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As 36 years come to a close, Oberstar packs his office

After serving 18 terms, Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., sorts through paperwork Monday as he packs up his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Outgoing members of Congress are required to move to space in the basement to make room for incoming lawmakers. Oberstar lost to Republican Chip Cravaack by about 4,000 votes. (Cliff Owen / Associated Press)

To the victors go the spoils. And that applies to Congress, too.

Veteran U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar has moved into a new office, Room B339, Cubicle 33, in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building, a few floors below his committee chairman-sized office of the past few years.

Like dozens of other outgoing members of Congress, most of them Democrats, Oberstar had to move out of his fancier digs by Dec. 1 to make way for newcomers elected on Nov. 2.

For some -- like Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wis., who chose to retire -- the departure came on their terms. For Oberstar, D- Minn., a 36-year veteran, the exit comes after being ousted by voters a month ago.

Officially, the current Congress runs through Jan. 3. But for their last month of service, outgoing members have cell phones and laptops for office equipment.

"Jim will still come in for floor votes and committee business, but he really doesn't have an office now," said John Schadl, an Oberstar spokesman.

Seventeen Oberstar staffers will depend on cell phones and a single phone in their cubicle for the last month of work. Oberstar has a desk in the basement cubicle, but he isn't expected to use it much.

"They even came and took my (official House) laptop," Schadl said Tuesday. "We have to do the last month of congressional business basically on our personal computers, which is kind of obnoxious, really."

In an unusual move required by congressional officials, Oberstar staff members have been busy trying to purge their computers and bring to a close any current effort to help constituents in Minnesota's 8th District. Files that aren't resolved will have to be shredded, under data privacy regulations, and the constituents told to contact incoming Rep. Chip Cravaack or Sens. Al Franken or Amy Klobuchar.

"We can't pass any of that personal information on to the new staff," Schadl said.

Oberstar Chief of Staff Bill Richard said all constituents with open cases were sent letters informing them of the change. Richard expects specific federal agencies such as Veterans Administration or Social Security to follow up in most cases.

Smooth transition?

Oberstar and Cravaack still haven't spoken since the Republican's upset win on Nov. 2, though their chiefs of staff have communicated.

Cravaack said Tuesday in Duluth he has tried without success to talk to Oberstar.

"Unfortunately, no, we've had no real contact with Congressman Oberstar. We've reached out to him a couple of times and unfortunately we just really haven't gotten a response yet from Congressman Oberstar," Cravaack said.

"I'll reach out to him again and hopefully we'll be able to. ... I'm very concerned about the casework, being sure the casework has an easy transition so we don't lose anybody. ... My staff's ready to go and hopefully we'll be able to do that."

Richard said he has spoken several times to Cravaack's chief of staff, Rod Grams, and that Cravaack staffers were in the Oberstar office Tuesday to move computers, copiers, fax machines and even wall maps to Cravaack's new office on the fifth floor of the Cannon House Office Building.

"Oberstar and Cravaack have not spoken yet because Jim was on vacation when he called," Richard said. "But we are in contact with the Cravaack people and have been. They were in here today; we helped them move. I don't think they have any issues that I know of. ... It's going as smoothly as it could."

In Wisconsin, incoming Republican Sean Duffy says he's had personal contact with Democrat Obey.

"I reached out to him a couple days after the election (but) he wasn't there; he called me back a few days later (and) we had a nice conversation," Duffy said.

Duffy said that, while he doesn't agree with Obey on all issues, "I know that he worked hard to do what he felt was best for the district, and I have that same dedication and devotion and he was receptive to that. His staff has been very kind and worked with us to make sure it's as smooth as possible."

Schadl said Cravaack hasn't seemed interested in Oberstar's personal input on major issues.

"From everything he's said, he clearly doesn't support the projects Jim (Oberstar) has supported, like the Northern Lights Express and the Duluth (airport) terminal, which he's clearly said he opposes," Schadl said. "But if he wants an update on the major issues, Jim certainly stands ready to respond. The ball's in his court, really, on what things he wants from Jim."

News Tribune staff writer John Lundy contributed to this report.