When hundreds of labor, academic and community activists gathered in a City University of New York’s graduate school auditorium this week to honor the memory of Paul and Sheila Wellstone, the speaker list was itself a tribute to the late Minnesota senator and his partner in marriage and politics. Author Barbara Ehrenreich, scholar Frances Fox Piven, Institute for Policy Studies director John Cavanagh, Wellstone campaign manager Jeff Blodgett and veteran labor leader Bob Muehlenkamp called on the memory of the Wellstones to energize the struggles for econnomic and social justice, and peace, that lost two of their greatest champions when the couple died in a plane crash last fall.
But the standout address of the night came from the member of Congress who may well be the truest heir to the Wellstone mantle. US Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, drew cheer after cheer for a speech that echoed the hope, courage, passion and political timeliness that characterized the career of the unabashedly progressive senator who died less than two weeks before Minnesota voters were expected to reelect him last fall.
“Paul Wellstone taught us that a politics of conviction is a winning politics,” said Schakowsky, who like Wellstone was a grassroots organizer long before she ever thought of running for public office.
Like many in the multigenerational crowd that attended the Wellstone tribute, Schakowsky wore her convictions on her sleeve — or, more precisely, her jacket — in the form of a large antiwar pin.
Along with Wellstone, whose last major vote was cast in opposition to President Bush’s request for blank-check authorization to wage war against Iraq, Schakowsky established herself early as a courageous and consistent foe of the administration’s efforts to launch an unwise and unnecessary attack on Iraq. But Schakowsky did not hold herself up as a hero. Rather, she gave credit to the raucously antiwar crowd, and the rest of the movement that has filled the streets of cities around the world with shouts of “Not In Our Name!”, for slowing the rush to war.
“For the fact that we are not at war today, Paul Wellstone would thank you,” said the member of Congress from Chicago. “Had it not been for this outpouring of opposition, I think we would already be at war.” Recalling last fall’s Congressional vote on authorizing Bush to pursue war with Iraq, Schakowsky noted, “Members of Congress did hear you. Sixty percent of the Democrats voted against that resolution… and this was against our own (party) leadership.”
It is that fact, Schakowsky said, that ought to inspire activists to reject the cynicism that says a war cannot be stopped and to keep struggling to block Bush’s military adventurism. “I’m asking you tonight not to accept the inevitability of war,” Schakowsky told the crowd. “If Paul Wellstone would have accepted the conventional wisdom, if he had accepted the supposed inevitability, he never would have won.”
Then Schakowsky “pulled a Wellstone.” She detailed the Bush Administration’s assaults on individual liberty, workers rights, education and the environment, as well as the administration’s wrongminded approach to foreign policy, and then Schakowsky said, “If you feel overwhelmed by that list, if it makes you feel tired… Get over it!”
Borrowing a line from the trademark calls to action that made Paul Wellstone a touchstone for so many progressives, Schakowsky finished by urging the crowd into the voting booths and the streets. “We need you!” she shouted over a rising tide of applause. “We need you!”