Not Eudora   By Harry Welty
Nov. 9, 2005

Oberstar's Laundry

It was the Democrat's hapless 1924 Presidential candidate John W. Davis who said, "The first duty of a politician is to get elected." Just how it's done is not so important.

Much attention to this secondary consideration has been focused on how Congressman Tom Delay kept control of Congress by breaking a 200 year tradition and arranging for a mid-decade redistricting of Texas. So intent was Delay on his first duty that he sent Federal agents after Texas legislators who weren't cooperating. But life's not fair. Just yesterday a Texas Judge let Delay's indictment for laundering corporate campaign contributions stand. Only time will tell if Tom Delay can waltz away as successfully as our Congressman Jim Oberstar did when he faced a Grand Jury.

It may have been laundered money that helped elect Jim Oberstar to Congress thirty-three years ago. That's what a lot of people thought after a million federal dollars went missing.

I paid closer attention to the scandal than most because I once dreamed of getting elected to the Congress myself. I paid even closer attention after my wife walked into to her City Hall office and found a couple tight lipped FBI men waiting to grill her boss. From 1978 to 1981 the Duluth News Tribune and the Herald would publish 259 articles on the scandal.

In 1974 John Blatnik, the Blatnik or "High" Bridge's namesake retired after 28 years in Congress. Like a father passing a sinecure on to his son he guided Jim Oberstar, a 39 year old political neophyte and Blatnik's Administrative Assistant through his first election. Blatnik hoped to deprive his arch Iron Range enemies, the Perpich Brothers, the satisfaction of having one of their number succeed him.

It would be a tough fight as the Perpich's had a stranglehold on the local party. Oberstar promised to abide by the party endorsement but when he got less than half of Tony Perpich's delegate votes he decided to run in the primary. That October one disgruntled DFLer complained in a letter-to-the-editor about "all the Oberstar billboards, TV spots, and the fancy headquarter." He wondered, "where all that money [was] coming from. . ."

Oberstar passed out faux DFL endorsement guides which made it look like he was the official Democratic nominee for Congress. The State DFL took him to court. But fooling unwary Democrats would not be enough to win the primary. Oberstar would need help from Republicans in Minnesota's open primary which allows voters to choose which Party to vote for on election day. It didn't take much prompting to win over Republicans who were demoralized by Watergate. Unable to elect their own candidate they happily "crossed over" to vote against a Perpich. The 1974 primary election was the last election Oberstar would ever have to worry about for the next 33 years. But his victory didn't stop Perpich supporters from circulating nasty rumors in the DFL about how he'd won.

Two years later the Feds began investigating a pork barrel commission with the ungainly Acronym UGLRC.  The Upper Great Lakes Regional Commission was one of dozens throughout the land which were supposed to help economically disadvantaged regions. They were under the purview of Congress's pork barrel Public Works Committee, which coincidentally was chaired by John Blatnik.

Everyone knew that the Commission's Duluth office was a rat's nest of political intrigue. Staffed by minions of the Governor, Mayor and Congressman secretarial work was routinely performed for legislative campaigns when the Commission wasn't too busy doling out federal money to stimulate the economy.

Shortly after one of the UGLRC beneficiaries, Donald Boyd, was convicted of defrauding the Commission out of a million dollars in 1978 my wife's boss, a political hack with a sadistic streak, attracted the FBI's attention. He had recently engineered the Mayor's election while working out of the UGLRC office. Being appointed Duluth's Personnel Director was his reward.

Among the things the Grand Jury wanted to know was why some of the UGLRC staff was paid in cash during the Oberstar campaign, why its' secretaries were doing political work, who might have collected kickbacks, and whatever happened to the million missing dollars in the unofficial Oberstar campaign headquarters. Eventually the folks who ran the office, Michael and Barbara Pintar, were convicted of 19 violations including mail fraud and embezzlement. Although the Pintar's admitted under oath that Jim Oberstar knew campaign activity was going on in the Commission office Jim denied any knowledge of it.

Jim's denial has always been pretty hard to for me to swallow. Why would Blatnik have supported his Administrative Assistant so enthusiastically if Oberstar hadn't known what pork barrel spending was going on in Blatnik's backyard under the auspices of the commission which was under the control of Blatnik's Committee? This is also what the bitter Perpich supporters wondered. Brother George Perpich even made his suspicions public.

Congressman Oberstar planted his thumb on his nose and waggled his fingers at George. He gave the State Senator a defiant "nyah, nyah, nyah, you can't get me" and bravely offered to resign from Congress if the Grand Jury ever reconvened to indict him. But Jim insisted that if he wasn't indicted Perpich would have to resign from the legislature. Yeah sure.

A few years later all the Regional Commissions fell victim to Ronald Reagan's budget axe but they were no longer necessary for Oberstar campaigns. Jim had a politically "safe" district and would never again face a serious challenge so money, ill gotten, or otherwise would not be a problem.  He has now spent all but six of his adult years working in the Halls of Congress, twelve as Blatnik's man and 33 as his own. Oberstar is a political technocrat who goes along to get along which was amply demonstrated by his servile alliance with Tom Delay over Terri Shiavo's feeding tube. How else could Jim dip his fingers so successfully into the Republican's bloated Highway Bill?

Asked recently by an irate constituent to justify Alaska's infamous quarter billion dollar "bridge to nowhere" Oberstar simply observed, "It was their choice." Yes Jim, I guess it was. Nyah, Nyah, Nyah!

Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: www.snowbizz.com