When initial reports of Senator Paul Wellstone’s death reached Minnesota’s Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party leaders and activists immediately asked: “What about Sheila?”
The question was grounded in a mixture of human concern and political calculation. The human concern could be traced back to the fact that Sheila Ison Wellstone, the senator’s wife of 39 years, seemed to maintain a personal friendship with everyone who had ever stuffed an envelope or walked a precinct for the DFL. The political calculation was an extension of that fact: People who knew Sheila and Paul Wellstone were well aware that Sheila was the Minnesota Democrat best suited to win the November 5 election and fill the senate seat left empty by her husband’s death.
“You could talk to one and know you were talking to both,” explained Sarah Stoesz, a former member of Wellstone’s Senate staff who now serves as chief executive officer for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and South Dakota. “They were fully coupled and united in a way that is very unusual in Washington.”
Minnesotans who knew the Wellstones well joked that they were really “co-senators.”
So much a team were the Wellstones that, several years ago when there was talk that Paul might not seek a third term, speculation immediately focused on his wife. “There was a lot of talk, frankly, that if Paul decided not to run, would Sheila run? She was that competent and that smart and could generate just as much passion as her husband,” recalled Minnesota State Auditor Judy Dutcher.
As it happened, Sheila and Paul Wellstone perished together in a northern Minnesota plane crash Friday, along with their daughter, Marcia, three campaign aides and two pilots. For those who knew the Wellstones, the news was doubly tragic: Not only had Minnesota lost a senator, Minnesota also lost the woman who – because she so clearly shared his values, his vision and his political skills – was best positioned to carry on for him.
There is a long, if not always inspired, tradition of the spouses of members of the House and Senate taking the places of deceased representatives. But Sheila Wellstone would not have merely inherited Paul’s Senate seat. Her own political abilities, her extremely high profile in Minnesota, and her record of activism – particularly on domestic violence issues – put her high on lists of prospective statewide candidates long before Friday’s tragedy.
In 2000, when Paul Wellstone briefly flirted with the idea of leaving the Senate to run for governor of Minnesota, he acknowledged that many members of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party were speculating about a Wellstone-Wellstone ticket in 2002: Paul for Governor, Sheila for Senate. “The trouble with that,” he joked, “is that I’m pretty sure Sheila would get more votes.”
He wouldn’t really have minded. Paul Wellstone and Sheila Ison fell deeply in love at the age of 16. “I met this cute guy out on the beach with muscles,” Sheila explained, decades later. They were about as different as two teenagers could be. He was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who had settled in the Washington, D.C., area. She was a Southern Baptist whose family traced its roots back to the Kentucky coal country town of Kingdom Come, although her parents moved to Washington when she was young. When Sheila decided to drop out of the University of Kentucky three years later to marry Paul, who was studying at the University of North Carolina, Paul’s father was just about the only supporter of the move. The worry was that Sheila was giving up the chance to make her own career and, in the early years of their marriage, it did look as if that might be the case.