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Sheila Wellstone's Senate Career | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Sheila Wellstone's Senate Career

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.

While Paul earned a doctorate in political science, got a teaching job at Carlton College in Minnesota and began to emerge as one of that state's leading activists, Sheila took on most of the responsibility for raising their three children: David, Mark and Marcia -- the daughter who died with her parents in Friday's crash. Paul was running off to march with striking meatpackers and farm protesters, while Sheila was telling him, "Don't get arrested." (When he did get arrested at a demonstration against farm foreclosures in the 1980s, Paul recalled that his first reaction was, "Oh, man, how am I going to explain this to Sheila?")

Behind the conventional façade, however, was a far more sophisticated relationship. Sheila Wellstone played a critical role in helping Paul put together the historic 1990 campaign for the U.S. Senate that made him a national figure. Soon after Senator Wellstone went to Washington, Sheila found a desk in his Senate office and went to work. She became so much a presence around the Capitol that Democratic senators who were close to Wellstone did not ask how he was going to vote on a particular issue; instead they would inquire: "What did Sheila tell you?"

What Sheila told him was to get a lot more involved with the fight against domestic violence. Paul Wellstone came to the Senate as a economic populist with a penchant for peace and social justice causes. Sheila Wellstone helped him to recognize that passing legislation to protect abused women was central to achieving justice.

"Her work saved the lives of countless numbers of women from danger and even death," Shelley Johnson-Cline, executive director of the St. Paul Intervention Project, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press after Friday's crash. "She made it her mission to change that system. She would find out what the needs were and then go out and see them for herself."

Sheila Wellstone said she was attracted to domestic violence issues for the simplest of reasons: "I find it absolutely intolerable to think that a woman's home can be the most violent, most dangerous and oftentimes the most deadly place she can be," Sheila explained. But her activism was anything but simplistic. Mentored by Peacelinks campaigner Betty Bumpers, the wife of former Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers, she learned to use her stature as the wife of a senator to meet academics, law enforcement officials, lawyers, judges, activists and thousands of women and children for whom debates about domestic violence were not merely intellectual or legislative concerns. By 1993, she was writing pieces of legislation that her husband would introduce, including a provision to the Centers for Disease Control budget that provided funding for a project that trains health care providers to recognize and assist victims of abuse and a bill that provided money to set up facilities where parents who were separated would be able to exchange children for visitation without having to face the threat of violence.

In 1994, the Wellstones were key players in the push for passage of the landmark Violence Against Women Act.

Sheila did not have to talk Paul into voting against welfare reform in 1996. But her research provided him with information that he would use to make the case for his vote, a case that ultimately derailed Republican efforts to unseat him that year. In the late 1990s, Sheila Wellstone was an activist on behalf of moves to modify welfare-to-work requirements in order to ease the burden on abuse victims – testifying before state legislators on behalf of using waivers made possible under the Family Violence Amendment that Paul had been instrumental in passing.

On the morning Paul and Sheila Wellstone died, the media was reporting that one of the suspects in the Washington, D.C., sniper case was being held under a federal law designed to prohibit people who have been placed under a restraining order for domestic violence from possessing firearms. That rule, part of the Domestic Violence Firearms Prevention Act, was pushed toward enactment in the Senate by Paul Wellstone -- after Sheila Wellstone developed it.

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