By Harry Welty
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