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Rae Ann Kelsch, a former state representative from Mandan, died Tuesday.

Kelsch died after becoming infected with Vibrio vulnificus bacteria, which is linked to the consumption of raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters, according to a post on her CaringBridge page. She was hospitalized this past weekend in New Orleans while visiting family.

Kelsch was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1992 and served until 2012. She was the current state director for the small business lobbying organization NFIB.

Current and former lawmakers remember Kelsch for her tireless advocacy and passion for education and community service.

Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, called Kelsch "a force of nature" who cared about North Dakota and went beyond expectations whenever she was involved with a cause.

"When you get to meet people like Rae Ann ... I am a better person because I know her. She touched so many lives," he said.

Former Democratic lawmaker Shirley Meyer remembers the first day walking into the committee room where she would serve with Kelsch.

Meyer said Kelsch told her: “You will forget your legislation, but you will never forget how you were treated.”

What Kelsch meant was, there would be a lot of bills and issues they would find themselves advocating for on behalf of their constituents. Those would pass. What would stick was the memory of a fellow lawmaker listening and respecting an idea that might be different from their own.

Meyer said that was how Kelsch was as a legislator, reaching across the aisle to ask Democrats their thoughts.

“I was in a different political party, but I could always visit with her and give my opinion,” Meyer said.

Meyer described Kelsch as “feisty” and “fun to be around,” and the pair served together at a time when there weren’t many female lawmakers.

“We had a bond. All the women in the Legislature did. When we needed to pass a women’s issue, Rae Ann would organize and say we’d all fight together for this," she said.

Jim Poolman, former Bismarck lawmaker and state insurance commissioner, said Kelsch was "not afraid to share her opinion." Chair of the House Education Committee for 17 years, she was a champion for education in the state, he said.

Kelsch served with other long-term Republicans in District 34, which covers Mandan, including Sen. Dwight Cook. Cook said he and Kelsch did a lot of joint campaigning and their names were on the ballot together six times.

"She was born for public policy," Cook said.

Allan Stenehjem, who served with Kelsch on the board of directors for Ruth Meiers Hospitality House, said Kelsch was "tireless" and believed in community service. She was involved in several nonprofits in Bismarck-Mandan.

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Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com.

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Education and Health Reporter