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Paul Wellstone: 10 Years After His Death, He Still Sets the Bar for a Politics of Conviction
Shortly before he died in a plane crash on October 25, 2002, Paul Wellstone explained why he was in the Senate: “I don’t represent the big oil companies, the big pharmaceuticals, or the big insurance industry. They already have great representation in Washington. It’s the rest of the people that need representation.”
A college professor turned politician, the Minnesota senator’s fiery speeches and dogged campaigning for progressive reform earned him the title “the conscience of the Senate.” The first Senate vote he cast, in 1991, was to oppose U.S. military action in the Persian Gulf. Eleven years later, he cast his last vote against a resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to use force against Iraq.
Soon after he died, cars in Minnesota and elsewhere began sporting green bumper stickers that read, “W.W.W.D. What would Wellstone do?” He had set the standard for what Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone’s campaign manager in his three Senate races, calls “conviction politics.”
“Paul based his political leadership and career on the idea [that] you say that you believe, you believe what you say, you put that out there for voters,” explained Blodgett. “When Paul first got into politics, lots of progressives weren’t enthusiastic about electoral politics. Paul believed that it was important to integrate community organizing and electoral politics. Organizing without electoral politics could marginalize social movements. Now most folks understand that. That’s one of Paul’s important legacies.”
Born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Wellstone grew up in Arlington, Virginia. His mother was a cafeteria worker and his father was a writer and federal employee. He had difficulty in school because of what he later found out was a learning disability, and he did poorly on his College Board tests (as a senator, he opposed educational measures that emphasized standardized test scores). Wellstone’s positive outlet was athletics; only five-foot-five, he was a champion wrestler, undefeated in high school. At the University of North Carolina, he won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship in his 126-pound weight class.
Wellstone earned his undergraduate degree in 1965 and stayed at the University of North Carolina to earn a Ph.D. in political science in 1969 with a dissertation about black militants.
From 1969 to 1989, Wellstone taught political science at Carleton College in Minnesota, where he got involved in local organizing campaigns and encouraged his students to do the same. Blodgett, a political science major, was one of those students.
“Paul encouraged students to try out jobs in social change,” Blodgett recalled. “He helped me get my first job as a community organizer working with family farmers in rural Minnesota.”
While teaching at Carleton, Wellstone was arrested twice—once at a Vietnam War protest at the federal building in Minneapolis and a second time at a local bank, where he was protesting farm foreclosures. He challenged the college’s investments in companies doing business in South Africa, picketed with strikers at a meatpacking plant, and taught his classes off campus rather than cross a picket line during a strike by Carleton’s custodians.
Angered by Wellstone’s activism, college administrators tried to fire him, but students waged an aggressive protest campaign to keep Wellstone on the faculty. Instead of being dismissed, Wellstone was granted tenure a year early.
Wellstone’s first two books, How The Rural Poor Got Power: Narrative Of A Grass-Roots Organizer and Powerline: The First Battle of America's Energy War, published in 1978 and 1981, respectively, drew on his organizing experiences among Minnesota farmers and rural residents and the activist group he founded, the Organization for a Better Rice County.
In the early 1980s,Wellstone became active with Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor Party, running unsuccessfully for state auditor in 1982. Wellstone went on to co-chair Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign in Minnesota, and then worked for the Michael Dukakis campaign after Dukakis won the Democratic nomination.
In 1990, Wellstone ran a grassroots campaign against U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz, a well-financed two-term Republican who outspent Wellstone nearly 7 to 1. He made his lack of financing an issue by running a humorous low-budget television commercial, “Fast Paul,” in which he rapidly introduced himself to voters, explaining he had to talk fast because he could not afford much airtime. Another quirky campaign ad, “Looking for Rudy,” was based on Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary, Roger & Me. Both low-budget commercials became immediate hits, helping Wellstone gain visibility.
A fixture of Wellstone’s campaign was a beat-up old school bus painted green and white with a speaker’s platform rigged onto the rear exit. Despite some last-minute smears by his opponent attacking Wellstone’s patriotism and religious integrity (supporters of the Jewish Boschwitz claimed that Wellstone was not a practicing Jew), Wellstone won 50.4 percent of the vote. He was the only challenger to defeat an incumbent senator that year.
