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Profile: The 8th District Race
By Stephanie Hemphill
October 18, 2000
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In northeastern Minnesota, voters in the 8th district have returned Jim Oberstar to his House seat 13 times. This year he faces two opponents, because of a battle during the Republican endorsement process that prompted the loser to run as an independent.

The 8th District
For more information on Minnesota's 8th congressional district, see the Campaign 2000 section on the district.
JIM OBERSTAR GREW UP IN CHISHOLM, but has spent most of his life in Washington. He became a top aide to his predecessor, John Blatnik, in 1963 and then won the seat when Blatnik retired in 1974. Oberstar is the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, and local politicians know they can rely on him to help get federal funds for everything from roads to emergency assistance after the blowdown in the BWCA.

For Oberstar, the federal surplus offers an opportunity to take action on a major concern of his: Social Security. He says the surplus should be used mainly to pay down the federal debt, reducing interest payments and freeing up money to shore up Social Security. But he's adamantly opposed to privatization plans.

"Investing in the marketplace is risky and would create two classes of Social Security beneficiaries: those who are marketwise and have additional discretionary dollars to invest in the marketplace. I don't think that's right," Oberstar says.

Oberstar's Republican opponent, Bob Lemen, is a computer programmer in Grand Rapids. He served one term in the Minnesota House of Representatives in the 1980s, where he gained a reputation as a careful legislator who paid attention to details. He's a property-rights advocate who takes credit for legislation allowing non-metro counties to opt out of the state building code.

In his uphill battle against a popular incumbent, Lemen is keenly aware of how incumbents can take advantage of media attention and government-paid communications. He says many people are afraid to contribute to challengers, for fear of retaliation from employers, business associates, or unions. He says such people need the option to give soft money, where disclosure limits are much higher.

"If people really start getting uptight about what they see going on in the Legislature, they are willing - if they are protected from any kind of a backlash - to ante up and get the job done. The problem comes with that threat of retaliation. And maybe I'm especially sensitive to that up here on the Iron Range, where we tend to get some fairly hardball politics," says Lemen.

Mike Darling is an accountant and personal financial analyst who was recently laid off from his job. The Cambridge resident lost the Republican endorsement and is running as an independent. He says the government and environmental organizations are running rough-shod over ordinary people, and the two major parties are beholden to the same monied interests. He says Oberstar has lost touch with his constituents.

"People have told me in the district that James Oberstar has neglected the district the last six to eight years," Darling says. "Before that, they didn't have a problem with what he was doing. But from what they're telling me his constituent service is poor and he's not taking care of the people in the district anymore."

Darling has spent about $2,500 on his campaign, all of it raised in individual contributions.

Oberstar's campaign kitty tops $500,000, most of it from political action committees, including a lot from organized labor and transportation businesses. He received more individual contributions from residents of Washington D.C. than from Minnesota.

Bob Lemen has raised $20,000.

University of Minnesota - Duluth Political Science Professor Craig Grau says Lemen hasn't had much help from the Republican Party. "It seems they're putting a lot of their efforts into winnable seats, which they view as winnable which are in the 4th and 6th, and that takes away from putting any effort in ones that are longer shots," says Grau.

This could be the last 8th district race a Democrat can expect to win handily. If redistricting draws more of the northern Twin Cities suburbs into the district, future elections could offer a stronger Republican challenge.