Of all the conversations and interviews I had with Paul Wellstone, perhaps the best was–sad irony of ironies–on a plane. It began one morning in late April of 1997, and I had just been dispatched by US News & World Report to the North Dakota-Minnesota border, where the Red River of the North had catastrophically flooded, all but engulfing the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. I was running through the Minneapolis airport, struggling to make my connecting flight–a somewhat challenging endeavor, as I was lugging four duffle bags laden with bottles of booze for the staffers of the beleaguered Grand Forks Herald–and as I staggered toward the gate, someone lifted a bag off a shoulder. “Look like you could use a hand,” I heard a voice behind me say.
Stressed and bleary-eyed, I offered my thanks, unable to turn around, as we were part of a tightly packed group tumbling down the jetway. The liquor bottles clinked audibly in the bags, and I heard the voice behind me ask, with a hint of mischief, if I was going to Grand Forks to try to corner the black market on booze. As we got to our seats and stowed the bags overhead, I introduced myself, explained that I was a reporter and that the night before, a friend from Knight-Ridder who’d been seconded to the Herald called with a whisky request for the staff–not only had the poor ink-stained, waterlogged wretches been flooded out of three offices in as many hours but they were now victims of an emergency management order that had closed all the bars and liquor stores. “Newspapermen not allowed to drink?” the voice asked, humorous but truly indignant. “Anything I can do to help prevent that tragedy, I’m happy to do.”
I turned around to a short–even shorter than me–unassuming but cheerful looking man. “I’m Paul Wellstone,” he said. “Glad a fellow Progressive contributor was here to help me,” I responded, and he lit up. “Wait a minute,” he said. “You did that really good piece on Burma last year, right? That US News thing threw me. It’s great to meet you!”
What unfolded over the next hour was one of the best–and most genuine–conversations I’ve ever had. In over a decade of journalism, I’m not sure I’ve spent time with someone who had such a unique blend of passion, compassion, erudition and honesty. He truly personified the Happy Warrior.
As I look back, I define that talk more in terms of what we didn’t talk about–our conversation was all over the map, from our respective childhoods in northern Virginia to adoption of our respective Midwestern states as home; to healthcare to the absurdity of the drug war and Star Wars; to the history of Prairie Populism to the future of the left in America; to the conservatives in the Senate he disagreed with but genuinely liked and respected, and those he didn’t. I walked off the plane inspired–a feeling I rarely get from any politician. He had the same rare effect on me–and a few hundred people–in 2000, when I was covering the death throes of the largely uninspiring Bill Bradley campaign. Before the rally in Brook Park, Ohio, a guy in the crowd pointed to Wellstone and asked a friend, “Who’s that little guy?” A few minutes later, after a rousing call to arms from the little guy that had everyone fired up, the same guy said, “Screw Bradley, let’s run Wellstone!”
There are politicians you encounter who practically ooze insincerity–if you ran your finger over them you’d behold a digit covered with scum. There are those for whom the words “public service” are little more than an empty phrase to deflect the reality of sheer ambition, and who can never, however hard they try, speak from the heart. There are also those for whom ideology and political orthodoxy loom so large it becomes all but impossible to see the humanity in those who aren’t exactly alike or, more tragically, the humanity in the people who really matter: the citizenry. Paul Wellstone was the antithesis of these archetypes, largely, I think, because of an uncommon, intrinsic empathy and a desire to learn–and, flowing from those things, a sense of obligation to act on whatever that matrix produced.
One of the most remarkable things about Paul Wellstone has so far gotten the least attention: He was deeply committed not just to progressive ideals but to the hard work of building a social movement to make those ideals a reality.
Unlike many progressive politicians and even activists who disdain the hard work of organizing a mass constituency for justice, Paul knew in his guts that major social change in our country is impossible unless large numbers of low-income and working-class people are organized to demand it. He was always willing to use his position and clout to put grassroots people and movements front and center.
This commitment was a defining feature of his life. He taught community organizing at Carleton College, where he inspired a generation of community organizers. He organized community support for strikes in Minnesota and walked picket lines and led marches. He worked at my organization, the Center for Community Change, where he focused on how to build a movement of the rural poor. And Paul chose to get on the plane he was on because he decided to honor a union leader at his funeral rather than participate in a rally and fundraiser with other politicians.
His grassroots sympathies would often show up in small but significant ways. Earlier this year Paul convened a subcommittee hearing on the working conditions of low-wage immigrant workers. When the hearing room wasn’t big enough to accommodate all the workers who bused in to participate, he invited them to sit up on the dais next to him. And when food-stamp recipients were denied entrance into the hearing room where the Agriculture Committee was meeting this past spring, Paul intervened with the Capitol Police, got them inside and insured that they were seen and heard.
