Paul Wellstone, 1944-2002
For grassroots economic and social justice activists, there was never any doubt about the identity of their representative in Washington. No matter what state they lived in, the senator they counted on was the same man: Paul Wellstone.
But for the family-farm activists with whom Wellstone marched and rallied across the 1980s and 1990s and into the twenty-first century, the Minnesota Democrat was more than a representative. He was their champion. And the news of his death Friday in a Minnesota plane crash struck with all the force of a death in the family.
I know, because I had to deliver that news. Family farm activists from across the upper Midwest had gathered Friday morning for the annual rural life conference of the Churches' Center for Land and People, in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. I had just finished delivering the keynote speech--ironically, about the need for activists to go into politics--when a colleague called with the "you'd better be sitting down..." news. Sister Miriam Brown, OP, the organizer of the conference and one of the most tireless crusaders for economic justice in rural America, and I talked for a few minutes about how to tell the crowd.
We knew the 150 people in the room well enough to understand that this news would change the tenor of the day. But we did not know just how much until I announced from the podium that Wellstone, his wife of thirty-nine years, Sheila, their daughter Marcia, and several campaign aides had been killed two hours earlier.
Cries of "No!" and "My God! My God!" filled the room, as grown men felt for tables to keep their balance, husbands and wives hugged one another and everyone began an unsuccessful struggle to choke back tears. The group gathered in a large circle. People wept in silence until, finally, a woman began to recite the Lord's Prayer for the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who had touched the lives and the hearts of solid Midwestern Catholic and Lutheran farmers who do not think of themselves as having many friends in Congress.
"He was our flagbearer," said Cathy Statz, education director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union. "There are plenty of people in Congress who vote right, but Paul did everything right. We didn't have to ask him, we didn't have to lobby him, he understood. It was like having one of us in Congress."
That was how Wellstone wanted it. "People have to believe you are on their side, that someone in the Senate is listening," the senator once told me. "If there is someone in Congress, maybe just one person, it gives them a sense that change is possible."
Wellstone's deep connection with progressive activists across the country was something that his colleagues noted again and again as they recalled the rare senator who was, himself, as much an activist as a politician. "He was the pied piper of modern politics--so many people heard him and wanted to follow him in his fight," recalled Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is considering a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, just as Wellstone considered a similar run in 2000.
Mourning in St. Paul, where he had come to campaign for Wellstone's re-election, Senator Edward Kennedy hailed his fellow liberal. "Today, the nation lost its most passionate advocate for fairness and justice for all," Kennedy said of Wellstone, who was the No. 1 political target of the Bush Administration this year but had secured a lead in the polls after voting against authorizing the President to attack Iraq. "He had an intense passion and enormous ability to reach out, touch and improve the lives of the people he served so brilliantly."
For Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, the loss was doubly difficult. Wellstone and he were the truest mavericks in the current Senate, lonely dissenters not just from George W. Bush's conservative Republicanism but from the centrist compromises of their own Democratic Party. Yet, Wellstone was something more: an inspiration. Recalling that the Minnesotan won his seat in 1990 with a grassroots campaign that relied more on humor than money, Feingold, who was elected with a similar campaign two years later, said, "He showed me that it was possible for someone with very little money to get elected to the Senate."