Jim Ramstad is remembered as a champion for people with chemical dependency, recovery and mental health issues, drawing on his own life experiences to shape policy and help others. Ramstad, who served in the Minnesota Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, died November 5. He was 74 and had battled Parkinson’s disease.
Ramstad served nine terms in the Congress before retiring in 2009, representing Minnesota’s Third District.
A moderate Republican, Ramstad built coalitions with lawmakers from all parties at the state and federal levels. He had many allies in Minnesota’s disability community and often drew on them for support to get state and federal legislation passed.
Dean Peterson, Ramstad’s longtime chief of staff, paid tribute to his friend and former boss. “He leaves a legacy of love, service, dignity and respect, especially for the most vulnerable in our society,” Peterson said in a letter to supporters.
Other elected officials also paid tribute. Gov. Tim Walz, who served in Congress with Ramstad, called him “a colleague, mentor and friend. … Few members of Congress commanded the respect and admiration of their peers and constituents that Jim Ramstad did. ”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar described Ramstad as “a friend and a hero.” “He was a faithful public servant who worked across party lines to improve the lives of all Americans,” Klobuchar said. “He worked with Sen. Paul Wellstone on mental health parity legislation and carried the torch to pass the bill after Paul died … He was a true mentor to me on how to get things done by working with Republicans and Democrats.”
Ramstad was born in Jamestown, North Dakota. He earned degrees from the University of Minnesota and George Washington University Law School. He was an officer in the United States Army Reserve from 1968 to 1974.
He worked as an attorney and as a legislative aide in the Minnesota House. He served in the Minnesota Senate from 1981 to 1990, moving on to Congress.
But that career almost ended before it began. Months after being elected to the Minnesota Senate, Ramstad was arrested for disorderly conduct after an incident in South Dakota.
In an interview, Ramstad recalled, “I was mortified, I was humiliated, I was embarrassed beyond words, I wanted to be dead. … But, instead of being the end of my life, the end of my career, it was just merely the beginning. For the first time in my life, I decided to tell the truth about my drinking. Even though it was very, very humiliating and embarrassing to wake up in jail, to be under arrest, it was also very freeing to be able to talk about who I really was.”
Before his death Ramstad had marked 39 years of sobriety.
As a state legislator, Ramstad sponsored funding for a pilot program that eventually became Metro Mobility paratransit service. He was also the legislative champion for Minnesota’s in-home personal care assistant program, to give every qualifying person with a disability the right to in-home care under the state’s Medicaid program.
In 1999, he co-sponsored the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act, a major federal law to pass benefiting people with disabilities. The act gives people searching for employment more control in choosing where they can go for assistance. It also expanded access to Medicare, even in the event of a job loss.
Ramstad also cosponsored, with Wellstone, the Mental Health Parity Act. After Wellstone’s death in a 2002 plane crash, Ramstad continued to work toward the bill’s passage. It required most group health plans to provide coverage for treatment of mental illnesses, comparable to what they provide for physical illnesses. He also successfully championed similar legislation for people with chemical dependency issues.
Over the years Ramstad won many honors, including the Courage Center National Courage Award in 2008 for his many contributions to the health, welfare and rehabilitation of people with disabilities.
Ramstad is also remembered as someone who would tirelessly help people caught in the cycle of addiction. He helped friends and strangers alike to see that recovery is possible. He founded the Ramstad Recovery Fund to provide access to treatment for veterans who are unable to otherwise have access to treatment.
Ramstad is survived by his wife, Kathryn, and a daughter, Christen DeLaney. Services have been held.