Mr. President, I come to the Senate floor today to honor the life of a truly remarkable man—a devoted husband, a loving father and grandfather, a dedicated friend and a true public servant. Jim Oberstar was a man of purpose and grit who never stopped fighting for the people of northern Minnesota. His resilience was like the resilience of the people that he represented.
He was one of those rare people who was just as comfortable in the Aurora, Minnesota Parade in khakis and tennis shoes as he was at the French Embassy. One unique thing about Jim Oberstar was that he always broke into French at a moment’s notice and he would literally speak French at the French Embassy and Paris, but he might also speak French at the Aurora Parade even though no one else there spoke French.
Whether he was biking the Mesabi Trail or fishing on Sturgeon Lake or hanging out with some of his constituents at Tom and Jerry’s bar in Chisolm which is where he grew up, he always loved northern Minnesota and the people he represented.
Jim never lost sight of where he came from or the values he grew up with. He knew that among other things, his job in Washington was to be an advocate, and he approached every day with a fierce but disciplined urgency of purpose. What I loved most about him was that in a day of sound bites and quick fixes, he was never afraid to give that long, long explanation of why he voted for something or why he thought something was important to his constituents.
As the Star Tribune noted this week, Jim was always a popular editorial guest and meetings with him were – quote – “the equivalent of a graduate school seminar.” When I think about Jim, I first think of someone whose roots are also in northern Minnesota, whose grandpa worked in the mines. I think about him, about how he fought hard to keep the mines open when times were tough, back when things were bleak and people were hurting.
Like my own grandpa, Jim’s dad was Slovenian and he was proud of that, and Jim’s dad, like my own grandpa, was also an underground miner. They were part of a generation of immigrants that toiled hundreds of feet underground day after day to mine the iron ore that built this nation and kept the world free in World War II. It was a hard, hard life. Long days and treacherous conditions. Their families living in fear of that dreaded whistle that meant another miner had been injured or killed. Jim knew that sound well because he lived through it. So when Jim got to Congress, he fought tirelessly to not only keep the mines open, but to protect the rights of the workers and to improve safety.
During his first years in the House, Jim pushed for legislation that created the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Today, thanks to the hard work of Congressman Jim Oberstar, mining conditions have greatly improved. That was bread and butter legislating for Jim – straightforward, commonsense policies that made people’s lives better. It sounds simple, but we know that in Washington today, there are too many people who would rather score political points than get down to the hard work of governing. Not Jim Oberstar. He was a man of conviction. In a business known for rewarding the expedient over the noble, he lived a life of principle. He played the long game and he did it on behalf of the American people. That is a great American. And that is a legacy worth celebrating. We lost Jim suddenly this week in the middle of the night, in his sleep. The day before, he had spent the day with his grandkids. He had gone to one of his grandchild's plays. He had been going on long bike rides.
And even after he lost his election in 2010, he never let it get him down. He just took all that energy and zest for life and put it into his family and put it into the continuing work he did on transportation and put it into his friends and just everything he loved to do.
So we mourn him today, but we also celebrated the incredible gift that Jim gave to our country. It is awe inspiring to think about how much time he spent mastering federal transportation policy. 47 years, nearly five decades, 11 as a staff member on the House Transportation Committee and 36 as an elected representative. During that time, he literally changed the landscape of Minnesota and the country. His fingerprints can be found on just about every major federally funded transportation project during the last five decades -- roads, bridges, tunnels, rails, locks and dams, bike paths. Jim loved those bike paths. He was a visionary. He was in front of everyone on that. He would try to get money for bike paths and people would laugh at him. Who cares about bike paths? Now everyone wants bike paths in their communities. Every American who flies in an airplane or drives our federal highways can thank Jim Oberstar. Every American who bikes their bike trails, who hikes places like the beautiful Lake Superior trail in northern Minnesota or drives on our national highways and bridges should remember him. He was a treasure-trove of facts and figures and advice for every member of congress. He always used to kind of poke fun at the Senate because he claimed things kind of went here and didn't get done, and he would always say all that ever happens in the Senate is you ratify treaties and confirm judges.
One day, close to my own election, I was looking at the newspaper clips and I saw my name next to Jim saying that, and I thought oh, no, what has he said? It was in the International Falls paper I got it out and he said well, all the Senate ever does is confirm judges and ratify treaties, but Amy’s going to try to rescue this bill, she will try to get it done, and I was quite relieved.
One of the most memorable stories for me came on his last day in the House when members came and told stories about him, and there was a congressman from Pennsylvania who talked about the time that Jim visited his district to celebrate the opening of a new bridge. He said that Jim stood up with no notes and recited with incredible detail almost every infrastructure project that had ever been built in that district, and along with the name of every congressman that had ever served in the district, with all the right pronunciations, and he even included their middle initials, and he did it with no notes. The congressman was in awe. He walked back to his office and he started looking back through the records and googling things. It was no surprise to anyone that Jim was exactly right.
That was Jim. He loved politics. He thought about government as an honorable profession, and he was so proud of the people that followed in his footsteps, whether what he taught Senator Franken and myself as we started representing Minnesota or one of his favorites, the mayor of Duluth, Don Ness, who started working with him when he was 23 years old as a young aide. Whether it was all the staff members that worked for him for all those years. He was so proud of the people that he taught, the people that he mentored. He was so proud of the members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans that he worked with. He would so often work to get amendments and get little projects for them for their districts, and then he would let them take the credit when they went home.
I want to end today with that Jim said in his farewell speech to congress. He was reflecting on why he had originally run for office, and this is what he said. He said -- "the reason why I came is to serve the people, to meet the needs of their respective families and to leave this district, leave this house, leave this nation a better place than I found it.
There is no question, Mr. President, that Jim Oberstar left this world better than he found it. Through his incredible legacy of public service, he found immortality. In the beautiful children and grandchildren that were and are his family, he has left the world a better place. The youngest one, a little baby that we met today at the funeral, was just recently adopted. And Jim’s daughter named him Jim. He left the world so much. He not only taught us how to win elections, because he knew how to do that, he also taught us how to act and what to do when you lose an election. He has found immortality in the hearts of those who knew him and the lives of countless more who never will. In the majestic grandeur of stately bridges and in the cool shadows of quiet bike paths, in the hardhats hanging in the lockers of hardworking miners that go home safely at the end of the day. That’s where you will find Jim Oberstar. That's where his legacy lives on.
Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.