Jim Oberstar joined John Burke and I as we poured over maps of Madison in Oberstar’s Capitol Hill office in Washington.
It was 2008 and Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minnesota) was chair of the House Transportation Committee. He had a good relationship with Trek CEO John Burke and I was Mayor of Madison at the time. John introduced me to Oberstar so that I could help him make the case for more federal funding for infrastructure that would make biking and walking safer.
Oberstar was eager to learn about our plans for Madison as we had just outlined an ambitious goal to add miles of dedicated bike lanes, paths, overpasses and other projects. As he guided transportation policy in our nation’s capital over three decades of public service there, Jim Oberstar was a champion of biking. An avid cyclist himself he understood what biking could do not just for mobility but also for economic development.
My respect for Oberstar didn’t end with our shared love of cycling though. Oberstar was part of a fading breed of politician. He was an unabashed Minnesota Iron Range liberal, but he believed in the legislative process. Far from excluding Republicans when he was in the majority he reached out to them and tried to build consensus. And he had a great sense of humor. All in all he reminded me of another Midwest political legend that I had the privilege to get to know: Wisconsin U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson.
Narrowly defeated in the 2010 Republican landslide, Oberstar remained active and continued his advocacy for smart transportation policies that had more balanced initiatives for modes other than just cars.
A blue collar Democrat, Oberstar could surprise you with his fluent French and his world traveling experience. And his deep, resonating voice and good humor made him a compelling speaker.
Jim Oberstar passed away quietly in his sleep on Saturday at the age of 79. He had not been sick, but had been engaged and hearty to his last moment. A fitting way to go out for a happy warrior.