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.”
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.”