BISMARCK - A former North Dakota state lawmaker who was hospitalized in New Orleans over the weekend died Tuesday, Oct. 30, her family said.
Rae Ann Kelsch, who represented a Mandan district in the state House from 1991 to 2012, died Tuesday morning at the age of 58, prompting an outpouring of tributes from politicians and others who worked alongside her in the Capitol, where she was a fixture even after her legislative career ended.
“She was extremely caring,” her son Alex Kelsch said. “She would do anything for anybody.”
Kelsch said doctors believed his mother was suffering from a bacterial infection from eating raw oysters, and ultimately her heart “just gave out.” She was in New Orleans to visit a niece and nephew, an example of what her son described as her love of spending time with family.
Gov. Doug Burgum extended his sympathies in a statement Tuesday.
"Those who knew and worked with Rae Ann will remember her boundless energy, joyful laugh and enthusiasm for life that touched the lives of everyone around her," he said.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he worked with Kelsch on education issues while he was the state's governor. In a statement, he called her a "champion for North Dakota’s teachers, students and schools."
Rae Ann Kelsch was the chairwoman of the House Education Committee for 15 years, according to a letter to the editor she penned in 2012. After a controversy over unpaid taxes, she was defeated by a fellow Republican in that year's primary election.
Jim Poolman, who entered the state Legislature two years after Kelsch, remembered her as a “feisty” and “passionate” lawmaker who “always had educators and students at the front of her mind” and was respected by people in both political parties.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who served in the Legislature alongside Kelsch, said her strong support for education funding prompted some disagreements with more conservative members of her party.
“She was not afraid to take on anybody if she thought she was right, whether they be old guard or leadership,” said Poolman, who is now vice chairman of the state Republican Party. “And she rarely lost.”
Kelsch was a registered lobbyist for groups like the National Federation of Independent Business at the time of her death.
Aaron Birst, legal counsel for the North Dakota Association of Counties, remembered Kelsch being the first legislator to reach out to him when he started his career. As a lobbyist, she could be convincing while managing to joke around, Birst said.
“She was always someone who got across her point with a smile on her face,” he said.
Funeral arrangements are pending.