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Coffee and potica in Chisholm: Oberstar brought together passions for policy and the Iron Range

Tom Kingston, division manager for mining at Minntac in Mountain Iron, shows the West Pit to Northwest Airlines chairman Al Checchi (center) and U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar in September 1991. (Charles Curtis / News Tribune)

We walked into Mary Oberstar’s house in Chisholm just in time for coffee.

A few of us — including Jim Oberstar, the U.S. representative and global expert on transportation policy; Al Checchi, the flamboyant, California-groomed chairman of Northwest Airlines; and a reporter — had separated from a larger group touring the town that day in 1991.

Oberstar was sure that Checchi, the one wearing a tie and a tan, had never tasted really good potica, the central and eastern European pastry that’s popular on the Range. And he was adamant that there was none finer than his mother’s.

He was correct on both counts.

Oberstar was showing off the Iron Range to Northwest officials because they had just signed a deal to expand there. Oberstar wanted to show the boardroom types what the Range was all about, to explain the people’s strong work ethic and show them what an open-pit iron mine looked like.

This was where Oberstar grew up, where his father, Louis, worked in the mines, where Oberstar himself had worked in the mines for a time before heading off to college and on to Washington. Oberstar didn’t just want Checchi to bring jobs to the Iron Range; he wanted Checchi to understand the people’s diverse heritage, the region’s rich history and why it was so important to diversify the region’s economy against the vagaries of mining.

Oberstar explained the ethnic origins of potica (Oberstar had both Slovenian and German roots) and then threw in some background on pasties and the role they played in keeping miners going strong on the job. He talked about Range Democratic politics and unions, too.

Checchi got an earful with his mouthful.

This all was part of the infamous Northwest agreement, Minnesota government’s largest-ever economic development deal, in which Northwest Airlines would get millions of dollars in loans to stay afloat during tough economic times for airlines. The company, then Minnesota’s single-largest employer, also agreed to keep its corporate headquarters in Minnesota.

The state also built an aircraft maintenance base in Duluth for Northwest and, after the idea of a jet engine repair base in Hibbing fell through, Northwest added a huge reservation call center in Chisholm.

That Northwest would be adding hundreds of high-paying jobs in Northeastern Minnesota was a political plum for which many politicians claimed credit. But there was no doubting Oberstar deserved it the most.

It was Oberstar’s pull in Washington — on deregulation, safety, allocation of international routes and more — that Northwest officials were keenly aware of. If Oberstar wanted Northwest to expand in northern Minnesota, then that’s where it would happen.

Ironically, while Oberstar later would be accused of too much pork-barrel politicking and earmarking projects for his home district, some of his Iron Range critics at the time said (privately) that it was about time the congressman had used his influence to bring home a big slab of bacon. Oberstar, they said, has spent too much time and energy on national transportation issues, especially aviation, having chaired the House Aviation Subcommittee. (He later was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2007 to 2010, and was ranking minority member before that.)

But in 1991, that seemingly distant career in Washington was bearing fruit at home. To be able to combine his expertise and passion for transportation policy with his passion for trying to better his home district — that, he confided, was why he was in public service. It was a natural culmination of his career.

Since then, the importance of the Northwest deal has faded. The Duluth base closed with Northwest in bankruptcy (although it has been revived by AAR Aircraft Services, which is fixing Airbus jets there again). Northwest later folded into Delta, which is based in Atlanta, not Minnesota, and where the combined airline now has fewer jobs.

On the other hand, the Chisholm call center isn’t just going strong — it’s expanding, with Delta officials lauding the stalwart work ethic Oberstar had spoken so highly of.

Oberstar, of course, didn’t stop working after the Northwest deal. He served another 19 years in Congress, still focusing on transportation issues, still earmarking projects for his district, promoting his beloved bicycling and pushing scenic byways, mass transit and rail travel as well as infrastructure projects for Great Lakes ports and Minnesota airports.

Even after losing at the polls in 2010, briefly dejected but ultimately undeterred, Oberstar continued to talk about transportation. Some joked that you couldn’t get him to stop talking about it.

A year ago, the former congressman gladly met with about 20 University of Minnesota Duluth staff and students and talked about bringing electric cars and bicycle repair shops to campus. He spoke some French, as he often did, and gushed over the efficiency and speed of European passenger trains. It was a model that Minnesota and the U.S. should follow to save energy, cut pollution and create jobs, he said, if only we had a better system to pay for transportation projects.

It wasn’t just politics for Oberstar, it was his passion. It’s who he was.

And perhaps that passion never showed through more than on that sunny, early autumn day in Chisholm when U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar had coffee and potica at his mother’s bungalow with the chairman of Northwest Airlines and a reporter.

John Myers has covered politics in the Northland for the News Tribune since 1986.

OBITUARY: Oberstar remembered for commitment to northern Minnesota, public good