Heard on the Hill

This senator lost one son, but gained another

Death and murder shook his family, but Father’s Day is still a time of joy for Kevin Cramer

Kevin and Kris Cramer, center, pose for a family photo. Son Isaac, far right, died last year. (Courtesy Kevin Cramer)

Father’s Day at Kevin Cramer’s house is “wonderfully chaotic,” as the senator puts it, even with grief still fresh. It’s not much different from any other weekend: Four kids and five rambunctious grandchildren running around, plus a big piece of meat on the grill — maybe a burger, maybe moose.

“You can eat moose?” I ask skeptically.

“Oh gosh, yeah … moose is a lot like cow,” reassures the North Dakotan.

Over the years, Cramer has answered to “congressman,” “senator” and “chairman,” but it’s being “dad” that has moved him the most.

Last year in February, just days after the congressman announced a late senatorial bid against incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, Cramer’s second-oldest son, whom he adopted from his wife’s first marriage, was hospitalized. His liver and kidneys were failing. Cramer juggled the demands of a fresh campaign, his job as a member of Congress and the incomparable priorities of a father in distress, all while his son Isaac, or “Ike” as his family and close friends knew him, was losing his battle with alcohol addiction. He died a month later.

“Death is never convenient,” the senator tells me in his office in D.C., but in sharing the news on Facebook, Cramer found solace. Public life can be unforgiving, but in this case, he saw an outpouring of support. “Being engaged with people was therapeutic,” he says.

Memories of Ike are everywhere. In addition to his love for the Chicago Bears and star running back Walter Payton, who also suffered liver complications, perhaps the greatest legacy he left his parents was the chance to adopt another son. The Cramers met Abel back in May 2007, when a 25-year-old Isaac brought new girlfriend Jessica and her baby, who was just a few months old, home to meet his parents. “We love babies … it’s sorta over the top,” laughs Cramer.

The yet-to-be grandparents got to know the infant through a series of overnight babysitting shifts to help out the first-time mom, who was struggling with her own alcohol addiction. Kevin and Kris, experienced in diaper changes and lullabies, took any opportunity to see baby Abel until their son and Jessica ended what the senator describes as a “dysfunctional relationship” and they lost touch.

Three years later, in 2010, Jessica was murdered by her abusive husband. The highly public case had only one eyewitness, a 2-year-old Abel. First responders found him hiding underneath a blanket.

Already legally established as “community relatives” to Abel from their time fostering him as a baby, the Cramers rushed to intervene. After a whirlwind of trials, custody hearings and supervised visits, they added the 3-year-old to the family.

The oldest of five from a “blue-collar family,” the senator says that Father’s Day these days reminds him of when he was a kid. “They’re all sorta the same,” he says, adding, “Dad sorta gets a break, but not really, because he doesn’t want a break.”

The low-maintenance dad, who receives cards to “Papa” from his “crazy little” grandkids and coordinated gifts from his daughters, is just “as touched by a text.”

Perhaps the most profound note the senator ever received was the one Abel gave him the night before the sentencing hearing for his mom’s killer. The 4-year-old, after wrapping up a children’s devotional about “forgiveness,” wrote a note to the man he had known as “Daddy Derek.”

He gave it to Cramer, who was set to testify on Abel’s behalf. Cramer looked at the card. “I love you” and “I miss you,” it read.

When it comes to love, Abel has “taught us a lot,” Cramer says.

Before the sentencing hearing for his mom’s killer, Abel wrote him a note. (Courtesy Kevin Cramer)
Before the sentencing hearing for his mom’s killer, Abel wrote him a note. (Courtesy Kevin Cramer)

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