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Former U.S. senator, TV anchor Rod Grams dead at 65

ST. PAUL — Rod Grams, a former Twin Cities anchorman who went on to serve as a Republican U.S. senator from Minnesota, has died. He was 65.

Grams died at his home in the east-central Minnesota town of Crown late Tuesday night, said Kent Kaiser, a longtime GOP activist and spokesman for the Grams family. Grams had been diagnosed with cancer in April 2012.

After nearly a decade as KMSP-TV's lead news anchor, Grams launched his political career by running for Congress in 1992 and ousting the Democratic incumbent, Gerry Sikorski. Grams, also a small-business owner, won again two years later when he ran for an open U.S. Senate seat, but he only held the post for one term. He lost his re-election bid to Democrat Mark Dayton, who went on to become Minnesota's governor.

Grams tried for a political comeback in 2006 with an unsuccessful bid against former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar. He was also briefly chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, the Republican who finally unseated Oberstar in 2010 but lost to a Democrat two years later.

Shortly after his 1994 statewide victory, Grams told the Associated Press he was successful as a conservative in a Democratic-leaning state by appealing to Minnesotans’ natural thrift and belief in the value of hard work.

“I believe there is a good role for government to play. But we can't be everything to everyone,” Grams said.

Grams grew up on the farm where his father was raised in the eastern Minnesota town of Crown. He worked in broadcasting for nearly 25 years, including stints at stations in Montana, Wisconsin and Illinois, before he landed at KMSP-TV in 1982.

In 1985, Grams founded a construction and residential development business, and his experience as a small business owner helped push him into politics, said Kaiser, a longtime Minnesota GOP operative and friend.

“He got tired of the regulation and taxes, and one day he called up the Republican Party and said, ‘What can be done? How can I run?’” Kaiser recalled.

Grams quickly distinguished himself as one of the most conservative politicians ever to represent Minnesota in Washington. He and the late liberal icon Sen. Paul Wellstone formed one of the most ideologically diverse state delegations in the U.S. Senate. Among Grams’ chief legislative accomplishments was his early championing of a $500-per-child tax credit, which became a major Republican initiative of the 1990s.

In 2004, Grams and his second wife Christine — a former chief of staff in his Senate office — bought a Little Falls-based group of radio stations. As a frequent on-air host, Grams often discussed returning to politics — even after his unsuccessful 2006 campaign for Congress.

Kaiser, who met Grams as a volunteer on his 1994 Senate campaign, said he never came across another high-profile politician who was as down-to-earth and approachable.

“If there was ever a politician you really could go get a beer with, it's Rod,” Kaiser said. “He was always kind to everyone he met, from the lowliest employee on up, young people — everyone.”

Several prominent Minnesota Republicans got their start working for Grams, including former state House Speaker Kurt Zellers, who was his U.S. Senate press secretary.

Grams was diagnosed with cancer in April 2012, and entered hospice care in September 2013. He declined to specify what type of cancer, but he said it had metastasized after the initial diagnosis.

He is survived by his wife, Christine, four children and several grandchildren.

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