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Paul Wellstone, Fighter | The Nation

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Paul Wellstone, Fighter

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Paul Wellstone is a hunted man. Minnesota's senior senator is not just another Democrat on White House political czar Karl Rove's target list, in an election year when the Senate balance of power could be decided by the voters of a single state. Rather, getting rid of Wellstone is a passion for Rove, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and the special-interest lobbies that fund the most sophisticated political operation ever assembled by a presidential administration. "There are people in the White House who wake up in the morning thinking about how they will defeat Paul Wellstone," a senior Republican aide confides. "This one is political and personal for them."

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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That has made it political and personal for Wellstone. The man who decided to abandon a self-imposed two-term limit on his Senate service at least in part because of his determination to block Bush's conservative agenda wears the target with pride. At a moment when most Democrats are still trying to figure out how to challenge a popular President, the former college wrestler is leaping into the ring. Wellstone is not running for cover; he is running to deliver a message about politics in a state and a nation that he believes to be far more progressive than the readers of political tea leaves in Washington could begin to imagine.

"This race is going to be a case study of whether you can maintain liberal, progressive positions and win in this country in 2002," says Wellstone as he campaigns among Laotian immigrants on a sunny spring morning in St. Paul. "We're not running a race that asks people to vote for me because, as a Democrat, I will be a little more compassionate, a little better for working families and children and immigrants, than a Republican. We want to draw the lines of distinction. I'm saying that there is a big difference between the America the conservatives want and the America I want." He adds, "I don't want this to be just about me. This race has to be about basic questions of whether liberals and progressives can flourish in national politics. That means there is a lot more on the line than whether Paul Wellstone wins or loses."

Wellstone is right. His race is being read as a measure of the potency of progressive politics in America. If he wins, a blow will be struck not just against the Bush machine but against those in the Democratic Party who argue for tepid moderation. With Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and House minority leader Dick Gephardt still struggling to identify the themes on which Democrats will stake their claim for control of Congress later this year, Wellstone is refreshingly different--he knows where he stands and he stands there proudly. For years, progressives have argued that Democrats will win big only when they distinguish themselves from Republicans on fundamental economic and social justice issues. Here is Wellstone--arguably the most prominent elected progressive in the country--doing just that.

Yet even as he follows the progressive playbook, Wellstone is no sure bet. In a state that gave America liberal Democratic icons like Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Walter Mondale, and that has not backed a Republican for President since 1972, current polls show Wellstone running roughly even with Republican challenger Norm Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul. To be sure, Coleman has benefited from being "Bush's best boy" and from steady infusions of campaign cash that are available to the Administration's chosen ones. But the full explanation for Wellstone's tight spot is found in a more complex calculation that involves Wellstone himself, the changing character of the upper Midwest, the flux in which the Democratic Party finds itself and the machinations of the people who manipulated Bush into the highest office in the land. "Sure, the Bush Administration is targeting Paul this year, but Paul is never a shoo-in," says Myron Orfield, a Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) state senator widely regarded as one of the nation's top experts in the study of voting patterns. "Paul's a controversial guy. He's the little guy who takes on the big guys. That is not something the political process is designed to reward these days. If you take strong stands you put yourself at risk--and Paul takes more strong stands on more issues than just about anyone else."

Virtually alone among Senate Democrats, Wellstone sees himself not just as a member of Congress but as a member of a movement. He identifies with progressives, organizes family-farm rallies in Washington, marches with striking hotel workers and dares to title a book The Conscience of a Liberal. That does not mean that Wellstone is the unbending leftist that his critics allege and that many of his supporters would prefer. The man who began burning bridges with the Bush family when he challenged then-President Bush's Persian Gulf War preparations on their first meeting ("Who is this chickenshit?" Bush Sr. asked) may be the Senate's boldest foe of the Star Wars national missile defense program and of increased military aid to Colombia. But he disappointed peace activists when he joined a unanimous Senate vote to authorize an ill-defined military response to the September 11 attacks and dismayed civil libertarians when he refused to join Senator Russell Feingold's solo opposition to constitutionally dubious antiterrorism legislation.

Still, Wellstone has few rivals on the left side of the Senate aisle. Congressional Quarterly says no senator had a more consistent record of voting against Bush Administration proposals during the new President's first year. Wellstone racks up 100 percent ratings from the AFL-CIO, Americans for Democratic Action and the League of Conservation Voters. He is the veteran grassroots organizer hailed by consumer activists for waging a three-year battle to temper the draconian "bankruptcy reform" bill pushed by the credit card industry. He is the former college professor who has been the chief Senate voice of those who maintain that education-reform initiatives must involve better measures of success than standardized tests. He is the crusader for disability rights and healthcare reform who--since he was diagnosed in February as having a mild form of multiple sclerosis--is in demand not merely as an advocate but as a very human example of what the struggles are about. The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently described him as "the go-to guy to advance the causes of educators, environmentalists, consumer and labor groups, the elderly and the poor."

