If you happened to be lurking around the halls of Capitol Hill this week to witness the start of the 112th Congress, you may have recognized an old face among all the eager new ones.
Rod Grams, a former Republican senator from Minnesota who served from 1995 to 2001, has spent the last few days catching up with old colleagues, grabbing meals at the Senate Dining Room, and taking some time to reminisce before going back to work. This time around, Grams is in Washington not by the decree of the voters but as a freshman congressman’s top aide.
Hoping to show a newbie the ropes, Grams is temporarily serving as chief of staff to Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minn.
It’s not every day you see a former senator returning to the site of his former glory to set up office phones, comb through resumes, and train the new staff, but Grams said he felt compelled to share the benefit of his experiences. Before being elected to his Senate seat in 1994, Grams also served one term in the House.
“There’s so much on a congressman’s plate so I said I’d come out and get [Cravaack] started and help him get his feet on the ground,” Grams said. “I don’t want to be here too long standing over people’s shoulders. I’ll be here for a few months and then I’ll sort of just fade into the woodwork.”
Grams was an early supporter of Cravaack, an ex-Navy pilot who has never held public office and was prompted to run after he was denied a meeting with his representative, 76-year-old Democrat Jim Oberstar, the longest-serving congressman in Minnesota history. Grams favored Cravaack over the other Republican primary challengers in the 8th District and served as an unofficial adviser to his campaign after he won the nomination, lending his fundraising muscle and dispensing advice. Despite the long odds, the novice ultimately prevailed over the veteran Oberstar by a slim 2-point margin.
Grams himself tried and failed to unseat Oberstar in 2006 when the political winds were blowing in a different direction.
“In 2006, a lot of Republicans were disheartened with what was going on with the budget and the spending,” Grams said. “This year, everyone wanted to get out and vote…. There was a lot of enthusiasm, and that’s why I thought we could win this race.”
Grams grew up on a farm 50 miles north of Minneapolis-St. Paul and made a name for himself in the state as a local TV reporter, becoming an anchor on Channel 9 in the Twin Cities in 1982. In 1991, he left his broadcast job to launch a political career, running to represent Minnesota’s 6th District. After only a few months in the job, Grams announced his bid for the Senate seat then being vacated by Republican David Durenberger.
Grams won a three-way race in 1994, but served only one Senate term, losing the 2000 election to Mark Dayton, currently Minnesota’s governor and a member of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
A fierce and vocal opponent of abortion, government regulation, and higher taxes, Grams espoused views during his time in office that would fit right in with the beliefs held by many of the new Republican freshmen sworn in this week. As a senator, Grams called for abolishing the Department of Energy, which he said was a patchwork of unrelated agencies, but he strongly backed the nuclear energy industry.
Since being voted out of office, Grams has returned to the farm outside of Minneapolis where he was born and raised. He and his wife own and manage three radio stations in Minnesota, with Grams occasionally taking to the airwaves to talk politics.
From 2001 to 2005, he worked on financial services issues for the lobbying firm Hecht, Spencer, and Associates, whose clients include the Financial Services Roundtable and the Minnesota behemoth 3M. Grams served on the Senate Banking Committee while in office and raised a few eyebrows in 2003 when he used his privileges as a former senator to be on the floor as amendments to the Fair Credit Reporting Act were being debated.
For now, Grams seems to be relishing his behind-the-scenes role and is optimistic about what the new generation of lawmakers assembling in front of him will be able to accomplish.
“I know how the place works andn it’s fun to be here and watch it all come together,” Grams said on Tuesday afternoon, as the new Congress was assembling. “For instance, just now everyone was called to a caucus meeting. They’re all going to work.”
This article appears in the January 7, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.