Meet Chip Cravaack, our new congressman

Chip Cravaack doesn't remember how old he was when he decided he wanted to be a naval officer. But he was young, he said, in third or fourth grade. "I was watching -- it was 'Sunday Matinee: John Wayne Theater with John Wayne and the Fighting Sea...

U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack
Cravaack, R-North Branch

Chip Cravaack doesn't remember how old he was when he decided he wanted to be a naval officer. But he was young, he said, in third or fourth grade.

"I was watching -- it was 'Sunday Matinee: John Wayne Theater with John Wayne and the Fighting Seabees,' " Cravaack said in an interview in the North Branch, Minn., office from which he ran his successful campaign for Congress. "And I was watching with my dad. And I said, 'Dad, I want to go in the Navy just like you.' "

Raymond Cravaack Sr. didn't bat an eye.

" 'Well, there's several ways,' I said, 'but I think the best way for you to think about would be to go to the Naval Academy,' " recalled the senior Cravaack, now 79 and still living in Madeira, Ohio, the small town near Cincinnati where the three Cravaack children grew up.

It might seem precocious for a child who hadn't lost all of his baby teeth to set his sights on the Naval Academy. It might seem unlikely even if it happened when Chip Cravaack was a few years older, which is his father's recollection. His family -- first- or second-generation Americans on both sides -- had no connections in high places. His father had been a Navy corpsman, not an officer.


"So I'm a small-town kid from nowhere," Cravaack said. "I didn't have an advocate. I didn't know anybody. But I knew education was the key."

Cravaack Sr. said he wrote his first letter to his congressman advocating his son's nomination to the Naval Academy when Chip was still in seventh grade. The family kept a log of Chip's scholastic achievements and community activities and kept the appropriate member of Congress informed.

Cravaack attended public school through eighth grade, but he became aware that St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati had sent a number of graduates to the Naval Academy. "My parents were able to scrape up enough money to send me there," he said. "And that assisted me greatly in getting to the academy."

Although Chip Cravaack was always a good student, he had other interests, Raymond Cravaack said. He played football and baseball in high school and was on the wrestling team for a couple of years. He remembers taking Chip to the Naval Academy during high school for a wrestling clinic.

Cravaack graduated from the academy and attained the rank of captain before retiring. While serving in the Navy, he earned a bachelor's degree in education from the University of West Florida.

Unlikely candidate

Fast forward to 2009, and Cravaack had another audacious goal. Frustrated by what he saw as the incumbent congressman's intransigence about the national health-care bill, Cravaack vowed to do whatever he could to support Jim Oberstar's opponent in the 2010 election.

Then he decided to seek the Republican nomination himself, and he won.


But the general election looked like a quixotic battle. Oberstar was an 18-term incumbent in a heavily Democratic district with an unrivaled ability to pull Washington strings on behalf of his constituents. The only elected office Cravaack had ever held was president of the Chisago Lakes Schools Parent Teacher Organization. He had only lived in the 8th District for seven years, and that was in Lindstrom, population 4,018, in the far southeast corner -- closer to Rochester than to Duluth.

The picture that emerges from conversations with Cravaack and people who know him is a man of determination and focus. The same qualities that got Cravaack admitted to the Naval Academy also may have given him the edge that allowed him to ride this year's anti-incumbent wave to a narrow victory over Oberstar.

"When he focused on something, he really committed to it, and he really worked extremely hard at getting the job done," Cravaack Sr. said.

At 51, Cravaack has jet-black hair and rugged good looks. He comes across as an affable but no-nonsense person. His office, which shares a building with the local newspaper, a hair stylist and several other offices, is spartan. The few decorations include a Department of Defense seal in the main office and a Navy flag in the conference room. A large map of the 8th District has samples of taconite from the Iron Range pinned to it.

During interviews, including a lengthy one around the wobbly round table in that conference room, Cravaack is unfailingly courteous and careful. Oberstar is always referred to as Congressman Oberstar. When Cravaack mentions Oberstar staffer John Schadl as "Schadl," he quickly amends that to "Mr. Schadl."

Cravaack speaks conversationally, without notes, yet one gets the sense there's a script, and he sticks to it. He seems unhurried, leaving it to a staffer to signal when the interview is over. During the interview in North Branch, that job fell to former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams, who came to the conference room door to deliver a two-minute warning. Grams made a six-month commitment to serve as Cravaack's chief of staff, offering his Washington expertise.

Neighborhood squabble

Jenni Ristow observed her neighbor's single-minded determination when she and her husband, Wally, were on the opposite side of Cravaack in a community dispute over recreational vehicles that went to the Lindstrom City Council.