For many progressives, that still sounds like a recipe for electoral success. But this "Democratic" state has not elected a DFL governor since 1986, its Senate seats have switched partisan hands twice in twelve years and while Minnesota still backs Democrats for President, it does not do so by much. "This idea that Minnesota is an easy Democratic state is overblown," says Robert Richman, a veteran Democratic campaign aide. "Gore barely won the state in 2000"--prevailing over Bush by fewer than 60,000 votes out of almost 2.5 million cast. Minnesota Democrats note that when Green candidate Ralph Nader's 126,696 votes--5 percent of the total--are added to Gore's, the numbers look better. But Democrats didn't used to have to resort to such calculations in a state that swam against rougher Republican tides to back Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

Some of the slippage has to do with signals sent by national Democrats. The 1990s saw the Democratic Party relying more on the upper Midwest than ever before for Congressional ballast, yet DC Democrats get low marks for addressing the region's traditional concerns. "This is the part of the country that has saved the Democratic Party in the Senate," says Neil Ritchie, a DFL precinct activist and one of the savviest analysts of farm-state voting patterns in the country. "But, when you've got Clinton, Gore and the Democratic Leadership Council promoting free trade and helping corporate agribusiness, it makes it hard for Democrats out here." Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota have ten Senate seats, nine held by Democrats who, for the most part, preach a farm-and-factory populism with which the technocratic Al Gore was never comfortable. Eight years of Clinton/Gore centrism sucked a lot of air out of the "us against them" populist rhetoric that was long the currency of Democrats in the region. That's a big part of why Bush beat Gore by an overall margin of more than 80,000 votes in these states, and why the shift of relative handfuls of votes would have given Bush an additional twenty-eight electoral votes--making the Florida recount fight irrelevant.

Now, Rove is gambling presidential prestige and Republican dollars on the prospect that the upper Midwest is the key to taking back a Senate that went Democratic last spring after Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords exited the GOP. "Midwestern voters don't feel the connection with the Democrats that they once did," crows Rove. To that end, Wellstone, South Dakota's Tim Johnson and Iowa's Tom Harkin, all up for re-election, are getting what GOP insiders call "the Rove treatment": recruitment of high-profile Republican challengers, major-league fundraising assistance and regular presidential visits. All other things being equal, picking off either Johnson or Harkin would be enough to split the Senate 50-50 and again allow Vice President Cheney to break partisan ties. But beating Wellstone would be the sweetest win. "They have made it very clear that if they could beat one Democrat this year, it would be Paul Wellstone," says Minnesota political consultant Richman. "Paul gets under their skin."

"When I first met the President, he called me 'Pablo,'" Wellstone jokes. "That lasted a day or two. Then they started trying to figure out how they were going to get rid of me." While other Democrats approached the new Administration cautiously, Wellstone raised hell. In one of the first confrontations between the Administration and the newly Democratic Senate, Wellstone used his chairmanship of a subcommittee on worker safety to demand that Bush Labor Department officials justify the Administration's rejection of federal ergonomics standards. And Bush aides are still smarting over a Wellstone amendment to the President's tax cut plan that diverted $17 billion to veterans programs.

For Bush and Rove, payback takes the form of Norm Coleman. A weathervane politician, Coleman switched from Democrat to Republican in the late 1990s. That and his too-slick-by-half style ("I've changed my party, my hair, my smile," he boasts) have never endeared him to the Republican faithful. But he plays well in the burgeoning suburbs of the Twin Cities, where voters know him from two terms as mayor of St. Paul and where Rove thinks the race could be decided. In a state where politics traditionally followed urban and rural lines--the DFL's "Farmer-Labor" tag recalls the populist party that merged with the Democrats in the 1940s--Minneapolis and St. Paul suburbanites now represent 44 percent of the state's population. That, explains DFL State Senator Jane Krentz, who represents suburbs northeast of St. Paul, "is shifting the way people look at politics."

Coleman's 2002 plan had been to avenge his 1998 loss of the Minnesota governorship to Jesse Ventura, the wrestler-turned-third-party-pol who has yet to decide whether he will seek a second term this year. (There was speculation at one point that Ventura might challenge Wellstone on the Independence Party ticket, but the talk fizzled. If Ventura seeks a new term, an Independence Party Senate candidate might still draw votes--most likely from Coleman. By the same token, a Green candidate could shave some votes off Wellstone's total. But third-party candidates are not expected to gain much traction arguing that voters lack a choice between Wellstone and Coleman.)

