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Paul Wellstone, 58, Icon of Liberalism in Senate, Dies
Published on Saturday, October 26, 2002 by the New York Times
Paul Wellstone, 58, Icon of Liberalism in Senate, Dies
by David E. Rosenbaum
 

ASHINGTON, Oct. 25 Paul Wellstone often seemed out of step. He called himself a liberal when many used that word as a slur. He voted against the Persian Gulf war in his first year in the Senate, and this month opposed using force against Iraq.

Senator Wellstone, 58, who died in a plane crash today while campaigning for re-election, fought for bills favored by unions and advocates of family farmers and the poor, and against those favored by banks, agribusiness and large corporations.

This year he was the principal opponent of legislation supported by large majorities of Democrats and Republicans that would make it more difficult for people to declare bankruptcy. He argued that the measure would enrich creditors at the expense of people "in brutal economic circumstances." He advocated causes like national health insurance that even many of his fellow liberals abandoned as futile.

Mr. Wellstone was a rumpled, unfailingly modest man who, unlike many of his colleagues, lived on his Senate salary. He was married to the former Sheila Ison for 39 years, having married at 19 when he was in college. His wife and their 33-year-old daughter, Marcia, also died today in the crash.

When Mr. Wellstone arrived in the Senate in 1991, he was a firebrand who thought little of breaking the Senate tradition of comity and personally attacking his colleagues. He told an interviewer soon after he was elected that Senator Jesse Helms, the conservative North Carolina Republican, "represents everything to me that is ugly and wrong and awful about politics."

But as the years passed, Mr. Wellstone moderated his personality if not his politics and became well liked by Republicans as well as Democrats. Bob Dole, the former Senate Republican leader who often tangled with Mr. Wellstone on legislation, choked up today when he told a television interviewer that Mr. Wellstone was "a decent, genuine guy who had a different philosophy from almost everyone else in the Senate."

Mr. Wellstone was also an accomplished campaigner. Though he had never held elected office, he pulled off a major upset in 1990 when, running on a shoestring budget, he defeated the incumbent Republican senator, Rudy Boschwitz. He beat Mr. Boschwitz in a rematch in 1996. This year, he reneged on a promise to limit himself to two terms, ran for re-election and seemed in the most recent public polls to have pulled slightly ahead of his Republican challenger, former Mayor Norm Coleman of St. Paul.

His opponents always portrayed him as a left-wing extremist. Mr. Boschwitz's television commercials in 1996 called Mr. Wellstone "embarrassingly liberal and out of touch." This year, Mr. Coleman said the senator was "so far out of the mainstream, so extreme, that he can't deliver for Minnesotans."

But on the campaign trail, Mr. Wellstone appeared to be so happy, so comfortable, so unthreatening that he was able to ward off the attacks.

For years, he had walked with a pronounced limp that he attributed to an old wrestling injury. In February, he announced at a news conference that he had learned he had multiple sclerosis, but he said the illness would not affect his campaigning or his ability to sit in the Senate. "I have a strong mind although there are some that might disagree about that I have a strong body, I have a strong heart, I have a strong soul," he told reporters.

Paul David Wellstone was born in Washington on July 21, 1944, and grew up in Arlington, Va. His father, Leon, left Russia as a child to escape the persecution of Jews, and worked as a writer for the United States Information Agency. His mother, Minnie, the daughter of immigrants from Russia, worked in a junior high school cafeteria.

Growing up, he was more interested in wrestling than politics, and he had some difficulty in school because of what he later found out was a learning disability. He scored lower than 800, out of a total of 1,600, on his College Boards, and this led him as a senator to oppose measures that emphasized standardized test scores. In an interview, he once said that even as an adult he had difficulty interpreting charts and graphs quickly but that he had learned to overcome his disability by studying harder and taking more time to absorb information.

Partly because of his wrestling ability he was a conference champion at 126 pounds he was admitted to the University of North Carolina and, galvanized by the civil rights movement, he turned from wrestling to politics. He graduated in 1965 and stayed in Chapel Hill for a doctorate in political science. He wrote his thesis on the roots of black militancy.

Married with children, he once said he did not have time to participate in the student uprisings in the 1960's. He is survived by two grown sons, David and Mark, of St. Paul, and six grandchildren.

But while he was not a student rebel, Mr. Wellstone did not fit in from the day in 1969 when he began teaching political science at Carleton College, a small liberal arts campus in rural Northfield, Minn.

He was more interested in leading his students in protests than he was in publishing in academic journals, and he was often at odds with his colleagues and Carleton administrators. He fought the college's investments in companies doing business in South Africa, battled local banks that foreclosed on farms, picketed with strikers at a meat-packing plant and taught classes off campus rather than cross a picket line when Carleton's custodians were on strike.

