Former U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, who served western Hennepin County for nine terms in Congress and earned bipartisan respect for work on mental health and other issues, died on Thursday.

Ramstad was 74. He had been suffering from a degenerative disease, according to former Rep. Erik Paulsen, who succeeded Ramstad in Minnesota's Third Congressional District.

"A lot of folks who run for office today get involved in politics because they're more about an ideology rather than offering solutions to problems facing their community, the state and the country," Paulsen said Friday morning. "Jim was about identifying a problem and fixing it."

Paulsen, who got his start in politics with a staff job in Ramstad's DC office, said he last spoke to Ramstad two weeks ago. He was still living in Wayzata as he did for many years, Paulsen said, and was being cared for by wife, Kathryn Ramstad.

"We didn't know it would happen this fast," Paulsen said of the man he called his friend and political mentor. "His nickname was the Rammer. He was always very full of life, vibrant."

Elected in 1991, Ramstad was reelected eight times before deciding not to run again in 2008. In Congress, he was most known for work on expanding access to treatment for mental health, and was chief sponsor of legislation that opened the door to treatment for millions of Americans suffering from mental illness or chemical addiction.

The legislation was named in honor of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who was also passionate about mental health equity.

"A person of great humanity" was how Vin Weber, another former Minnesota congressman, described Ramstad in a text Thursday night.

Ramstad also sponsored the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children Act, a part of the 1994 crime bill that requires convicted child molesters to register with the police after their release. The provision was inspired by the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling.

Ramstad was open with constituents about his own alcoholism and recovery. For a time, he was an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor to a Democratic congressman, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-Rhode Island.

Ramstad's politics would have left him out of step in today's Republican Party: he supported legal abortion and sponsored climate change legislation, among other things. He also backed measures to increase auto fuel efficiency standards and sided with the Clinton administration's "roadless rule" to protect national forests, including those in northern Minnesota.

Ramstad was even considered for a post in the administration of former President Barack Obama, though the appointment didn't end up happening. After he left Congress, he served as a fellow at Harvard University and was a senior adviser to Minnesota's Hazelden Treatment Center.

When Ramstad left Congress in early 2009, Paulsen replaced him. The Third District seat is now represented by a Democrat, U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips.

"He served with principle and grace for almost two decades, and left a remarkable legacy in our community, our state, and our country," Phillips said in a tweet late Thursday.

As word of Ramstad's death spread on social media Thursday night, many former staffers and aides, even political rivals praised him for his accomplishments and his kindness.

"His legacy will live on through all of the lives he shaped, guided, and touched," tweeted Brian McDaniel, a Republican lobbyist whose wrote that his political career started as an intern in Ramstad's office.

Ramstad was born in Jamestown, N.D., in 1946. He attended the University of Minnesota, earned a law degree from George Washington University and was an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Star Tribune staff writer Jim Anderson contributed to this story.