WASHINGTON – Rod Grams, a “stoic farm kid” who grew up to be a Twin Cities TV anchor, congressman and U.S. senator, died at his rural Minnesota home Tuesday night after a long battle with colon cancer. He was 65.
Friends and political acquaintances described him as a citizen-politician who rejected pretense and hewed to the small-town values of Crown, where he lived with his wife in a replica home built on the site of his original family farmstead, which had long since burned down.
Grams had mastered a dignified on-air presence as a longtime anchor for KMSP-TV when he launched his congressional career in 1992 by defeating Democrat Gerry Sikorski. A few months into office, he announced a run for the U.S. Senate, where he was elected in 1994 as part of the “Republican Revolution” led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
A die-hard conservative plagued by sagging poll ratings in his last years in office, Grams served one term in the Senate before being defeated in 2000 by Democrat Mark Dayton, now governor.
In a statement Wednesday, Dayton praised Grams for serving the state with distinction. “After his return to Minnesota, he continued to be active and influential in civic and political affairs, right up to the end of his life,” the governor said.
Grams made several unsuccessful comeback attempts, including a 2006 run against then-U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar. He also went back into private business, buying three radio stations in Little Falls. He co-hosted the political show “Up Front” until early September.
Amid turbulence in his personal life — a high-profile divorce while in office, a son plagued by drug problems — Grams was said to have kept his faith till the end. Longtime friend Kent Kaiser, who visited Grams last week, said Grams told family members that “his last breath on Earth would be his first breath in heaven.”
Kaiser, a veteran of Grams’ political campaigns, said Grams stayed true to his roots on the farm and as a business owner and homebuilder. “He was the ordinary guy who gets into politics that we all hope for,” Kaiser said.
One of Grams’ closest supporters was Red Wing City Council Member Peggy Rehder, who knew Grams and his second wife, Christine Grams, from their days in Washington together. Rehder said she originally had supported GOP hopeful Joanell Dyrstad in the 1994 Senate race. After Grams won the GOP primary, he called Rehder and said, “Are you on my side now?”
Rehder said that “a lot of members would have been far too arrogant to have done something like that.” Grams, she said, cringed at the thought of limousines and the other trappings of political life. “I don’t think Rod in his entire career ever asked anybody, no secretary, no legislative assistant, no one, to even so much as get him a cup of coffee.”
One of Grams’ top aides during his six years in the Senate was Kurt Zellers, a state House representative who rose to speaker and who now is running for governor. Zellers described Grams as “a stoic farm kid” who led by example. Zellers recalled the time Grams tracked down and personally thanked the St. Jude Medical workers in the Twin Cities who built his artificial heart valve, telling them “my family, my kids and grandkids owe you a huge debt of gratitude.”
Grams, Zellers said, “was the same guy if he was talking to a waitress in Grand Rapids about her son or daughter going to college as he was meeting a CEO in Minneapolis.”
Grams’ proudest legislative achievement was passage of the $500 federal child tax credit, which President Bill Clinton bumped up to $1,000. To Grams, Zellers said, it meant “piano lessons, clothes, shoes, food on the table … it means a lot to middle-class families.”
From TV to politics
Rodney Dwight (“Rod”) Grams was born in Princeton, Minn., attended Anoka Community College and the Brown Institute, and forged a broadcasting career. For more than a decade, he was the senior news anchor at KMSP-TV. When he turned to politics, he ran on a credo of low taxes and small government, compiling one of the most conservative voting records in the U.S. Senate He also traded on a reputation of personal integrity.
But by 2000, his image of reserve was shaken somewhat by his 1996 divorce and rumors of a romantic relationship with his political aide, Christine Gunhus, whom he married.
Adding to Grams’ problems were the well-publicized arrests of his son Morgan, the oldest of four children by his first wife, Laurel. Grams also had to defend against allegations that Gunhus had written anonymous e-mails disparaging one of his potential Democratic rivals, Twin Cities attorney Mike Ciresi.
Then there was Dayton, a millionaire department-store heir and former state auditor who was able to vastly outspend Grams and outflank him on such issues as health care. In a three-way race where the third-party candidate netted only 5.8 percent of the vote, Grams lost to Dayton by 5.4 percentage points.
Despite their partisan differences, Democrats on Wednesday were effusive in their praise of Grams’ character and personality. Former Sikorski aide Dennis McGrann, now a Washington lobbyist, remembers Grams and Gunhus reaching out to Sikorski staffers after their defeat in 1992. “He was a true gentleman,” he said.
Minnesota Democrat Rep. Betty McCollum, in a statement on the House floor Wednesday, called him “a kind and engaging man who cared deeply about Minnesota.”
The state Republican Party issued a statement calling him “a great leader and a principled conservative. A statement from the state DFL said he “exemplifies how in Minnesota, people from humble beginnings can step up, get involved in politics and make a difference.”
According to Kaiser, Grams died at home Tuesday night with his wife at his side. He had been in hospice care following a recurrence of cancer, which he had battled since 2012 through several courses of chemotherapy treatments.
His family has asked that memorials to honor his legacy be sent to Crown Christian School, 7515 269th Av. NW., St. Francis, MN 55070.
A visitation for Grams will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday at Zion Lutheran Church, 7515 269th Av. NW., St. Francis. Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at the same location.