Longtime Rep. Jim Oberstar dies at 79

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Former Rep. Jim Oberstar, Minnesota’s longest-serving congressman, died Saturday at the age of 79, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The veteran Democrat, who served 18 terms in Congress from 1975 to 2011, died in his sleep overnight, said longtime aide Ken Hasskemp.

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“I’m just shocked,” Hasskemp said from his Baxter, Minn. home. “History will record him as the quintessential congressman — the complete package.”  

Hasskamp, who served as Oberstar’s aide for 28 years, said the Minnesota lawmaker will long be remembered not just for his work with transportation and infrastructure, but his dedication, hard work and upbeat personality.

“It’s a tough morning,” he said. “It’s sudden. I’ve lost a great friend today.”

President Obama issued a statement on Saturday afternoon about Oberstar's passing.

"Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Congressman Jim Oberstar. Jim cared deeply about the people of Minnesota, devoting his 36 years of service to improving America's infrastructure, creating opportunity for hardworking Minnesotans, and building a strong economy for future generations of Americans.  Jim will be deeply missed and Michelle and I send our condolences to his wife Jean, his children, and grandchildren," he said. 

Former colleagues also mourned Oberstar. 

"It was with profound sadness that I learned of the passing of my former colleague and good friend U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar," Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said in a statement Saturday. "My deepest sympathy is extended to his wife Jean and his family." 

“Thoughts and prayers are with the family of Rep. Jim Oberstar,” Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) said on Twitter. “It was a pleasure serving with him in Congress.”

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) tweeted, “Jim Oberstar was a truly wonderful man who was filled with joy and compassion. My sincere condolences to his family and friends.”

Oberstar began his career in early 1960s as a clerk on the Rivers and Harbors Committee, which later became the Transportation panel he would later lead. 

He was elected to Congress in 1974 after longtime Democratic Farmer–Labor Party member John Blatnik retired. 

Oberstar served until he was defeated by Republican Chip Cravaack in 2010, one of the biggest congressional upsets across the nation. 

After the 2010 election that unseated him, Oberstar said he was proud of his legacy of service in Minnesota, citing the lakewalk in Duluth, new overpasses on Interstate 35, a new airport terminal in Duluth, tunnels on the North Shore’s Hwy. 61, the Paul Bunyan bike trail that has seen 650,000 users, and the Gitchi-Gami trail, according to the Star Tribune. 

"He was a great national leader in transportation and one of America's most knowledgeable experts on infrastructure," Mica said. "Together Jim and I were able to pass the most significant National Water Resources measure in memory and the first passenger reform and rail bills in more than a decade."

"Jim had a true passion for building America's infrastructre and his service in Congress will long be remembered and appreciated," he said.