Paul Wellstone, 1944-2002
Before his election to the Senate, Wellstone was a professor at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minnesota. Officially, he taught political science. Unofficially, he was referred to as "the professor of political activism." He created a course titled "Social Movements and Grassroots Organizing," and he taught by example. In the 1980s, Wellstone organized Minnesota campaign events for the Rev. Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns, marched with striking Hormel workers in Austin, Minnesota, and was arrested while protesting at a bank that was foreclosing on farms.
That was when Denise O'Brien, an Atlantic, Iowa, farm activist, first heard of Wellstone. "I remember hearing about this professor in Minnesota who cared so much about what was happening to farmers that he was willing to get arrested with us," O'Brien said Friday. "That had a big impact on me. I always remembered that he had stood with us." O'Brien, who went on to become president of the National Family Farm Coalition, recalled how amazed she was when Wellstone was elected to the Senate.
"But, you know what, he never changed. He was always that guy I first heard about, the one who was willing to stand up for the farmers," she remembered. "When the black farmers from down South were marching to protest their treatment by the Department of Agriculture, he would march with them. When no one was paying attention to this current farm crisis, he organized the Rally for Rural America."
At that March 2000, rally, Wellstone delivered one of his trademark speeches, a fiery outburst of anger at agribusiness conglomerates mixed with faith that organizing and political activism could yet save family farmers. "When Wellstone got going, he was so passionate. He was like the old populists, the way he would tear into the corporations," recalled John Kinsman, the president of the Family Farm Defenders.
At the children's camp run by the National Farmers Union, Cathy Statz says, "We use the video of his speech to the Rally for Rural America to teach the boys and girls that there are people in politics you can really look up to, that there are people who speak for us."
Then Statz stopped herself. Tears formed in her eyes. "I can't believe he's dead," she said. "I can't imagine the Senate without him."
The emotions ran deep after the announcement of the senator's death. But the people gathered at Sinsinawa were activists in the Wellstone tradition. So after they had wiped away their tears, they gathered to hear a panel of farm activists discuss running for local office. Greg David, of rural Jefferson County, Wisconsin, got up to tell the story of how, after two losses, he was finally elected to the county board of supervisors. His voice catching as he spoke, David concluded, "I think if Senator Wellstone was here today, if he could speak to us, he would say: Don't be afraid. Go out and run for public office. Put yourself in the contest. Running for office, serving in office, that's a part of building our movement. Maybe we didn't know before that it could be a form of activism, but we know that now. Senator Wellstone showed us that."