Ex-US Sen. Rod Grams dies

Published 10:15 am Thursday, October 10, 2013

ST. PAUL — Former U.S. senator Rod Grams, a popular TV anchorman who went on to become the most conservative politician ever elected to statewide office in Minnesota, has died. He was 65.

Grams died late Tuesday night at his home in the east-central Minnesota town of Crown, said Kent Kaiser, a longtime GOP activist and spokesman for the Grams family. Grams had been diagnosed with cancer in April 2012.

After nearly a decade as lead news anchor at KMSP-TV in the Twin Cities, Grams launched his political career in 1992 by running for Congress and ousting the Democratic incumbent. The small-business owner then won an open U.S. Senate seat two years later, but he only held the post for one term. He lost his re-election bid to Democrat Mark Dayton, who is now Minnesota’s governor.

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Shortly after his 1994 statewide victory, Grams told The Associated Press he was successful as a conservative in a Democratic-leaning state by appealing to Minnesotans’ natural thrift and belief in the value of hard work.

“I believe there is a good role for government to play. But we can’t be everything to everyone,” Grams said.

Former state House Speaker Kurt Zellers, who started in Minnesota politics as a press aide to Grams, said Minnesotans likely never elected anyone more conservative than Grams to a statewide post. He credited Grams’ personal touch, saying he treated everyone the same no matter their station in life.

“He was more concerned, and was always just as interested, in somebody waiting on his table as he was to some politician or VIP in the room,” Zellers said. “It is still to this day the most admirable quality I’ve ever encountered from any public official. He put the servant in public servant, and that’s what he was all about.”

Grams tried for a political comeback in 2006 with an unsuccessful bid against former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar. He was also briefly chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, the Republican who finally unseated Oberstar in 2010 but lost to a Democrat two years later.

Grams grew up on the farm where his father was raised in the eastern Minnesota town of Crown. He worked in broadcasting for nearly 25 years, including stints at stations in Montana, Wisconsin and Illinois, before he landed at KMSP-TV in 1982.

In 1985, Grams founded a construction and residential development business, and his experience as a small business owner helped push him into politics, Kaiser said.

“He got tired of the regulation and taxes, and one day he called up the Republican Party and said, ‘What can be done? How can I run?”’ Kaiser recalled.

Grams never shied from championing conservative goals. He and the late liberal icon Sen. Paul Wellstone formed one of the most ideologically diverse state delegations in the U.S. Senate. Among Grams’ chief legislative accomplishments was his early championing of a $500-per-child tax credit, which became a major Republican initiative of the 1990s.

One of Grams’ most difficult public moments came in the lead-up to his 2000 re-election bid, when his son Morgan, who struggled with addiction, made headlines for a series of legal troubles. Zellers said that Grams occasionally shared his regrets at not having been able to spend more time with his son as he grew up.

“I learned a lot of political lessons from him, but a lot of life lessons too,” Zellers said, noting that those lessons have guided his own decisions as a father.

In 2004, Grams and his second wife Christine — a former chief of staff in his Senate office — bought a Little Falls-based group of radio stations. As a frequent on-air host, Grams often discussed returning to politics — even after his unsuccessful 2006 campaign for Congress.

Grams was diagnosed with cancer in April 2012, and entered hospice care in September 2013. He declined to specify what type of cancer, but he said it had metastasized after the initial diagnosis. Kaiser said Grams went through several rounds of chemotherapy but stopped when the disease continued to spread.

He is survived by his wife, Christine, four children and several grandchildren.

Funeral services for Grams will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Zion Lutheran Church in St. Francis.