WASHINGTON - The year was 1969, a time identified with Woodstock and Vietnam
and protests and counterculture. Minnesota's Democratic icon, Hubert Humphrey,
had recently lost his bid for the presidency. But at Carleton College in Minnesota,
an untenured assistant professor named Paul Wellstone emerged in the state as
a symbol for the times.
Wellstone had embarked on a study of housing and health conditions of the
poor. The college's president was not pleased with the report, wondering why Wellstone
did not propose policy recommendations. ''This isn't for politicians or the elite,''
Wellstone replied. ''It is for poor people affected by the problems. It is to
help empower them to take action.''
The reaction was harsh. The college prepared to fire Wellstone if he did not
change his approach. But as Wellstone recalled in his 2001 autobiography, ''The
Conscience of a Liberal,'' ''I didn't change.'' Then something extraordinary happened,
something that taught Wellstone about people and politics and passion. Nearly
all of the college's 1,600 students signed a petition in support of Wellstone.
The administration relented and Wellstone eventually became the school's youngest
tenured professor at 28.
Yesterday, when the 58 -year-old Wellstone died in a plane crash while heading
to a funeral in Minnesota, the two-term US senator was fighting for reelection
on many of the same issues that first propelled him to notoriety 33 years ago.
In recent weeks, Wellstone was on the Senate floor, arguing for health care legislation
and rallying support for a host of causes that would benefit the most disadvantaged.
''He was the avatar of the left of American politics,'' said Steven Schier,
professor of political science at Carleton College. ''He drew activists from all
over the country to his reelection effort.''
It was, in fact, a campaign that Wellstone once said he would never wage,
having vowed to limit himself to two terms. But Wellstone was willing to take
the heat for breaking that vow because, he said, there were so few politicians
like himself willing to speak for the poorest and most disadvantaged voters.
Wellstone, 5 feet 5 inches tall, liked to say that he got his liberalism from
his parents. ''Don't worry,'' he wrote to his parents in the dedication of his
latest book, ''I'm a liberal!''
Wellstone's father, Leon Wexelstein, was born in Russia and fled to the United
States to escape persecution for his Jewish faith. His mother, Minnie, was born
on the Lower East Side of New York City. Their son, who was raised in Virginia,
attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was sometimes
the victim of anti-Semitism. But he said he felt at home in Minnesota, which he
called a landscape of many minorities.
During his years at Carleton, Wellstone focused on what helped him win his
job as a professor - organizing people. His signature course was ''Social Movements
and Grassroots Organizing.'' He became close to organized labor, frequently appearing
on picket lines. He stood with workers during a much-publicized strike at the
Hormel meat packing plant, which led to the replacement of many workers and became
a national issue. At the same time, many Minnesota family farmers were unable
to stay in business.
But Wellstone was also propelled into politics by his disdain for the direction
of the Democratic Party, which he felt had ''lost its soul, its sense of justice.''
He wanted not only to represent Minnesota in the Senate but also to shake up the
party on which he pinned his hope.
His first run for Senate, in 1990, was a most unlikely campaign, with an element
of Woodstock-goes-to-Washington, carried out from the back of a rundown green
school bus. But behind the ragtag exterior was a savvy strategy. The campaign
benefited greatly from Wellstone's tireless efforts to poke fun at politics and
portray himself as a down-to-earth campaigner for the little guy. ''The Almanac
of American Politics'' called it one of the great upsets of the decade and credited
a ''cuddly'' ad campaign that showed Wellstone trying to track down his opponent,
Republican Rudy Boschwitz, for a debate. Wellstone won with 50 percent of the
vote to Boschwitz's 48 percent.
During his 12 years in the Senate, Wellstone was often to the left of his
party, but he also worked with Republicans. He joined with Senator Pete Domenici,
Republican of New Mexico, on mental health legislation because both men had people
in their families affected by such illness. During this campaign, Wellstone faced
some criticism that he had become too much of a Senate insider.
Wellstone's relentlessness sometimes rankled others on Capitol Hill. Republicans
mocked him as ''Senator Welfare.'' Two years ago, Washingtonian magazine published
a survey of congressional staffers that ranked Wellstone as one of the Senate's
three ''biggest windbags.'' (The two others were Democrats Robert Byrd of West
Virginia and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.)
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company