Longtime Rep. Jim Ramstad, a champion for addiction help, has died

The Ramstads
Jim Ramstad, shown with his wife, Kathryn, in 2007 as he announced his intention to retire at the end of his congressional term. Ramstad has died at age 74.
Tom Scheck | MPR News 2007

Former Minnesota Rep. Jim Ramstad, a moderate Republican lawmaker whose own battle with addiction turned him into a legislative champion for those in recovery, died Thursday.

He was 74 and had been ailing from Parkinson’s disease, his former chief of staff Dean Peterson said in a note announcing Ramstad’s death.

Ramstad represented Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District for nine terms, retiring in 2009. He was routinely elected with two-thirds or more of the vote in his suburban district near Minneapolis.

Genial and quick with a laugh, Ramstad was known for reaching across the aisle on legislation.

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“Jim’s political philosophy was guided by a fundamental belief in the importance of working in a bipartisan, pragmatic, common sense way to solve problems,” Peterson wrote.

He added that Ramstad “was a dedicated public servant who impacted numerous lives through his policy accomplishments and personal service. He leaves a legacy of love, service, dignity and respect, especially for the most vulnerable in our society.”

Ramstad worked with the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat, to solidify insurance coverage for people seeking mental health treatment. He also spearheaded legislation to help people dealing with alcohol or drug addiction.

His own rebound from alcoholism fueled his drive to help others grappling with addiction and aimed to erase the stigma around the illness. Ramstad was open about his own low point, an arrest for disorderly conduct while he was a Minnesota state legislator that caused him to give up drinking.

“If I had not wound up in that jail cell, I would not have sought treatment,” Ramstad told The New York Times in 2006.

He had just marked his 39th year of sobriety before his death.

Signing the Wellstone Center for Community bill
President George W. Bush signs the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center for Community bill in the Oval Office of the White House Dec. 2, 2002. Joining Bush in the White House are, from left, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, D-Minn., Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn.
Susan Walsh | AP 2002

Ramstad served as a sounding board and personal sponsor to colleagues in Congress — Democrats and Republicans — as they came to grips with their own problems. After leaving office, he had roles with the Hazelden Foundation, the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and the Partnership to End Addiction.

Ramstad also served on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, making him a go-to figure on tax policy. It fit with his fondness for bread-and-butter economic issues rather than the culture battles that gained colleagues more attention and stirred the party bases.

Ramstad left Congress after 2008, telling reporters he was “burned out” on Washington after almost two decades there.

“I still have the passion for policymaking, I still have the passion for politics,” he said in announcing his retirement. “But I want to be home.”

Born in North Dakota, Ramstad built a deep attachment to his adopted state, where he attended the University of Minnesota. In Washington, he was known for organizing gatherings of fellow transplants to watch Gophers basketball games.

He fell into politics as a legislative aide in the Minnesota House. In 1980, he won election to the state Senate and served until his successful bid for Congress in 1990. After leaving the U.S. House, Ramstad toyed with a run for Minnesota governor in 2010 but decided against it.

State Sen. Paul Anderson, a Republican who interned for Ramstad and would later manage two of his campaigns, regarded him as a role model.

“Jim Ramstad was the definition of a selfless public servant. His legacy will live on in the thousands and thousands of lives he helped through his work in addiction and recovery, and his tremendous political career both in Congress, and in the Minnesota Senate,” Anderson said. “Jim’s commitment to always work in a bipartisan, pragmatic and commonsense way is needed now, more than ever. He will be truly missed.”

Ramstad is survived by his wife, Kathryn, and a daughter, Christen DeLaney.