"We'd go to these meetings and he'd talk, and we're like, 'Oh, no.' I'm thinking, 'He knows his stuff,' " recalled Ristow, who lives five houses down from the Cravaacks. "He's well-spoken and he researches things, and you know he just follows the rules on it. And I'm like, 'We're really up against something.' Well, our whole neighborhood was in an uproar."

The council decided against Cravaack.

Ristow said she and her husband were impressed by how graciously Cravaack accepted the decision, and the two couples came to think of each other as good neighbors. The Ristows put a "Cravaack for Congress" sign on their lawn, and Jenni Ristow volunteered for the campaign.

Claudia Alm, the current PTO president in the Chisago Lakes district, said Cravaack "completely re-energized" the group when he became president. "One of the first things he did as president was implement a program where he challenged parents to pledge to volunteer 'just two hours' at the school," Alm wrote in an e-mail. Volunteerism rose from a small core group that did everything to more than 200 active participants, she said.

Reed Erickson and Cravaack were on opposite sides when Cravaack was a union rep and Erickson was a negotiator for Northwest Airlines. What stood out about Cravaack, Erickson said, was that he was passionate about representing his fellow pilots but did so with integrity. "It's a lot easier to deal with somebody that is a person of integrity versus somebody that's going to be slippery," said Erickson, of Apple Valley, Minn.

Chip and Traci

Erickson, who now works for a division of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, was senior director of flight administration for Northwest when he knew Cravaack. One of his employees was a woman named Traci who was responsible for scheduling flight crews. She got to know Cravaack, and they started dating. Then she laid him off.

"We were dating. She called me up. She goes, 'I'm sorry, but my projections for Northwest -- ' " Cravaack starts laughing as he tells the story. " 'We just laid you off.' "


Cravaack was laid off from 1992 to 1994, earning a thousand dollars a month training pilots for other companies on an overnight shift. He was going to apply to also be a school bus driver -- he figured he could sleep between the morning and afternoon routes -- on the day Traci called to say he was recalled.

They were still dating, and they later married. They have two sons: Nick, 9; and Grant, 7. Traci Cravaack now works for Novo Nordisk, a health-care company that targets diabetes. She has a home office, though her work sometimes requires her to travel. Cravaack was a stay-at-home dad for two years after he was grounded as a pilot because of sleep apnea. Now, baby-sitters are lined up to fill in the gaps when neither Cravaack parent can be home.


Cravaack's mother, Concetta Ziccardi Cravaack, died four years ago. She was Italian and his father Czech. "I call it the house of fire and ice," Cravaack said. "Very strict Czechoslovakian father and a very vivacious Italian mother."

Raymond was in sales. Concetta, who grew up in a family of eight children, was a stay-at-home mom. "My mom never completed high school," Cravaack said of his mother, whose parents both emigrated from Italy. "She was one of the older kids, so she dropped out of high school to come back and take care of the children so the parents could work. So education was very important to my mom."

His mother made the house a kid magnet in the neighborhood, Cravaack said.

"You know, you can't come into our house without getting fed," he recalled.

Neither the Czech nor the Italian side seems to be a natural fit for Lindstrom, a fast-growing small town that calls itself "America's Little Sweden." The town, surrounded by lakes, is best known for its coffeepot-shaped water tower, emblazoned with the words: "Valkommen till Lindstrom." Even the Catholic church Cravaack attends with his sons is named St. Bridget of Sweden. Downtown over lunch at the Swedish Inn, 84-year-old Ruben Hoffmann jokes that you don't have to be Swedish to live in Lindstrom, but there's a probationary period if you aren't.


Cravaack likes Lindstrom because it reminds him of his hometown of Madeira. "I mean, it had a bank, a dime store, gas station and grocery store and a hardware store, basically," Cravaack said. "And when the 7-Eleven came, it was a big deal."

He likes knowing his neighbors, including Bill Weiss, head coach of the Chisago Lakes Wildcat football team for 14 years, who lives next door.

"Chip is a great neighbor," Weiss said in an e-mail. "He's a helpful guy (snow blows the sidewalks, loans tools, helped me sod the yard). We discuss neighborly things."

When Cravaack's service in Congress is done, he wants to come home to Lindstrom, he said. He has no further political ambitions.

How long would he like to stay in Congress?

"I've always said I'd prefer not to serve more than three terms, and I won't serve more than four," Cravaack said.

"But I realize this is a very highly Democratic area. I also realize there's a lot of people that really don't like me being here in this seat. But hopefully they'll judge me by my actions rather than what's behind my name, an 'R.' Because I will be working very hard for the people of the 8th."


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