When he met President George H. W. Bush at a White House reception for newly elected members of Congress, Wellstone, ignoring protocol, spoke out, urging the president to spend more time on issues like education and cautioning him against invading Iraq. Irked, Bush asked an aide, “Who is this chickenshit?”
While serving in the Senate, Wellstone remained an organizer.. He was frequently on picket lines and at rallies sponsored by labor, community, environmental, and other progressive groups. His speeches, often appearing to be delivered completely off-the-cuff, would crescendo wildly into loud, short jeremiads expressing indignation at whatever wrongs the rally was addressing.
During most of Wellstone’s Senate career, the Democrats were the minority party. In his 2002 book The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda, he acknowledged that he spent nearly 85 percent of his time on defense, battling Republican attacks on working families and preventing bad things—like oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—from happening. When the Democrats were in the majority in 1993–1994, Wellstone pushed for a Canadian-style single-payer healthcare system, in contrast to President Bill Clinton’s more modest reform proposal.
Wellstone opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. He fought for campaign finance and lobbying reforms. He was one of three senators to oppose the Bush administration’s attempt to relaunch the Star Wars national missile defense program. He criticized President Clinton for sending troops to Haiti without the consent of Congress. He was the only Senate Democrat to oppose his party’s version of lowering the inheritance tax. He virtually single-handedly stalled proposed bankruptcy legislation that would have imposed onerous new burdens on the poor while benefitting banks, credit card and car finance companies, and retailers.
Paul’s wife, Sheila, whom he married in college, played a key role in mobilizing supporters to pass the landmark Violence Against Women Act in 1994, which Wellstone co-sponsored with then-Sen. Joe Biden. The law fundamentally changed the way our society responds to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. It provides funding to create a comprehensive support system for survivors and their families.
In 1995, Wellstone and Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican, cosponsored a bill that would require insurance companies to provide mental health patients with the same level of care as those suffering from physical illnesses. (Wellstone’s older brother suffered from crippling depression.) In 2008, six years after Wellstone’s death, Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Patrick Kennedy finally pushed the Wellstone and Domenici Mental Health Parity Act through Congress.
In 1996, Wellstone was the only senator up for re-election to vote against an overhaul of the nation’s welfare system, which Clinton signed that year. In a speech on the Senate floor, Wellstone predicted that the law would hurt low-income children. “They don’t have the lobbyists, they don’t have the PACs,” Wellstone said.
As Wellstone predicted, his opponent—Rudy Boschwitz, in a rematch—used that and other votes against him, calling him “Senator Welfare” and labeling him an “embarrassing liberal and decades out of touch.” But Wellstone, who raised roughly $3 million more than Boschwitz, ran a feisty campaign and won a landslide victory.
Though Wellstone consistently had the most progressive voting record of any senator, he angered his liberal supporters in 1996 by voting for the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to withhold legal recognition of same-sex unions from other states. Later, Wellstone wrote that he regretted that vote. “Paul learned a lot from his friends in LGBT community,” recalls Blodgett, who is now running the Obama campaign in Minnesota. “He did a lot of soul-searching and apologizing.”
Even senatorial colleagues who disagreed with Wellstone’s views acknowledged his extraordinary human decency. He was one of the few senators who spent time with and remembered the names of waiters, elevator operators, police officers and other Capitol Hill workers.
Wellstone’s joy distinguished him from most other politicians, including other liberals and progressives, Blodgett recalled.
“Paul was a happy warrior,” he said. He used to say, ‘You have to do this job with a twinkle in your eye.’He often made fun of himself. He used humor quite effectively. He built majorities because of those qualities that went beyond his political positions.
“There was always a set of voters— maybe 6 or 7 percent of the electorate— who didn't always agree with Paul, but they respected the fact that they knew where he stood and he was honest and true to his beliefs,” said Blodgett. “It's a lesson for political leaders. You don’t always have to be careful and cautious and weigh everything based on what the polls say.”
In May of 1997, Wellstone began laying the groundwork for a 2000 presidential campaign, embarking on a cross-country “children’s tour” to Mississippi, Appalachia and poor neighborhoods in Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Baltimore, retracing the route taken by Senator Robert Kennedy in a similar tour in 1966. He sought to remind his Senate colleagues, the press and the public that poverty remained a serious problem in the United States, despite the economic boom and low unemployment of the period. Through his campaign, Wellstone said, he would represent the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
He abandoned his presidential ambitions in January 1999, explaining that an old wrestling injury made it impossible for him to endure the physical challenges of a national campaign.
