Sabo looks to retiring legacy

Martin Sabo will end his decades-long political career a Minnesota icon.

Sara Schweid

The 2006 midterm elections are on a lot of people’s minds. But for the first time in 28 years the Democrat on the ballot in Minnesota’s 5th District will not be Martin Sabo.

When his term ends in January, Sabo will return home to Minneapolis and not have to think about the politics of Washington. Instead, he will be able to think about the upcoming Twins season and which new games to play with his grandchildren.

“I just had a sense that it was time to move on,” he said.

Sabo announced his retirement at a March 18 news conference.

“It came as a surprise to a lot of people,” said his wife, Sylvia. “He’s a very quiet person with a lot of his thinking.”

In 1938 Martin Sabo was born to Norwegian immigrant parents in Crosby, N.D. He worked on his parents’ farm as a kid, milking cows every morning.

As a child, Sabo also developed interests in sports and politics.

“I’ve always been an avid sports fan,” Sabo said. “But I have no skill.”

After graduating high school, Sabo left North Dakota to attend Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

He quickly was recruited to join the local chapter of Young Democrats. In 1956 he worked on Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaign.

Sabo graduated in 1959 with a degree in history and political science. He planned to work for a year before attending graduate school and going on to teach political science.

With the encouragement of his politically involved college roommate, Sabo changed his plans and ran for the Minnesota House of Representatives in 1960.

His main campaign strategy was not expensive advertisements or huge news conferences, it was simple personal interaction.

“I have a hunch that I’ve knocked on more doors than anyone else in the history of the state,” he said.

Sabo credited his win in 1960, in large part, to his door-knocking, a campaign strategy he kept throughout his 23 campaigns.

“I always said that all I knew about campaigns is you have to make sure that people can read your name on your literature and on your signs, and then you go and ask them for their vote,” Sabo said. “All the other strategy I leave to others.”

Sabo spent 18 years in the Minnesota House, serving as minority leader during his last four years.

One of his accomplishments in the state Legislature was the passage of the “Minnesota Miracle” in 1971. The tax overhaul, which sought to reform education and government funding policies in Minnesota, remained relatively unchanged until 2002.

Although Sabo decided to run for U.S. Congress in 1978, he fondly remembers his years in the state Legislature.

“I wouldn’t trade my years in the Legislature for any time in Washington,” he said.

Sabo received a seat on the powerful House Committee on Appropriations, an unusual assignment for a freshman representative. He serves on two appropriations subcommittees: defense and homeland security, on which he is the ranking minority member in both.

Sabo headed the House Budget Committee during the Clinton administration, in which he oversaw passage of the largest deficit-reducing package in history. But the surplus that resulted has been negated by the current deficit, he said.

“A lot of hard work done in the ’90s was reversed by this president,” Sabo said.

Looking back at his first years in federal office, he sees a shift in focus.

“We spent more time on the legislative process years ago; today, we have more political posturing,” he said. “I think now we are less productive.”

The lack of productivity has been linked to the increased partisan nature of Congress by many congressional observers, he said

“Sabo has always been a fierce partisan, but he hasn’t engaged in partisan-bashing which is so popular on the Hill right now,” said political science professor Kathryn Pearson.

Sabo’s plan for dealing with legislative issues is as basic as his campaign strategy.

“I bring values and judgment to the process and try to find a pragmatic solution to the problem,” he said.

Within Congress, Sabo’s focus is on his committee work and aiding his district, Pearson said.

Bob Johns, director of the University’s Center for Transportation Studies, has worked with Sabo on projects throughout Minnesota, including the Hiawatha light-rail line and highway research.

“Whereas some officials may want some results they can claim credit for in their next election, Martin Sabo has always understood the long-term results that come from research,” Johns said.

Politics is important, but when he plans to spend time with his family, nothing gets in his way, Sylvia Sabo said.

She recalled a time when President Jimmy Carter invited her husband to go boating on the Mississippi River with him. Her husband had planned to spend the weekend with his family.

“He said no because it was his time to spend with his mother, and his family was expecting him,” Sylvia Sabo said. “When he makes a commitment, whether it’s to a family commitment or a commitment to the job, he really has followed through on it.”

Once he retires, Sabo plans to go to Twins baseball games, see his grandchildren, do Sudoku puzzles, read a suspense novel or two and travel.

“I’ve always thought it would be nice to drive up to New England in the fall and see the leaves,” Sabo said. “Now I have the freedom to do those things.”