Photos by Hillary Ehlen
West Acres Mall is not affiliated with any political stance or position.
There’s so much more to a politician than just what they say behind a podium or what they write behind desks in Washington D.C. In continuation of our series covering the lives of politicians outside of the Capitol, we sat down with Representative Kevin Cramer at West Acres Mall to discuss family, small town North Dakota, and more.
Tell us a little bit about yourself outside of politics.
Is there a me outside of politics? [laughs] Yes. Outside of the political realm I have three things that I just love to be. Husband to my wife, father to my children and, I have to admit, one of my favorite things of all time is being a grandfather. I have four grandchildren and one on the way. So when I’m in the state, the thing I look forward to the most is going home, home to my house. When I say I’m home, my wife Kris thinks that means I’m in North Dakota the state, but “home” is my house with my grandbabies coming over to to play ball with me. Our whole family is in North Dakota and so outside of politics, it’s all about being a grandfather- “Papa” as they call me.
You come from a larger family and have grown quite a family yourself. What’s it like balancing your work with the family matters that are so important to you?
It’s the hardest thing, the hardest part of the whole job. It’s the greatest sacrifice public servants make I sometimes think. I used to think people didn’t have full appreciation for how much politicians sacrifice, particularly when you’re going back and forth to Washington every week. By far it is the hardest thing.
So one of the things I do is about my cell phone. I don’t look at my phone until I’m ready to start the day. I try and get my first couple of hours in before I check my emails and text messages and things like that. I try to just put the phone away at times, otherwise you’re always on, you’re always accessible.
One way I protect the family things is that my wife is my scheduler. I have a scheduler in Washington, but anything that’s outside of Washington D.C., Kris handles for me. By having someone who knows what’s important to me, and also important to her, I count on her to protect my time with my family. So that’s the best discipline I think I’ve probably distilled in my public life, is having her as my scheduler.
I see that you’re from small-town Kindred, North Dakota, what are the benefits and drawbacks of living and growing up in a small town?
Good ol’ Kindred. You know, they’re all benefits as far as I can tell. I think that the sense of community – and that’s kind of a North Dakota thing no matter where you grew up – but I think growing up in a town as small as Kindred, you really need each other and you rely on each other. Not having to lock your doors or worry about your children playing out in the yard or the neighbor’s yard. And then just everybody participating in everything. So if you’re in sports you’re in all the sports. And if you’re in sports there’s a good chance you’re in the choir and you’re in the band and you’re probably in a play or two. To me, I think that you get that broad experience of just being around and being active and being an activist and having a broader area of interests.
Yea, you get to become more of a jack-of-all-trades there.
Yes, rather than that specialization that you see in the larger areas.
I know you’re busy with your traveling, but as a Concordia man, what are some of your favorite spots to hit when you come to the Fargo-Moorhead area?
Now first of all, here are my two favorite spots in the F-M area: one, is mom’s house in Kindred and the other one is Tower City Travel Center. When we’re in Fargo we always do a lot as a family or as a couple, whether we are here passing through for a political event or a speech or a family event. When we are here, we would drive through McDonald’s, that’s probably the thing we do the most. But on the way home, we will often stop in Tower City and we eat and then buy about two pies to take home, which is exactly what I’m going to do when I leave here, by the way.
Going back to my time [at Concordia], it was a precious time. When I think about Concordia and going to school there I still sort of get nostalgic. One place was Old Broadway. Old Broadway was always there, I went there a lot when we were in college here. Also there’s a place that’s not here anymore, that breaks my heart, called Cher’s Kitchen. They had cinnamon rolls and caramel rolls about the size of that tabletop, that might be an exaggeration slightly, but we would go there every single night, my roommates and me, and we’d walk down to Cher’s Kitchen and grab a roll and a coffee and walk back. So coming here, I’d say the places like the Dairy Queen in Moorhead, or any other of the old places, like the old Scheels store, those are sort of the nostalgic things I think about when I come here. And then Concordia itself.
Of course. Your college always has a special place to you. So I see that you were the youngest person to have been named state party chairman. What motivated you to get to the landmark and how did you succeed?
So it’s a great question because I reflect on it a lot, particularly when I talk to young people. Here’s what was going on in those days. This was 1991, [the Republicans] had just lost the election in 1990 again and Democrats in North Dakota had every statewide office except two, the public service commissioner’s office and the state auditor. I was really active when I was in college, active in the college Republicans and in high school I was in student council. My mom was a city commissioner in Kindred and my dad was a union steward at the rural electric cooperative, so we had this level of activism, but not at a high level.
But then, after I graduated from Concordia in 1983, I went to work in the 1984 election for a Concordia College graduate who was running for tax commissioner. We lost, but I got a taste of statewide politics. I was young and I think that being in a small state and in a party that didn’t have many successes at the time, there was room to grow. I’m a good talker, I was pretty feisty, and so being in the opposition to the party in control of the government suited me very well.