In 2002, Wellstone, reneging on a promise to limit himself to two terms, ran for reelection. That year he also announced that he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, joking with journalists that it was fitting that he should be diagnosed with a degenerative “progressive” illness.
The Republican Party and corporate lobbying groups targeted Wellstone as the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbent and raised a huge campaign war chest to help former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman beat the progressive Democrat. President George W. Bush visited Minnesota twice to campaign and raise money for Coleman, and Bush’s father followed suit. Karl Rove oversaw the anti-Wellstone effort, steering money from the energy industry—upset by Wellstone’s persistent opposition to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—to support Coleman’s campaign. “There are people in the White House who wake up in the morning thinking about how they will defeat Paul Wellstone,” observed a senior Republican aide confided at the time. “This one is political and personal for them.”
Wellstone’s first television ads criticized Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. When Congress voted overwhelmingly to authorize military force against Iraq, Wellstone was the only senator facing a tough reelection challenge to vote no, opposing Bush’s “preemptive, go-it-alone strategy.”
Polls showed that a few weeks before election day, Wellstone had pulled slightly ahead of Coleman. Then, just eleven days before the election, on his way to a funeral and a campaign event in rural Minnesota, Wellstone’s plane crashed near the Eveleth airport, killing the 58-year-old senator, his wife, Sheila, his daughter Marcia, three campaign staffers and two pilots.
A memorial service for the Wellstones and other victims of the crash filled a 20,000-seat arena at the University of Minnesota. The Democrats picked former senator and vice president Walter Mondale to replace Wellstone in the campaign, but it was too late to wage an effective campaign. Minnesota voters elected Coleman.
Most obituaries described Wellstone as a quixotic radical, out of step with the times—a progressive in a conservative era. But Wellstone understood the importance of pushing the debate to the left while also fighting for concrete gains in legislation. He was sometimes a lone dissenter, but at other times he used his position to rescue progressive amendments from oblivion.
“He was always the last guy standing with the last amendment,” Senator Byron L. Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, told the Los Angeles Times. “It was always about children, or the poor.”
Six years later, comedian Al Franken, a Minnesota native and one of Wellstone’s closest friends, beat Coleman to take back the seat for the Democrats.
Wellstone’s legacy is memorialized in many ways, from the the schools and affordable housing projects named after him to the numerous fellowships and awards established to honor the Wellstones’ dedication to social justice.
In 2003, Blodgett and Wellstone’s two surviving children, Mark and David, founded Wellstone Action, a Minnesota-based training center for community organizers, student activists, campaign staff, progressive candidates and elected officials. “We need to help our champions win office so they can be our allies within the halls of power,” said Blodgett, who served as the organization’s director until last year.
Wellstone Action has trained more than 55,000 community organizers, campaign managers, and candidates. Several dozen of its alums are now elected officials, including school board and city council members, mayors, state legislators, and several members of Congress.
Mark Ritchie, Minnesota’s Secretary of State, is a Wellstone Action alum. As an organizer with the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and as founder of the League of Rural Voters, Ritchie worked with Wellstone to improve conditions for farmers and other rural Americans.
“Paul was one of the first people that I knew who moved from issue activism and direct action organizing to electoral politics,” Ritchie recalled. “He had incredible integrity. He was an inspiration. Not just the legislation he worked on. But also the way he connected with people. After Paul died, I was one of a number of people— activists who had worked with Paul—who decided that we ought to run for public office and help keep Paul’s legacy alive.” He called Wellstone Action’s three-day “boot camp” for candidates “the perfect training for coming to terms with what it actually meant to run for office.”
Ten years ago, Ritchie was a conference on family farm issues in Berea, Kentucky when the desk clerk at the hotel told him that Wellstone’s plane had crashed. She was in tears.
“It turns out that a few years earlier Sheila and Paul had come to eastern Kentucky, where Sheila was born and raised, to hold a hearing on mine safety,” said Ritchie. “She said that her father and brother worked in the coal mines and that she knew they were now safer because of this hearing. She thanked me for being from a state that sent someone like Paul to Washington—someone who cared about the lives and well-being of workers and their families. She was touched by Paul because he listened and learned.”