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.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

Adjacent posts