Former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams reflects on career path that led to serving in Congress

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter

Former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams continues to feel his life is blessed, even while it could be moving to a close.

Grams is in hospice care in his fight with cancer. He is at home on the family farm near Crown, the place where he was born and grew up. Faith, family and friends, sustain him,

Former Republican U.S. Sen. Rod Grams stands near his campaign bus in Cambridge during his unsuccessful 2006 bid to unseat former Democratic Congressman James Oberstar in the 8th Congressional District. Grams is currently in hospice care, fighitng cancer. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Former Republican U.S. Sen. Rod Grams stands near his campaign bus in Cambridge during his unsuccessful 2006 bid to unseat former Democratic Congressman James Oberstar in the 8th Congressional District. Grams is currently in hospice care, fighitng cancer. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

“I’m real confident where I am in my faith,” Grams said, speaking on Saturday, Sept. 7. “My last breath here, my next breath will be in heaven.”

The former television anchor, builder and Republican politician has lived an active life.

As a youngster on the farm, Grams helped with the milking and did other chores. He recalled Friday nights when nearby Crown would fill with cars as farmers came in to shop and socialize.

“It was their night for cutting loose, so to speak,” Grams said.

Well before midnight, all the cars would be gone.

Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, who spent years working for Grams as a staffer, thinks Grams’ humble upbringing left a mark.

“A lot of what he did (in politics) was based on these rural roots,” Zellers said.

After graduating from St. Francis High School, Grams attended Brown Institute, looking for a career in radio. He also worked for an engineering firm, for a time wanting to become an electrical engineer.

“I decided I didn’t want to be a 45-year-old disc jockey,” Grams joked.

One day an old acquaintance at a television station in Montana called with a job offer.

“Why he called me out of the blue to come out, I don’t know,” Grams said. “I just thought it would be interesting. So I went.”

Eventually, Grams worked his way back to Minnesota, becoming an anchor for KMSP-TV in the Twin Cities. That Grams had entered such a visible profession puzzled some of his old friends, Grams said.

“Because I was really a more shy, private person (in school),” he said.

He became more or less accustomed to public speaking, but getting up in front of a crowd was always hard, Grams said.

It was his other occupation, that of a builder, that sparked Grams’ conservative activism.

“I kept knocking heads with the government all the time,” he said.

Sitting in his office one day, Grams abruptly decided that being upset all the time was pointless.

“So I picked up my phone and called the Republican Party and said I was interested in being a candidate,” Grams said.

For a time, Grams weighed a run for the Minnesota Senate. He ultimately set his sights on the 6th Congressional District seat held by Democratic Congressman Gerry Sikorski.

“I felt I could win,” Grams said.

Not everyone welcomed the celebrity candidate.

“I was an outsider in (Republican) politics,” Grams said. “And a lot of people stand in line for a long time to wait for an opening (to run). And then some pinhead comes in and wants to get in front of them,” Grams said with self-deprecating humor.

Grams went on to beat Sikorski in 1992. Two years later, against the advice of staff, he decided to run for U.S. Senate.

“The tide was still rising,” Grams said.

Grams won again, defeating Democrat Ann Wynia and Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley.

Speaking of his years in Washington, Grams cited his per-child tax credit as his signature accomplishment. It took a lot of hard work, Grams said.

He recalled former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and a top Republican Party official sitting in his Senate office, trying to persuade him to lower the tax credit amount. Grams refused, feeling he had compromised enough.

The freshman senator visited the White House several times during the tax debate to meet with then President Bill Clinton. On a personal level, Grams liked Clinton, marvelling at the Democratic president’s political skills.

“He’d come over like you were the only person in the room,” Grams said. “He (Clinton) was the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with, which we did over in the White House.”

Grams’ per-child tax credit remains in law.

The senator sees several factors — some outside of Minnesota politics — contributing to his re-election defeat in 2000.

For one thing, Minnesota Democrats had a lively U.S. Senate primary contest with solid candidates.

“They all turned their guns at me,” Grams said.

For eight weeks leading up to the primary, he took broadside after broadside, Grams explained. Some Republicans felt relief when former state auditor Mark Dayton won the DFL primary. Not Grams.

“I remember standing in the kitchen of this hotel, lamenting the kind of campaign that was ahead of us,” Grams said. “I said, ‘Mark is going to be dang tough to beat.’”

Losing an election is a shock, Grams said.

“Mark had a lot resources we couldn’t overcome,” he said.

But Grams views the U.S. Senate race, like other hard-fought contests, as things of the past.

“I don’t hold grudges,” Grams said of political clashes.

Gov. Mark Dayton recently spoke to Grams.

“I thanked him for his dedicated public service, as both a U.S. senator and member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and also for his civic contributions as a private citizen,” Dayton said in a statement.

Grams has been getting many well-wishes, letters and phone calls.

“He (Grams) went to high school with my father,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said. “My heart goes out to him and his family.”

The dairy cows are long gone from Grams’ farm. A few chickens linger in the shade near the house. Chris Grams, the senator’s wife, and business manager for the three radio stations near Little Falls the Grams’ own, warns visitors to watch where they walk, since the chickens like to roost on the steps. A stone foundation in the front yard reveals the exact location of the old farmhouse.

Sitting in a lounger, wearing a trademark checkered shirt, Grams, 65, spoke fondly of family and friends being near. They have a lot of what they call “shoulder to shoulder” time, he said.

Grams has been experiencing pain because of the cancer, but he is trying to use as few painkillers as possible, he said.

In conversation, Grams smiles and tells campaign stories. He said he would encourage good people to run for public office because the state and country needs them.

Grams also spoke of a guiding hand in his life.

“When I look back now at the hills I had to climb and didn’t know it, somebody carried me up those hills,” Grams, with emotion, said of his God.

“I’ve always said I’ve had just a blessed life.”


Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected].

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