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On a Personal Note: Reflections from a congressman’s funeral

In a Monday, Feb. 21, 1983 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, left, leaves a food shelf store in Gilbert, Minnesota, with U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn) (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

As dozens of members of Congress filed off a bus from the Capitol, a group that included Democrats and Republicans who had worked with Jim Oberstar over his long career, undoubtedly most of them on the Transportation Committee, I remembered something the late congressman told me several years ago. It was 2009, just after the new Obama administration delivered Oberstar the painful news that the president could not, and would not, back his decades-in-waiting vision for transportation.

“Good policy,” Oberstar said, “will bring good politics.”

The Democratic congressman from the Iron Range of northern Minnesota believed that because he had lived it. Even if by 2009 it probably was no longer true.

I first got to know Oberstar when he was chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and I was covering it for Congressional Quarterly. Once I left that job, and once he lost his seat in his 18th successive election during the 2010 tea party wave, we became friends. It was born out of his appreciation, I assumed, for the way CQ covers Congress, and therefore how I covered transportation, with a focus on the policy.

When we’d meet for lunch, he was no longer a member of Congress. It became obvious that the power and the title were never his motivators. They simply provided the platform. And in the last years of his life, Oberstar continued making his case around the world for increased investments in the nation’s aging infrastructure as if he were still holding the gavel at the top of the dais in the second-floor committee room of the Rayburn Office Building.

Some 500 people filled the rows at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Potomac, Md., for his funeral on Thursday. The service honored a man known in Washington and abroad for a lifelong commitment to public service. There were members of Congress, both current and retired, Hill staffers and industry advocates. Near the front was Obama’s current transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx.

Several people eulogized Oberstar. He was a gentle but tenacious fighter for the causes he cherished, including workers’ rights and an inter-modal transportation system connecting roads and rails with transit and bike paths. Former transportation secretary Norman Mineta, a Democrat who served in President George W. Bush’s Cabinet, spoke of being elected to Congress the same year as Oberstar in 1974 — the Watergate babies. The two men sat beside each other for 22 years on the Transportation Committee. Mineta, leaning on a cane, wept as he said his final goodbye.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) broke from his serious character to deliver a hilarious tribute, but between the laugh lines was the recognition that Oberstar was revered by his colleagues because he was driven by his love of the issues, not political one-upmanship.

“Jim was a walking advertisement against term limits,” Franken said. “The consummate public servant. And it was because he was a man who sought knowledge. He had a fierce curiosity about the world and an intense need to understand how things worked that enabled him to get so much accomplished.”

Knowledge, as they say, is power. And Oberstar was also a walking encyclopedia who could recite, off the cuff, the dates and funding streams for projects built at the turn of the century and beyond.

Former congressman Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) sat one row in front of me. After the funeral I called him and asked if in today’s Congress a new federal initiative to create Safe Routes to Schools or to convert new bike trails — two of Oberstar’s lasting, and proudest, legacies — could pass.

“No, I don’t think so,” LaTourette said, barely hesitating. “New programs that cost money? Immediately someone would have to figure out if it was a Democratic or Republican idea and condemn it accordingly.”

“He was a throwback to a kinder and gentler time in the Congress,” LaTourette said of Oberstar. “He always tried to find a way to yes.”

If there was one criticism of Oberstar, one that perhaps contributed to his reelection loss, it was that he spent too much time in Washington. But as much as he loved Minnesota — and he so clearly did (this local story is a great example of that) — he saw his job as here. And so he listened intently to his constituents back home, and worked hard to form bonds in this town to learn more to help them. His friendships here weren’t opportunistic or overtly political, they were rooted in respect.

“I think clearly here was a guy who didn’t run from the fact that he was public servant,” LaTourette said. “He wasn’t embarrassed that he was a member of Congress, he was proud of that.”

Hating Washington from the inside has become something of a cliche these days. There aren’t many Oberstars left who still believe that policy can trump politics.