When I was elected in 1982 to the Minnesota Senate as a Democrat from northwest suburban Minneapolis, Republican Sen. Jim Ramstad represented a neighboring district. I was not a fan. I harbored resentment that two years earlier he defeated my friend and mentor, Sen. Emily Anne Staples, the first DFL woman elected to the senate. I had served on Emily Anne’s campaign team, and she inspired me to run for senate.
Sen. Ramstad and I, both lawyers, served on the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was difficult for me to warm up to him, particularly when he took the “tough on crime” approach focused on “three strikes” and mandatory prison sentencing. Senate Democrats were forced to appear weak on crime by voting against multiple amendments from “The Rammer.”
In early 1990, Third District Congressman Bill Frenzel announced his retirement from the seat that encompassed both our senate districts. As a center-right Republican who supported abortion rights (similar to Frenzel), Sen. Ramstad was a good fit for the district. It was a difficult race for a Democrat, for sure.
With encouragement from DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich and others, I thought long and hard about challenging Jim as a center-left Democrat. Minnesota had no women in Washington at that time. Gov. Perpich was up for election in 1990, and he wanted a strong Democrat to run in that congressional district to turn out the vote. I would have had to give up my senate seat to run. When I shared my reluctance with the governor, he surprised me by promising that if I lost, he would appoint me to the judiciary. As tempting as it was, I declined to run for Congress. Sen. Ramstad was elected.
As the ‘90s progressed, I had many reasons to meet with my congressman. We were aligned on a surprising number of issues, including protecting children from abuse and abduction, and support for federal start-up funding for charter schools. Maybe we were both evolving politically, but I almost felt more aligned philosophically with Jim than with more liberal members of my own party. I was impressed with Jim’s bipartisan approach on issues that mattered to me, like mental health and addiction. And when years later I became an executive with Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, I again found a willing ally for our services supporting mental health and youth homelessness.
What I will never forget about Jim Ramstad is his personal connection. You were more than a constituent — you were a valued friend. His vulnerability resulting from his own recovery from addiction and his passion for addressing mental health challenges broke down barriers. I remember how my professional visit in his office turned into an emotional personal conversation about my family member overcoming a gambling addiction. Years later, I found myself sharing with Jim in his office the pain of losing a family member to suicide. His schedule was pushed back to allow for time. Always, our visits were followed by a handwritten personal note from Jim. When I announced my retirement from the Minnesota Senate in 2000, Jim’s note was one of the first I received.
In the end, this is a story of two elected officials sharing our human experience and overcoming perceived barriers. It’s a rare story in today’s political world. But we can bring that back.
There are few Jim Ramstads in politics these days — a fiscally conservative, socially liberal bridge builder. Frankly, nearly all center-right and center-left policymakers have been pushed out at state and federal levels, leaving a huge void in the middle. Problem-solving and innovative solutions only occur when you work from the middle out. That’s what Jim did. That’s why he was so successful in achieving breakthrough legislation in mental health and other areas.
We will miss Jim. How ironic that his passing occurs just as our country pushes through a highly divisive election. Jim would reach across the aisle to solve real problems because he cared more about helping people than anything else. Jim’s legacies are clear–bipartisan leadership and making relationships count in politics.
May those in elected office today take notice. Authenticity, humanity, and empathy are not weaknesses; they are human strengths in successful policy-making. Jim Ramstad was the definition of that.
Former DFL Minnesota State Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge represented northwest suburbs of Minneapolis from 1983 to 2000.
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