Rod Grams, former U.S. senator and broadcaster, dies at 65

Rod Grams at a 2006 press conference
Rod Grams at a 2006 press conference.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams died late Tuesday night after a battle with cancer. He was 65.

His death was confirmed Wednesday morning by Kent Kaiser, a spokesman for the family.

Friends and colleagues called Grams, who served a term in the U.S. House and a term in the Senate in the 1990s, a principled, humble conservative who helped usher in a new era of politics in Minnesota and Washington.

Born in 1948 in the central Minnesota town of Princeton, Grams grew up on a dairy farm. He went to Carroll College in Helena, Mont.

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Many Minnesotans first came to know him through his job as news anchorman at KMSP-TV in the Twin Cities.

In the early '90s, he traded TV for politics.

"Now Rod Grams is running for Congress with real ideas on deficit reduction, welfare reform and a commitment to restore ethical conduct in Congress," said an announcer on one of his television campaign ads.

In his first bid for elective office, Grams challenged Democratic U.S. Rep. Gerry Sikorski in the 6th District, who was caught up in a congressional bank scandal that cost many members their jobs.

Grams served just one term in the House before turning his attention to the Senate, where U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger, a fellow Republican, chose not to run for re-election. Grams used the skills he learned as a broadcaster to promote a message of smaller government and lower taxes.

"I think the greatest thing that I can do for people in Minnesota or across the country, is to continue to give them the opportunity to fulfill the dreams that they have for themselves and for their families," Grams said.

Grams won the Senate seat in 1994 defeating Democrat Ann Wynia. He served a single term in the Senate before he was defeated by Democrat Mark Dayton in 2000.

In Washington, Grams was best known for his "families-first" agenda, which included a popular per-child tax credit. For most families, it started at $500 and grew to its current $1,000.

Like many Republicans, Grams also wanted to shrink the size of the federal government.

"We need a smaller, more effective government," he said of his political philosophy in 1996. "We need less regulations and mandates and still being able to maintain a good, safe, sound environment and other issues — the workplace safety and everything else — and we also need tax relief. I believe we're way over-taxed in this country for the services we're getting."

Still, Grams challenged the "staunch conservative" label his opponents often attached to him.

"I mean, people who know me and the work that we've done here and the agenda that we're pushing know that we're not 'extreme' and we're not what they would call 'right wing,'" he said. "We're just, I think, more middle of the road and conservative...mainly on the fiscal issues. How are we going to pay for what we do?"

While Grams was successful in enacting the per-child tax credit, he failed in a push to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic in front of the White House after it was closed for security concerns following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. His effort to replace paper U.S. dollars with dollar coins was also unsuccessful.

Grams rarely publicly departed from his anchorman-cool style, but during his 2000 re-election campaign he became emotional when talking about his son Morgan, who struggled with addiction and was arrested.

"Well, obviously this has been an extremely difficult week for the entire Grams family," he said then. "We all love Morgan very much."

Grams inspired many conservatives, among them Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman, a former Republican state representative who met Grams in Washington.

"If the headwaters of the tea party can be anywhere in Minnesota I think that they were in those Grams campaigns without a doubt," said Lipman, who worked in Grams' Senate office and on his 2000 re-election campaign.

Lipman and other friends of Grams also say Grams was an independent thinker even though he voted along Republican Party lines on almost every issue.

"Was he vilified? Certainly, His political opponents preferred to have him as a caricature in a box," Lipman said. "Those folks who knew him, and I think many voters who had the chance to know him, realize that the caricature and cartoon was unfair and not believable."

After leaving the Senate, Grams returned to broadcasting when he and his wife Christine bought three radio stations in the Little Falls, Minn., area. He attempted a comeback in 2006 when he challenged then-U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Democrat, in Minnesota's 8th District. He lost by nearly 30 percentage points.