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Longtime Minnesota representative and North Dakota native Martin Olav Sabo has died

MINNEAPOLIS -- As a leader on the U.S. House Budget Committee in the 1990s, Martin Olav Sabo was an architect of the federal government's last balanced budget.

Martin Sabo
Martin Sabo died Sunday at age 78.

MINNEAPOLIS -- As a leader on the U.S. House Budget Committee in the 1990s, Martin Olav Sabo was an architect of the federal government’s last balanced budget.

As speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives in the 1970s, Sabo led a charge to modernize the state Legislature by hiring professional staff, delving into a wider array of issues and providing more transparency in and oversight of state government.

A Minneapolis Democrat who was a powerful player in state and national politics and government for nearly half a century, Sabo passed away peacefully Sunday, Mike Erlandson, the congressman’s former chief of staff, announced in a statement. He said details are forthcoming.

Sabo was 78.

“Congressman Martin Sabo was a great political leader and an outstanding public servant,” DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement. “Important infrastructure projects throughout Minnesota exist because of Martin’s senior position on the House Appropriations Committee.”

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Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said: “Sabo’s quiet leadership style and dedication to his district are a true inspiration. He showed us the progress that can be made when Democrats and Republicans work across the aisle for the common good.”

A taciturn Norwegian who kept a low public profile, Sabo was arguably Minnesota’s most influential policy maker behind the scenes in Washington during his 28 years representing the state’s 5th Congressional District, from 1979 to 2007.

Even though he was a staunch liberal, he helped restore fiscal discipline to the federal government advocating often unpopular tax increases and spending cuts that reduced budget deficits.

As chairman of the House Budget Committee in 1993, he was a key leader in passing a controversial deficit-reduction package that laid the groundwork for balancing future budgets.

When he announced his retirement from Congress 10 years ago this month, Sabo said assembling that budget package was one of his proudest accomplishments because it helped spark what was then the largest economic expansion in U.S. history.

In a 1994 interview with the Pioneer Press, President Bill Clinton said of Sabo, “I have never seen anybody perform at the level he has. We’ve all been amazed at the White House.”

In announcing the government’s first budget surplus in 1998 after a generation of deficits, Clinton singled out Sabo for special praise during a White House ceremony.

Asked later how he felt about finally helping produce a surplus after years of swimming against a tide of red ink, Sabo replied, “Sort of nice.”

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Sort of nice, congressman?

“Well, very nice,” he said.

Sabo served just two years as budget chairman, but after Republicans won control of the House in 1994 he remained the ranking Democrat on the budget panel and a key player on the Appropriations Committee, where he helped steer hundreds of millions of federal dollars to Twin Cities transit and housing projects, the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center and other public works across the state.

Even though he was in the minority, the White House and congressional leaders of both parties frequently consulted him on budget matters.

The son of Norwegian immigrants, Sabo was born in Crosby, N.D., on Feb. 28, 1938. He was one of three students in his graduating class at Alkabo High School in 1955.

That fall, he enrolled at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, from which he graduated in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in history. The school named its Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship after him.

In 1960, he was elected to the state House of Representatives at age 22. At the time, he was the youngest person ever elected to the Legislature.

His fellow Democratic-Farmer-Laborites, who then caucused as “liberals” at the Capitol, chose him as House minority leader in 1969. When DFLers won control of the House in 1972, they elected him speaker, the second-most powerful office in state government.

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Under Sabo’s leadership, the 1973 legislative session was one of the most productive in state history, former DFL state Rep. Tom Berg of Minneapolis said in a 2012 interview. Lawmakers passed a surge of bills that created new consumer and environmental protections, enhanced women’s rights, boosted school funding, overhauled campaign and election laws and streamlined state government and opened it to the public.

During his six years as speaker, Sabo championed efforts to improve the Legislature’s performance and effectiveness, said Berg, whose 2012 book, “Minnesota’s Miracle,” is a tribute to Sabo.

“Martin saw himself as a legislator’s legislator,” former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, who served in the House in 1973, said in 2012. “He knew how to make the engine run, how to deal with the extremes in both parties. He also knew where the power center was, so he had an ability to distinguish the frivolous and sensational from that which had meat and longevity.”

When he announced his retirement from Congress in 2006, Sabo said, “I’ve been on the ballot every two years since 1960. That’s 23 campaigns. I think I’ve knocked on more doors than anyone in the history of the state. Now at age 68, it’s time to stop.”

Proud of his Norwegian heritage, Sabo was a founder and co-chairman of the “Friends of Norway Caucus” in Congress.

In 2006, he was appointed Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit, a distinction bestowed on those who have committed “outstanding service in the interest of Norway.”

Sabo already has one government structure named after him. For his work in securing $2.9 million in federal funding for a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis, the city in 2005 named the span the Martin Olav Sabo Bridge.

 

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