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Paul Wellstone | The Nation

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Paul Wellstone

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Patti Smith scanned the thousands of antiwar demonstrators who filled Washington the day after the death of Paul Wellstone and reflected on the enormous loss of the Minnesota senator whose last great act in Congress was to cast a courageous vote against attacking Iraq. Then, as she prepared to rip into a rendition of "People Have the Power," the poet and rock star declared, "He would not want us to give him a moment of silence."

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Paul Wellstone would have loved that--not just for its echo of the labor movement's "don't mourn, organize" tradition that he cherished but for its essential optimism. More than any prominent progressive political leader in decades, Wellstone relished the good fight. And he relished politics. He believed it mattered enormously to rally, to march, to walk a precinct and to run for public office--be it school board or the Senate. And he believed all those tasks should be undertaken joyfully.

Wellstone may have been a member of the most exclusive club in the world, but he always thought of himself as part of a movement. And to him, building the movement was not a duty, it was a pleasure. Whether he was picketing with immigrant workers outside a St. Paul hotel, rallying with family farmers, touring the South to raise awareness of poverty in the midst of plenty, marching in Seattle against the WTO or campaigning in this year's high-stakes run for a third term in the Senate, Wellstone displayed delight rarely shown by politicians. He would frequently open his speeches by shouting, "It is great to be here with my friends." More often than not, he was their only ally in the Senate, as his record of placing himself on the losing end of 99-to-1 votes illustrated. Yet no matter how uphill the struggle, he would finish those speeches by recalling the triumphs of Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Mother Jones and a thousand other crusaders and bellowing: "We're going to win this fight! You! Me! Together! Our politics is a winning politics!"

Wellstone's words carried weight because he had won.

In 1990, at a time when the Democratic Leadership Council was using every corporate dollar it could find to drag the Democratic Party to the pro-business right, Wellstone came on the national political radar as an unabashed progressive populist who declared himself in solidarity with the causes of union workers, family farmers, peace activists, abortion rights campaigners and racial and ethnic minorities. He took a cue from filmmaker Michael Moore's anticorporate masterpiece, Roger & Me, and cut a television commercial that had him chasing after his Republican opponent, millionaire Senator Rudy Boschwitz, seeking a debate. That November, Wellstone was the only Democratic challenger to upset a Republican incumbent. It was a huge win for what Wellstone called "the democratic wing of the Democratic Party." And if party insiders tended to dismiss the lesson of Wellstone's victory, grassroots Democrats did not. "He sort of showed me the way--how a guy can run for office without a lot of money and win," recalled Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, another maverick Democrat. After Wellstone, his wife, Sheila, their daughter, Marcia, three campaign aides and two pilots died in a plane crash in northern Minnesota on October 25, Feingold recalled how before either of them was elected they would talk about how remarkable it would be if guys like them sat in the Senate.

Feingold's reflections on the loss of a political soulmate came as part of a chorus of senatorial and media tributes from across the ideological spectrum. The sum total of all the words that poured forth from politicians and pundits was a rare expression of regard for a brand of politics that has for years been dismissed as somehow lacking in logic or, more important to Washington insiders, "political viability." Conservative commentators, who elbowed one another aside to praise the senator who titled his autobiography The Conscience of a Liberal as a "Barry Goldwater of the left," could not have fully understood the irony of their observing that the Minnesotan had distinguished himself from the average vote-grubbing, poll-watching senator by casting a "courageous" vote against the Bush Administration's Iraq policy. And Democratic senators who just weeks before had privately counseled Wellstone to jettison his principles in order to win re-election and "live to fight another day" surely hoped no one would ask them to explain why Wellstone was suddenly "the conscience of the Democratic Party."

Most commentators mischaracterized Wellstone as a happy maverick. He was a man of principle, but he was also a man on the hunt for opportunities to use those principles to shape public policy--as he did with bills and amendments, many of them crafted by Sheila Wellstone, that expanded protections for victims of domestic abuse; and as he did with his groundbreaking work on mental-healthcare parity legislation with New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici. Wellstone, the former college professor and occasional Nation contributor, would have said something about this being "a teaching moment." He would have wanted to turn all that lofty Washington rhetoric about his noble "acts of conscience" into practical action on his legislative agenda: national healthcare, minimum-wage hikes, antitrust assaults on corporate agribusiness and redirection of trade policy to protect workers and the environment. Not only because it was morally right but because, as he often said, "fighting on behalf of good jobs, good healthcare and good education is good politics; it's how Democrats get beyond one- or two-seat majorities to the sort of supermajorities we used to have."

