A Reflection on Congressman Oberstar's legacy

Jim Oberstar, the longtime Minnesota congressman who died Saturday at age 79, represented several great strains in American public life that we need to recall and revitalize. Oberstar was a hero of mine before I came to Minnesota a dozen years ago, and it is one of my joys to hold a professorship named for him and supported by donors who rightly wanted to honor his serviceLet me say a bit about the values he represented.

Jim Oberstar believed in the capacity of government to increase people’s opportunities to realize their dreams. Raised on the Iron Range as a miners son, he knew the help that public works, labor unions, and other features of the New Deal had brought to average Americans. In strongly affirming government’s positive role, he strongly disagreed with many of his fellow legislators.But in these conflicts, he was one of those members, on both sides of the aisle, who viewed public policy as a serious matter—as a means to seek the common good, not simply partisan advantage. As a leading member and ultimately chair of the House Transportation Committee,he was held in high regard by Republicans, the Washington Post reportsbecause he sought to keep issues before the Transportation Committee free of partisan rancor.” We certainly need to revitalize that spirit today.

I saw Oberstar’s geniality expressed several times, most recently last spring when he visited St. Thomas, his alma mater, and had lunch with law students. He spoke to them about how to move a bill through the House of Representatives, but also about his life-long interest in Frenchculture: his graduate studies in Belgium and Quebec, his time as a young man teaching in Haiti. He modeled for them a life well lived, one continually open to learning and to service.

He also believed passionately in the importance of infrastructure to both economic and cultural life. He was a leader in supporting the development and improvement of systems from air transportation to bridges to urban bike paths. Today crumbling parts of our infrastructure call out for work to repair and modernize them, while millions of Americans look for work to make a living and contribute to society. These needs often overlap, and we might be able to addresssome of them together if we combined Jim Oberstars passion for building with his practical ability to find solutions among people of diverse views. 

Last but certainly not least, Oberstar represented the pro-life position within the Democratic Party. He ran for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor nomination for Senate in 1984 and was defeated in part because he would not adopt the pro-choice position that was becoming increasingly dominant within the party. In a 2005 address at the St. Thomas law school (available here), hecited Joseph Cardinal Bernardins metaphor of the seamless garment of life” and stated that it is not sufficient to be opposed to abortion: we must also support pre- and post-natal care of mother and child; we must advocate for education, health care, jobs with a livable wage, housing and food for the needy; oppose the death penalty; and resist unjust war. For JimOberstar, protecting the unborn was of one piece with protecting the vulnerable in other aspectsof life: an essential component of the common good. We desperately need to strengthen that voice today, calling Democrats back to apply to the unborn their concern for the least of these,and calling all of us to an ethic of care supporting all those in need and reducing the situationsthat drive women to feel they need abortions. 

That 2005 address came at the close of a St. Thomas Law Journal symposium on the seamless garment and the future of pro-life progressivism. In it Oberstar, a Catholic, spoke of the challenges of applying one’s faith to politics; he concluded by reminding us of the priorities theBible sets forth. "In all that I undertake in public life, he said,

I am guided by the firm belief that, at the end of life, we will be judged, not by the volume of grain in our bins, not the size of our budget surplus, nor the might of our armies. We will be judged by: 

I was hungry and you gave me food. 

I was thirsty and you gave me drink. 

I was a stranger and you made me welcome. 

I was naked and you clothed me. 

Thank you, Jim Oberstar, for all you stood for, and stand for.