Five years ago this week, the plane carrying Paul Wellstone and his wife Sheila, their daughter Marcia, and campaign workers crashed on the Iron Range. I canÃ¯Â¿Â½t help but wonder how the past five years might have been different in Washington if Paul were still there representing the principles he so proudly upheld.
While Washington has long been influenced by special interests, pundits, and political winds, Paul Wellstone was rarely, if ever, influenced by them. He drew his political direction and spiritual strength from the average people he knew and met as a teacher, a community organizer and ultimately, as a senator.
I was with him one time when the representative of a large corporation requested special consideration on an issue likely to come before the Senate. Wellstone listened politely, but told him he wasnÃ¯Â¿Â½t sure it was in the public interest. As he often said, the big corporations have plenty of senators and congressmen that represent them just fine in Washingon. Paul saw himself as the senator who stood up and fought for the rest of us.
One longtime DFLer, Jack Nelson-Pallemeyer, who is currently running to take back WellstoneÃ¯Â¿Â½s seat, likes to say that Wellstone had a bad back but a strong political spine. Indeed, there have been few senators in Washington who were more willing to buck the political tides than Paul Wellstone. He demonstrated that more clearly than ever when he voted against giving President Bush authorization to go to war in IraqÃ¯Â¿Â½ just days before the election. It was the last significant vote of his career and, fittingly, it was the clearest possible demonstration of unequaled political courage. He was the only U.S. Senator seeking re-election that year to vote no to the Iraq warÃ¯Â¿Â½ and he did so at a time when President Bush was still riding high in the polls in the wake of Sept. 11. Wellstone knew his vote might cost him votes in a close election, but he also knew that staying true to himself and his conscience was more important than that.
How different he was from most of the current crop of Democrats in Washington, who seem to view political power as an end in itself, rather than a means to the ultimate goal of building a better America. Paul Wellstone understood that power was hollow unless lawmakers were willing to use it for good.
Despite Democratic majorities in Congress, we see a political agenda that is still largely set by the Bush White House, with Democrats offering only the meekest resistance to the administrationÃ¯Â¿Â½s unprecedented secrecy and abuses of power. The Democrats calculate the politics and plead helplessness as the U.S. occupation of Iraq now threatens to drag on for years, if not decades to come. Paul Wellstone never settled for helplessness, and I canÃ¯Â¿Â½t help but think that the arguments might be different in Washington if Paul were still there.
You donÃ¯Â¿Â½t find many politicians like Paul Wellstone, in part because he never really started out to be one. His passion was teaching, and his lesson was one of empowerment. He knew that powerful interests would undermine the public good, unless average people knew how to organize to challenge that powerÃ¯Â¿Â½ and thatÃ¯Â¿Â½s what he worked to teach, both in the classroom and through hands-on training. For him, being senator wasnÃ¯Â¿Â½t about ego or money, it was about continuing his mission of empowering average people. Ultimately, WellstoneÃ¯Â¿Â½s message was an intensely hopeful one.
I think for many who appreciated Wellstone, much of their hope disappeared on that awful day five years ago. But his legacy isnÃ¯Â¿Â½t gone. It lives on in organizations like Wellstone Action, which provide political organizing skills to people around the country. The political organizing camps sponsored by Wellstone Action have produced many alumni who have gone on win political office, run campaigns, or achieve real progress by organizing in their own communities.
Even five years after his death, Wellstone is still an inspiration to many who believe America can again be a place that truly values liberty and justice for all.
© 2007 The Timberjay Newspapers