Wellstone worried a lot in his last months about the failure of the Democratic Party, in Congress and beyond the Beltway, to get its act together when it came to opposing Bush. His own record was not perfect in this regard--even he joined the stampede for the USA Patriot Act--but he believed Democratic leaders in Congress erred terribly when they failed to push an aggressively anticorporate legislative agenda and didn't direct more money into organizing drives to increase turnout among downsized workers, hard-pressed farmers and immigrant communities. In his own re-election campaign he set a dramatically different course. Confronted with the full force of the Bush Administration's big money and heavy-handed politicking, he countered with a movement that set out to organize 15,000 volunteers and planned the greatest get-out-the-vote drive Minnesota has ever seen. And he wrote the last ad of his campaign himself: "I don't represent the big oil companies, I don't represent the big pharmaceutical companies, I don't represent the Enrons of this world. But you know what, they already have great representation in Washington. It's the rest of the people that need it."

Wellstone identified with the populist and progressive movements that arose in the upper Midwest in the early twentieth century. He shared their distrust of big corporations that sought to dominate our economic life and of those in government who would dominate the world through military might. Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has a history of arguing that the most important battles need to be fought at home, not in distant lands, and Wellstone mirrored the DFL's values well in a Senate career that began and ended with votes against authorizing two Presidents named Bush to lead the country into war.

Those who described Wellstone as "the first sixties radical elected to the Senate," missed something fundamental about the man, who was married and busy raising kids by the time others in his generation got to Woodstock. He didn't impose radical values on his adopted state of Minnesota, where he went to teach at Carleton College in 1969. He learned them there, marching at the side of striking Hormel meatpackers and getting arrested with farmers protesting bank foreclosures in the 1980s, just as he learned his politics in the heartland of the Democratic-Farmer- Labor Party, particularly in the mining towns of the Iron Range, where the party, the union and the Lutheran Church formed a powerful trinity. No one in Minnesota was surprised to learn that Wellstone, a man who feared flying, had chosen to fly on his last day through snow and rain to attend the funeral of a DFL stalwart on the Iron Range. Wellstone always argued that the DFL--with its emphasis on ideology, solidarity and organizing--should serve as a model for the revitalization of the Democratic Party. This past spring, not long after George W. Bush jetted into Minnesota to campaign against him, Wellstone, who had recently been diagnosed with a mild case of MS, struggled to the podium at a DFL dinner in Minneapolis. But as he spoke, signs of the ailment disappeared. "The President can come in. The Vice President can come in. The big money can come in. But I'm not worried. I've got you with me," Wellstone roared as a thousand DFL faithful cheered him on. "I am a proud progressive senator from Minnesota. I am a proud liberal senator. I am a labor senator. I am an environmentalist senator. I am an education senator. I am a civil rights senator. And that's how we win this election. That's the politics that wins this year."

As it turned out, Wellstone was right. The grassroots campaign he had built was, according to the polls, carrying him to victory. And, because a plane could not quite carry him to the Iron Range that Friday, the campaign will now put another DFL contender-- former Vice President Walter Mondale--in the Senate. There is even talk that a "Wellstone effect" may energize Democratic campaigns in other Midwestern battleground states, where Bush's cynical politicking may have lost some of its former resonance. But will Paul Wellstone leave a model for the winning politics about which he preached so passionately?

Ask Mee Moua, a Hmong immigrant to Minnesota, who says Wellstone was one of the first political figures to pay serious attention to their immigrant community. Moua was recently elected to the Minnesota Senate--the first Hmong in the nation to win a legislative seat. On the Sunday after Wellstone died, with tears streaming down her cheeks, the 33-year-old legislator spoke of Paul Wellstone's influence on her at a Hmong ceremony honoring the senator: "He made me believe again that politics and power are good things when you return them back to their roots--the people whom they are supposed to serve."

Paul Wellstone would not have wanted a moment of silence. He would have preferred the noisier--and more determined--tributes of Mee Moua and the progressives who are working in Minnesota and across the nation to build the winning politics he proved to be possible.

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