Who was Paul Wellstone?

paul wellstone
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Friday October 25, 2013 was the 11th anniversary of the tragic death of Minnesota U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone, his wife Sheila, his daughter Marcia, and 5 other people in a plane that crashed in Minnesota.

I didn’t have much time in my life for politics back in 2002, so I don’t have memories of this legendary progressive. That’s why today I’ve been tooling around the web doing my best to absorb the memories of others.

The following wonderful remembrance published in the Baltimore Sun November 4, 2002 tells us that before Paul Wellstone was a senator, he was a passionate, effective teacher of both organizing and political science at Carleton College:

Everyone who has watched television or read the paper in the last few days has been told repeatedly how liberal and outspoken was the late Sen. Paul Wellstone.

We have been reminded of his controversial votes in 1996 on welfare reform and, more recently, his “no” vote on a congressional resolution authorizing an attack on Iraq. Stories have abounded of his combative and fiery rhetoric. We have witnessed political allies and foes praise his principled behavior as a U.S. senator. Even President Bush had a kind word.

But there has been little talk about what may be Paul Wellstone’s most lasting legacy.

Long after the tributes are through and tomorrow’s election is over and the pundits argue what effect Mr. Wellstone’s death had on which party gained control of the Senate, there will still be scores of men and women like myself who will continue his work. We are Paul’s Carleton College students, and we form a small army of progressive professionals throughout the United States.

I met Mr. Wellstone my freshman year, 31 years ago, during the Vietnam War, at Carleton, which is situated in Northfield, Minn. Mr. Wellstone was not much older than the students he taught. We were impressionable. He was a young radical professor. He had a following of students like myself. We were attracted to his antiwar stance. He was a professor whom we not only admired but with whom we could identify.

Mr. Wellstone knew how to use the privilege and resources of Carleton. To his classes came George Wiley, founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization, Frances Fox Piven, the welfare scholar, and Saul Alinsky, the famous Chicago organizer and founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), of which BUILD is an affiliate.

Even the assignments in Mr. Wellstone’s classes were courses of study in the practice of organizing. In my freshman year, Mr. Wellstone assigned us to research the welfare system in rural Rice County, Minn. He took us to organizational meetings of welfare mothers, fighting to replace a food commodity program with food stamps.

In the early 1970s, movement organizing was the only variety of organizing on display on college campuses. Most students were exposed to organizing through mass protest demonstrations. Mr. Wellstone introduced us to old-fashioned community and labor organizing tactics.

We learned that 25 welfare mothers could research a policy and understand it. We learned that those same mothers with kids in tow could close down a county courthouse until someone would recognize them. We learned that compromise and negotiation are a part of organizing. In Mr. Wellstone’s classes, we read the theory of organizing, and went on to practice the art.

Today, his students are everywhere.

In Washington state, Joe Crastil is organizing with the IAF. In Chicago, Tracy Abman is one of the bright young labor organizers in the country. Ben Gordon directs organizing for New York with the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. Matt Finucane is the assistant director of the Civil Rights Department of the AFL-CIO. Kari Moe played a key role in the election of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago. There are more.

All of those Wellstone students have been calling each other in the past few days. I know because I have received calls from all over the country. We are now in our 40s and 50s.

But it’s amazing how many of us still organize as a vocation. Mr. Wellstone’s teaching took. He was a unique senator. I’m sure most people will remember him that way.

But we now middle-aged Wellstone students know his true legacy as an inspiring teacher. Thanks, Mr. Wellstone. — Jonathan Lange ’75 is the lead organizer of BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) – source

Below is his New York Times obitiuary.
At points I have inserted links to political ads and other video.

Paul Wellstone, 58, Icon of Liberalism in Senate, Dies

WASHINGTON, 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.

His U.S. Senate seat was his FIRST elected position. He was the only senate candidate to unseat an incumbent in 1990.

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.

Watch this 1990 ad in which Wellstone goes looking for his opponent, Boschwitz.
Beautiful.

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.”

A 1996 ad showing monsters including Newt Gingrich.:

This next video has an annoying hum, but it’s pretty awesome.
Wellstone speaks on a local Minnesota show called “The Almanac” in 1996, at times debating directly against Republican MN Senator Rod Grams.

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.

Here’s Feingold’s legendary winning “garage door” ad from 1992. It reminds me of Wellstone’s “looking for Boschwitz” ad.

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.”

Here’s that iconic “Quick Paul” ad.

The ad was so effective, a Minnesota Republican copied it last year to the insult of the DFL party. Source

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.”

The late Senator Paul Wellstone speaks on the Senate floor against going to war in Iraq.

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.”

Footnote:
I know some folks out there are of the belief that Wellstone was assassinated. I’m not sure of that.

If you’re interested in digging into that line of thinking, you might try these links:
From protester to senator, FBI tracked Paul Wellstone By Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio

Video: Conspiracy theorist Dr. James H. Fetzer speaking at U. of Minnesota – Duluth 2005

Wikipedia entry

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One thought on “Who was Paul Wellstone?

  1. Paul Wellstone was a legitimate hero within the political establishment. As such, he is one rare bird; perhaps the only such character in my lifetime to win my unqualified support and my admiration. I simply never had reason to question his sincerity nor his commitment to politics as a means to facilitate Progressivism (is that a word?)in the attempt to shape the world in a more user-friendly fashion.

    I bear no doubts that if Paul Wellstone were somehow able to appear on the Wisconsin scene today, he would be ridiculed and undermined in any way possible by the DPW. Tate & Co. would castigate him as an outsider and an instigator; as one who doesn’t play well with others; and as one who can’t possibly win an election due to his lack of appeal to “those who matter” in Party politics.

    Perhaps Vinehout should take a lesson from all this, if it isn’t already too late.

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