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The Republican Workhorse
by Mark Zdechlik
March 24, 2000
Part of MPR's Campaign 2000coverage
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

Republican Rod Grams wants a second term in United States Senate. And he pledges to continue his tax cutting crusade is he's elected this fall. But as one of the most conservative members of the Senate representing a relatively moderate state, many consider Grams vulnerable in November. And there's a long list of people who hope to unseat the Republican.

Grams suffers from a relatively low profile among voters, but he's a hero in the eyes of watchdog groups which promote reduced taxes and scaled down government.
Photo: Mark Zdechlik
THIRTY MIDDLE SCHOOL students from Farmington, Minnesota brush off a light rain outside the Capitol in Washington as they wait for Senator Rod Grams. The visit is a highlight of a week-long study of government in the nation's capitol and the kids enthusiastically welcome their Senator's arrival. And it's a perfect picture; smiling children in their Sunday best, surrounding a U.S. Senator against the impressive backdrop of the Capitol.

After a couple of quick shots, Grams fields the first question: Why does he like his job so much? "There's a number of reasons I wanted to come to Washington and some of them were to lower taxes, to protect Social Security," Grams tells the students.

Grams goes on to explain his pro-death penalty and pro-school vouchers positions. And he talks about gas prices; saying despite sharp increases, the government has no business intervening in the market by pumping down oil reserves.

A young girl catches the senator by surprise with her question about the nation's latest school shooting. "Now everybody can jump on this and say 'we need to get rid of the guns,' but the guns don't do the shooting," Grams says. "There's other problems that we have. Putting more laws on the books aren't going to stop it. I think what we need to do and what I have strongly advocated is enforce the laws we have."

Grams hits the same themes with the school children that he's focusing on in his re-election effort. The former television newscaster is wrapping up his first Senate term after a term in the House. He is a conservative Republican committed to cutting taxes and reducing government regulation. At the end of a conference room table in his Senate offices, Grams speaks confidently about his accomplishments.

"You get elected on the promises that you make," Grams says. "You get re-elected on promises you keep. And the promises that we made and first and foremost was to reduce the tax burden on the average American taxpayer and the Minnesota taxpayer and we did that with our $500-per-child tax credit."

Grams is widely recognized for being a leader in promoting the tax credit. And the legislation is significant, which he estimates accounts for about 80 percent of all federal tax relief to individuals over the past five years. Yet, the editor of the Washington publication The Hill, Al Eisele, says Grams does not stand out among his colleagues in the Senate for expertise in any one area.
"If the Democrats somehow in this seemingly impossible environment unite behind a strong candidate, it's going to be a tough race for Grams to win."

- Norman Ornstein
American Enterprise Institute

Eisele, a former top aide to Walter Mondale, says that's not unusual for a freshman senator. "He has been a fairly consistent and predictable member of the conservative wing of the Republican Party in the Senate and that's a pretty crowded spectrum these days and there are a lot of people competing for attention in that spectrum," Eisele says."

"Do we get a lot of press? A lot of times not," Grams says. "I'm not one that runs home and slaps myself on the back and says look what we've been talking about. We've been really working. I have been labeled more as a work horse than a show horse."

Indeed, Grams has a reputation for not partaking in the social atmosphere of Washington and keeping his personal life intensely guarded, even from his colleagues. A divorce early in his Senate term surprised many, but he doesn't talk publicly about the split. He has responded to the well-publicized legal problems facing his adult son, Morgan, but says they have no place in the campaign.

"What I worry about is my son," says Grams. "If other's are going to use this as some kind of a charge or a political charge I think they will pay a consequence on that. You know it's a personal issues, it's a family issue it's one we're working on it's a young man that's got a problems but it doesn't belong in this race."

In the latest Minnesota Public Radio poll released earlier this month, just 44 percent of registered Minnesota voters rated Grams' performance as good or excellent; 43 percent of those randomly surveyed said Grams is doing a fair or poor job.

Grams suffers from a relatively low profile among voters, but he's a hero in the eyes of watchdog groups which promote reduced taxes and scaled down government.

Marshal Whitman, the director of congressional relations for the Heritage Foundation - a conservation Washington think tank - says in addition to his efforts to cut taxes, Grams has spoken out on the need to reform government programs, taking on sacred cows politicians often avoid - most recently the nation's retirement program.

"He's been perhaps the boldest advocate of personal accounts in Social Security, giving people the opportunity to invest part of their Social Security earnings in the private sector," Whitman says. "We feel very comfortable with him and he's someone who is not afraid to advance new idea on Capitol Hill and of course we are an idea factory so we are very fond of that."

Voting Record
See a list of Senator Grams' voting records and scorecards from political action groups via the Project Vote Smart Web site.
In addition to concentrating on taxes and Social Security, Grams has been a vocal supporter of free trade. Supporting free trade with China, however, puts him at odds with religious conservatives who, on most other issues from gay rights to abortion, normally have his support.

As he begins his quest for a second term, Grams' focus remains on point with the tax-cutting theme that seemed to work so well in his first run. He sees eliminating the marriage and estate taxes as two short-term quick fixes to a complicated tax code that he says should ultimately be scrapped in favor of something like a national sales tax or a flat income tax.

Many political observers say Grams would benefit by changing, that his surprisingly low profile - given his television background - leaves him significantly more vulnerable than other incumbents facing re-election amid the continued good economic times.

"If the Democrats somehow in this seemingly impossible environment unite behind a strong candidate, it's going to be a tough race for Grams to win." claims American Enterprise Institute Scholar Norman Ornstein. "He's got some vulnerability ahead and he's probably going to need more than the child tax credit."

Grams says the word vulnerable has been overused. He says if he is as vulnerable as some insist he is, there would be more high-profile Minnesotans lining up to take him on. He says he'll be ready to debate the issues and his record when it becomes clear exactly who his opponents will be.

"I've got a lot of things I want to talk about. I'm very proud of the record that we have and I think I have got a lot of good ideas on what we need to do in the future. Right now I don't know who my opponent will be. I don't have a vote in this process. It's a screening process for the democrats and I believe it will go on through until the September primary."