Oberstar said at a National Industrial Transportation League (NITL) conference in June 2010.
Modal interests were no doubt relieved in November when Oberstar lost his seat in the midterm election to Republican Chip Cravaack, a virtual unknown and a darling of the Tea Party.
Oberstar also wasn't shy about taking on the President of the United States, even if the two were from the same party. He repeatedly clashed with the Obama Administration over the issue of increasing motor fuels taxes to reauthorize the programs that finance federal surface transportation projects. Oberstar wanted a six-year, $500 billion reauthorization largely financed by increases in diesel fuel and gasoline taxes, neither of which have been raised since 1993. The White House flatly rejected any fuels tax increases and never got on board either with the duration of Oberstar's plan or with the amount of money involved.
Coincidentally, Oberstar's passing came just days after the Obama White House submitted its first legislative proposal in five years to reauthorize the various trust funds that are the mechanism to finance transport and infrastructure programs.
Even after leaving public life, Oberstar continued to push hard for fuel-tax increases as the most cost-effective way, at least in the short term, to pay for highway, transit, and rail improvements. "We cannot do more with less," he told a NASSTRAC conference in April 2011. "We can only do less with less."
Bruce Carlton, NITL's president and CEO, said the White House proposal that contains $10 billion in funding over four years for dedicated freight projects is partly due to Oberstar's multi-year drive to make freight issues relevant in the overall conversation.
"Bringing freight transportation to the fore has been evolutionary," Carlton said in an email. "We've gone from 'freight doesn't vote' to [having] a seat at the table, and Oberstar deserves credit for building the foundation of that transformation."
James H Burnley IV, a staunch Republican who served as Secretary of Transportation in the last two years of the Reagan Administration, praised Oberstar for being a dedicated public servant who worked collegially and effectively with those who held opposing views. "He understood the importance of transportation infrastructure to our economy and our society," Burnley said in an email. "While he was passionate in his views, he never demonized those who disagreed with him. I was privileged to call him my friend."
Survivors include his wife, four children from his first marriage, two stepchildren, eight grandchildren, and two brothers.