Ten years ago today, we lost one of the most principled and courageous progressive leaders who ever served our country in Congress: Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.
Senator Wellstone, his wife Sheila, daughter Marcia, and three campaign aides were killed when the plane they had chartered to fly to Eveleth for a funeral crashed shortly after takeoff, leaving no survivors. The tragedy ended Senator Wellstone’s life and his reelection campaign, but not his spirit or good works.
Today, we pause to remember the Wellstones and celebrate their legacy.
Paul Wellstone was thought of by many progressives as the conscience of the Senate for a reason. He was not an opportunist or a tool of the Beltway establishment, like so many other politicians. He was progressive populist who believed that people and planet should come first. “My definition of community is we all do better when we all do better,” Wellstone once said in a speech to students graduating from Chisholm High School.
Wellstone was an authentic pragmatist: he recognized and appreciated the true meaning of politics. He was never confused about why he was involved. As he put it: “Politics is not about power. Politics is not about money. Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning. Politics is about the improvement of people’s lives.”
During his time in the U.S. Senate, Wellstone took many tough, courageous votes. He voted against the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 (he was only one of eight senators to do so) and against the resolution authorizing George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2002. In 1996, while running for reelection, he voted against Bill Clinton’s scheme to overhaul welfare. He was a senator who listened to his constituents and allowed his moral compass to guide his decision making.
Senator Wellstone won his first campaign in 1990. Using his grassroots organizing skills, he built a strong and effective campaign organization that galvanized people all over Minnesota. He was the only Democrat that year to unseat a Republican incumbent (Rudy Boschwitz). In 1996, Boschwitz challenged him to a rematch, but Wellstone won again, thanks to his people-powered campaign.
Senator Wellstone is no longer with us, but his sons Mark and David, along with former campaign staff, have kept his legacy alive through Wellstone Action, a nonprofit that trains progressives to work on issues, run for office, and successfully manage campaigns. Tens of thousands of progressive activists have been trained by Wellstone Action over the last few years, including yours truly (a proud graduate of Camp Wellstone Seattle 2005) and most of NPI’s other staff and board members. Wellstone Action teaches what Paul taught: successful political action requires good public policy, grassroots organizing, and effective electoral politics.
As Senator Wellstone said:
Policy provides direction and agenda for action; grassroots organizing builds a constituency to fight for change, and electoral politics is the main way we contest for power and hold decision makers accountable.
Electoral politics without grassroots organizing is a politics without a base. Grassroots organizing without electoral politics can be a marginal politics. Electoral politics and grassroots organizing without policy is a movement without a direction and without a head.
Many progressives are sharing their remembrances of Senator Wellstone today.
Senator Al Franken, who now holds Wellstone’s Senate seat, wrote a guest column for the Duluth News Tribune reflecting on some of the things he learned from Wellstone, and sharing memories of Wellstone’s campaigns. (The paper, meanwhile, has published a very nice collection of photos of Wellstone on the campaign trail). Here’s Senator Franken:
He had this way of closing out his speeches with an incredible gesticulating crescendo — three minutes of passion and enthusiasm that just kept rising until you thought he was going to explode. And it would always make the crowd happy. Not just excited, but happy to see him having so much fun talking about the things that motivated him.
What I liked most was that if Paul had to deliver a 10-minute speech, the crescendo would always start seven minutes in. If it was a 20-minute speech, it would start 17 minutes in. If it was a four-minute speech, he’d start peaking a minute into the thing. It was always great to watch.
Our own Senator Patty Murray, who served with Wellstone in the Senate, released a statement honoring his memory.
“I will always miss my friend Paul,” Murray said. “And while today is a reminder of that painful day a decade ago, it is much more about celebrating the legacy of a man whose passion and mission endure. Paul dedicated his life to changing the lives of those who had no one else to speak for them. And today, his efforts continue with his foundation, the work of his friends and colleagues, and the belief that the little guy can have a big voice when organized and empowered. Paul, his family, and all those lost ten years ago will remain in my thoughts and prayers. I continue to be inspired by the life and work of Paul Wellstone every single day.”
MinnPost has a rather excellent interview with Walter Mondale in which the former Democratic presidential nominee discusses the tumultuous aftermath of Wellstone’s death and his struggle to reintroduce himself to voters. (Mondale was drafted by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota to replace Wellstone on the ballot, at the request of Wellstone’s surviving sons).
And Minnesota Public Radio has a nice story about what has happened to Senator Wellstone’s former staff in the years since his death. (Many are doing great work in our nation’s capital for progressives like Keith Ellison and Tim Walz).
Besides Wellstone Action, there are many other buildings and programs that bear Wellstone’s name, notably Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary in St. Paul. These honors help ensure that the Wellstones are never forgotten.
We extend our profound thanks to Mark and David Wellstone and the team at Wellstone Action for carrying Paul and Sheila’s legacy forward.