So far you think like, “what would make this guy wanna be in politics? He always loses!” But I went to work for the Republican Party and started being part of the process of rebuilding the party at a grassroots level. I had the skill-set, as I said earlier, and the leadership recognized that and asked me to run for state party chairman. I was only 30 years old and it seemed impossible, except that because our party hadn’t been really successful, an opportunity was opened for me. I think today it would be much harder for a young person because there are a lot of people between a beginner and the top, whereas for me, there wasn’t. So it presented an opportunity for someone like me, as a young as me, to step into a leadership role at a very young age.
What I want people to think when they hear my name is “he’s one of us. He’s a real guy.”
So you just touched a little bit on it, but what’s something that motivates you to keep going? I’m sure it’s a tiresome profession at times. What keeps you getting out of bed every morning?
You know what it is for me? It’s that guy that just walked by. He walked by and gave me a thumbs up and encouraged me. What it is for me now, more than anything, is it’s the people of North Dakota. And I don’t mean just the people that come to encourage me, I mean that we have such a community. We have an activism and an engagement here, I would even say an intimacy, with voters in North Dakota. Public officials in some other places of the country don’t have that. I have 53 colleagues in the House of Representatives from California, but I’m the only one from North Dakota. So we really do have a different, a much more personal, sort of relationship with our constituents, and that’s what motivates me. It’s getting around to all these small towns and seeing them. Seeing the crops up close, going to the small town cafes, visiting with real people.
John Boehner used to always say, “90% of success in this business is showing up.” And I show up a lot. I like to show up. I am motivated by it, I am inspired by it and I just like being there.
Did you have any key mentors or people who influenced who you are?
So there’s one person on whose shoulders everyday I feel like I’m standing on, and that’s Ed Schafer. When I was this young chairman in a party that was rarely successful, I had the great blessing of Ed Schafer being the candidate for governor, and he won, he was elected in 1992. Now we’ve had nothing but Republican governors and Republican everything, pretty much, since he won. Ed was a man of the people. Everything was about getting out in the community and connecting with people. So to me, Ed’s really my mentor, and he’s still that way. Eventually he became Secretary of Agriculture under President Bush and he’s still the same guy today as he always was. To me, that’s the measure of a real leader.
What’s something about you that you think might surprise people?
Well… I hate to say it out loud and on the record, but you seem nice…but I am Batman. How’s that? *laughs* Did you sense that? Actually, I wear a Batman costume every Halloween. I love Batman, I’ve always been a Batman fan, ever since Adam West and Burt Ward were Batman and Robin on TV. I was so upset when it got cancelled that I made my mom call the TV station and try to get it back on. So for Halloween I wear a Batman costume and I go to Trunk-or-Treat at my church and my wife and I dress up and Batman and Bat Woman, or sometimes she’s Cat Woman, and we have a trunk at Trunk-or-Treat.
When people hear “Kevin Cramer” what do you want them to think?
What I want people to think when they hear my name is “he’s one of us. He’s a real guy.” That’s what I want people to know more than anything. Whether they support me or don’t support me, whether they vote for me or don’t vote for me, I want them to know that I care about them because I care about real people. I grew up in a blue-collar home, my dad was a rural electric miner and he had an 11th grade education, my mom took care of elderly people. That’s my roots, that is who I am. I want people to know I’m a North Dakotan, through and through. I’m real. I try to be as transparent as you can be in politics, which sometimes it is reckless, but I prefer transparency.
What are your favorite musicians to jam to driving in the car?
Neil Diamond, Third Day, And BJ Thomas
Favorite home cooked meal?
When I grill steaks. Otherwise when I’m home, my mom’s really creamy scalloped potatoes …or maybe her swedish meatballs, it’s hard to say.
What is your favorite summer activity?
Hiking. I like to go Hiking.
What is your ice cream order?
I have several favorites, but I like chocolate chip and vanilla, now I might throw chocolate on it as a topping or I might not, but i like to start with chocolate chip and vanilla. Although, I had a Blizzard the other day at the Dairy Queen with Reese’s in it and that was pretty fantastic.
Last book you read?
The Martin Luther biography written by Eric Metaxas (Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World) Metaxas is my favorite living author, I just met him a while ago actually.
What’s your dream car?
This is going to seem weird, it’s not romantic, but it would be a brand new Yukon XL Denali Loaded. Big, roomy and luxurious.
Least favorite food?
Black Olives. There’s a lot of things I like that have black olives on them, but I always have them removed.
Favorite sport to watch?
Baseball, especially live.
Favorite sport to play?
There’s two sports I like to play with my son, I have an 11 year old son we adopted, Abel, he and I play a lot of basketball and a lot of soccer together. I probably like playing basketball more.
Favorite tie selection?
Here’s where I am so conservative. I look at all the modern ties and I always go back to a red one. Red with stripes, red with diamonds, red with flags, plain red. But red, all ties are red.
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