When Coleman switched ambitions under pressure from the White House, even Republicans said he would not be helped much by being identified as "Bush's boy" in a state that tends to favor politicians who think for themselves. But things changed after September 11. As Bush's approval ratings soared, Coleman wrapped himself in the cloak of presidential popularity--and perks. When Bush made his second Coleman-promoting trip to the state this March, banners announced Minnesota Is George W. Bush and Norm Coleman Country. The ex-mayor stepped off Air Force One with Bush, and stuck by his supporter-in-chief like glue through a day that culminated with Bush's raising $1.2 million for Coleman and another $800,000 in soft money for GOP efforts on his behalf. Former President George Bush headlined an October fundraiser in St. Paul for Coleman, and Cheney signed a fundraising appeal. Rove steered special-interest contributions--especially those from an energy industry angered by Wellstone's decadelong battle against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--toward accounts established to aid the man Minnesota media call "Bush's favored-son candidate." Minnesota political observers predict Coleman's campaign will spend $10 million, while another $5 million will be spent by the GOP and anti-Wellstone interests. Anti-Wellstone attack ads are already on TV, and the hits will keep on coming. Republicans say Wellstone's decision to seek a third term--after having stated years ago that he only planned to serve two--is evidence that the maverick Senator has "gone Washington." It's a tough sell, considering Coleman's party switch, but Richman says, "They'll hit Paul from now until November--above the belt and below the belt."

In this most intense of all Senate contests, Wellstone knows he will not win re-election simply by unfurling old Farmer-Labor banners. To counter Coleman's claim that a Republican can get more done for Minnesota, Wellstone is showcasing legislative accomplishments and the coalitions he has forged with Republicans to increase funding for teacher training, vocational education and environmental protection. Those efforts got an unexpected boost in April when Bush broke with Republicans to endorse Wellstone's proposal to make corporations provide mental healthcare coverage for employees.

But while he will make the case that he can forge coalitions with the best of 'em, Wellstone is not selling himself as a centrist. No one would believe him. Besides, he says, the winning message is still a populist one. Wellstone is determined to "draw real lines of distinction" in this year's campaign, and that will serve him well in the DFL's urban and rural strongholds--where he can energize voters who were unenthused about Gore. Yet, like Democrats in rapidly changing states across the country, Wellstone understands that he must craft a message that adds suburban votes to his base. He would have a comfortable lead today were it not for the margin--twelve points in a recent poll--that Coleman has in the nine suburban counties around the Twin Cities. One of the primary tasks of the Wellstone campaign this year is to find the populist bone in the suburban body politic. Orfield, the expert on suburban voting patterns, thinks it will succeed. "Some of the issues Paul has fought hardest on--healthcare, protecting pensions, environmental protection--play very strongly in middle-income suburbs where people are feeling squeezed," Orfield argues. "I think that Paul is going to do a very good job of reaching them, and I think that his success will provide a very important lesson for Democrats in other parts of the country."

Wellstone says the strategy is to reach across lines of class and community to focus on issues that are universal--like education. So what's the populist twist on the education debate? Wellstone's first television ads explain that Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans will dry up money needed to educate urban, rural and suburban kids. Scrap the cuts, Wellstone argues, and free up $121 billion for education programs over ten years. While most Senate Democrats shy away from such talk, and while Coleman claims the Senator is engaging in "class warfare," Wellstone says, "This is a message that gets people excited because it rejects the Administration's line that there isn't enough money to educate our children, care for our seniors, clean up the environment and provide healthcare benefits to people who need them."

Coleman and Rove are betting that while Wellstone's message may play in rural and urban areas, it won't excite suburbanites. But Krentz, the suburban state senator, thinks Wellstone is on to something. "Paul understands that he's got to connect with suburban parents who know that their kids' schools are not being funded adequately, and he's got to get them thinking about why that is happening," she says. "It's tough because people like to believe that it's possible to settle things without a fight. Paul's challenge is to convince people that there are issues worth fighting for."

With the Enron scandal fresh in America's memory, Wellstone will also push the idea that there are interests worth fighting against. "When the oil company money comes in, we're going to talk about it," he says. "We're going to fight like hell."

Wellstone means it when he says "we." Despite Bush's aid to Coleman, Wellstone is keeping pace in fundraising thanks to an activist base that has provided 70,000 contributions averaging $48. But that does not mean that he is mounting a standard campaign. While campaign manager Jeff Blodgett says Wellstone will try to match Coleman's advertising blitz, the campaign will devote more than half its budget to the sort of people-to-people networking that can deliver Wellstone's message to every precinct in the state. Labor, farm and education groups are helping to organize 25,000 volunteers, 7,500 of whom are expected to take time off from work to help on Election Day. Says precinct activist Ritchie, "You're going to see a campaign where the Bush money gets beat because Wellstone is so damn strong at the grassroots that--no matter how many lies they try to tell--there will be a network to get the truth out." Wellstone is devoting tremendous time and energy to expanding the network far beyond the traditional DFL base. "This really is the new Minnesota," he says as he enters Pooh Phetnongphay's Laotian restaurant in St. Paul. "Paul's a sweetheart," Phetnongphay says. "Everyone is registering to vote to help him win."

Even as Phetnongphay speaks, Wellstone is working the other side of the crowded room. The candidate is limping because of his multiple sclerosis. But the disease, which by all accounts is both under control and of little concern to Minnesotans, has stolen none of his thunder. At 57, he is running harder than ever before. His state and his country are changing. But his faith that a progressive populist message can reach a new Minnesota--and a new America--is unshaken. "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 roars, as he rallies his troops. "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."

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