In 1974, the college told him his contract would not be renewed. But with strong support from students, the student newspaper and local activists, he appealed the dismissal, and it was reversed.

In 1982, Mr. Wellstone dipped his toe into the political waters for the first time and ran for state auditor. He lost. But he had made contacts in the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, and he stayed active in politics. In 1988, he was the state co-chairman of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's campaign in the presidential primary, and in the general election, he was co-chairman of the campaign of Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee.

Few thought he had a chance when he announced that he would run for the Senate against Mr. Boschwitz. Russell D. Feingold, now a like-minded liberal Democratic senator from Wisconsin, today had this recollection of dropping by to meet Mr. Wellstone in 1989:

"He opened the door, and there he was with his socks off, 15 books open that he was reading, and he was on the phone arguing with somebody about Cuba. He gave me coffee, and we laughed uproariously at the idea that either of us would ever be elected. But he pulled it off in 1990 and gave me the heart to do it in Wisconsin."

Mr. Feingold was elected in 1992, also with a tiny treasury.

Mr. Boschwitz spent $7 million on his campaign, seven times Mr. Wellstone's budget. To counteract the Boschwitz attacks, Mr. Wellstone ran witty, even endearing television commercials produced without charge by a group led by a former student. In one ad, the video and audio were speeded up, and Mr. Wellstone said he had to talk fast because "I don't have $6 million to spend."

Mr. Wellstone toured the state in a battered green school bus, and in the end, he won 50.4 percent of the vote and was the only challenger in 1990 to defeat an incumbent senator.

He arrived in Washington as something of a rube. On one of his first days in town before he was sworn in, he called a reporter for the name of a restaurant where he could get a cheap dinner. When the reporter replied that he knew a place where a good meal was only $15, Mr. Wellstone said $15 was many times what he was prepared to spend.

He also made what he later conceded were "rookie mistakes." At one point, for instance, he used the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a backdrop for a news conference to oppose the war against Iraq. Veterans' groups denounced him, and he later apologized.

But he soon warmed to the ways of the Senate and became especially adept at the unusual custom of giving long speeches to an empty chamber. Probably no one in the Senate over the last dozen years gave more speeches at night after nearly all the other senators had gone home.

His strength was not in getting legislation enacted. One successful measure he sponsored in 1996 with Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, requires insurance companies in some circumstances to give coverage to people with mental illness, but he failed this year in an effort to strengthen the law.

In a book he published last year, "The Conscience of a Liberal" (Random House), Mr. Wellstone wrote, "I feel as if 80 percent of my work as a senator has been playing defense, cutting the extremist enthusiasms of the conservative agenda (much of which originates in the House) rather than moving forward on a progressive agenda."

In a speech in the Senate this month explaining his opposition to the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, Mr. Wellstone stressed that Saddam Hussein was "a brutal, ruthless dictator who has repressed his own people."

But Mr. Wellstone went on to say: "Despite a desire to support our president, I believe many Americans still have profound questions about the wisdom of relying too heavily on a pre-emptive go-it-alone military approach. Acting now on our own might be a sign of our power. Acting sensibly and in a measured way, in concert with our allies, with bipartisan Congressional support, would be a sign of our strength."

Later, Mr. Wellstone told a reporter that he did not believe his stance would hurt him politically. "What would really hurt," he said, "is if I was giving speeches and I didn't even believe what I was saying. Probably what would hurt is if people thought I was doing something just for political reasons."

Mr. Wellstone briefly considered running for president in 2000, but he called off the campaign because, he said, the doctors who had been treating him for a ruptured disk told him that his back could not stand the travel that would be required.

Often, Mr. Wellstone was the only senator voting against a measure, or one of only a few. He was, for instance, one of three senators in 1999 to support compromise missile defense legislation. He was the only one that year to vote against an education bill involving standardized tests, and the only Democrat who opposed his party's version of lowering the estate tax.

Mr. Wellstone was one of the few senators who made the effort to meet and remember the names of elevator operators, waiters, police officers and other workers in the Capitol.

James W. Ziglar, a Republican who was sergeant at arms of the Senate from 1998 to 2001 and who is now commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, remembered today "the evening when he came back to the Capitol well past midnight to visit with the cleaning staff and tell them how much he appreciated their efforts."

"Most of the staff had never seen a senator and certainly had never had one make such a meaningful effort to express his or her appreciation," Mr. Ziglar said. "That was the measure of the man."

Copyright The New York Times Company

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