Two years ago, at a Chicago rally of 2,000 poor people to launch a new national campaign against poverty, Paul electrified his audience, telling them he truly believed they were the only real hope for social justice in this country. He said: “Speeches won’t make the change. Introducing legislation doesn’t mean we pass legislation. This is a historic gathering, because we’re going to have to turn up the heat. We’re going to have to do more direct action. We’re going to have to be out there speaking for our children. We’re going to have to be out there organizing for our children. I’m here as a United States senator because I believe this campaign is an effort to build a movement for economic justice. Let’s organize in our communities, but let us have a national presence, and let us be clear today: We are not going to give up. We’re going to keep on marching and keep on fighting and keep on marching and keep on fighting and keep on marching and keep on fighting.”
We’ve lost a genuine American hero at a terrible moment in our nation’s history, and the temptation to despair is real. But Paul left us a roadmap for how to get out of the dark times we’re in. We can best honor him by traveling further down the path he blazed with such grace.
I was privileged to be the only other person in the room in 1997 when both Paul Wellstone and Jesse Jackson were considering a run for President. After a little small talk, Paul laid out his reason for running, an intelligent argument based on mobilizing normally overlooked constituencies with issues that the Democratic Party had become more and more afraid to champion. He spoke of his RFK-type visit to Mississippi, going to see poor people in their own homes more than three decades after the War on Poverty. He told Jackson he thought he could make a difference in mobilizing forgotten people.
Then Jackson spoke, jokingly suggesting that Paul should do exactly that–by serving as chairman for Jackson 2000! Jesse then went on to set out a similar case for his own possible candidacy. The two of them talked for quite a while longer, neither of them committing to a campaign, both of them making it clear they were thinking about it, and both agreeing to stay in close touch as their potential candidacies evolved.
We then walked into Paul’s Senate office, where Wellstone’s staff was quietly watching to see what might have occurred in the meeting. Catching everyone by surprise, Jackson immediately yelled out: “Attention, everybody. I’ve got an important announcement. Attention! Paul has just agreed to serve as chairman of my campaign for President in 2000!” Paul immediately started laughing, waving his arms in that Wellstone way, and shaking his head no. The two of them then collapsed in laughing and hugging (as Paul’s Senate staff exhaled). It’s one of my favorite memories of the two of them.
Public Campaign lost one of its closest friends last week. He was with us on the fight for comprehensive campaign finance reform even before our founding in 1997, he was the lead sponsor of our “Clean Money/Clean Elections” full public financing bill and, most important, he was our voice in a chamber where cash, not citizens, is usually heard the most clearly. He wasn’t just Minnesota’s senator, he was democracy’s senator.
Paul always spoke from the heart, and at the center of his heart was the principle of political equality. As he put it in April 2001, when he reintroduced the Clean Money/Clean Elections bill, “The people of this country, not special-interest big money, should be the source of all political power. Everyone must have equal opportunity to participate in the process of government.”
Paul believed deeply in organizing, and in the power of average citizens to make a difference by organizing themselves to demand change. To that end, he was the keynote speaker at our founding conference of Clean Money activists, and his Senate office worked hard to support activists around the country in their efforts. We will honor Paul by continuing to fight for the things he believed in: a democracy where everyone has an equal voice, where the least of us matter as much as those with the most, and where the principle of one person, one vote reigns supreme.
Senator Wellstone was one of my advisers at Carleton. His passion for making a difference in the world around him and within the world of the classroom was truly remarkable.
I remember particularly well one class I took from him, “The Politics of Race, Class, and Gender” (I know, no surprise there). After watching a video that explicated the vast inequities between treatment offered at a private and public hospital in New York City, I argued that the comparison didn’t apply to Minnesota–that residents in our public hospitals received comparable treatment to those in private hospitals (this was many years ago, so don’t hold me to it today–times and Minnesota demographics have changed considerably since then). Other students (mostly from the coasts) chided me for being naïve.
Paul urged me to dig in and figure it out–for myself, and for the class. I ended up capping off my research by driving up to the Twin Cities and visiting HCMC myself. I spent my time walking the halls, talking to people in waiting rooms, trying to figure out what the wait-time was for patients to be seen, what the availability of specific drugs in the pharamacy was, etc. I returned and stood my ground.
Though certainly I was naïve, this idea of getting up and going, of seeing for yourself, and of believing you could use your knowledge to make a difference was integral to what Wellstone taught his students. He was eager to explore what worked and what didn’t. He was eager to make changes that mattered concretely in people’s lives. He was willing to laugh at himself and change tactics when necessary. Hi ability to say something to an audience of any size and make you feel like he was just there to talk to you was amazing.
But, most important for me as a student: He modeled the importance of making personal sacrifices and taking personal risks when necessary to support that in which you believe. He walked his walk.
He may or may not have been a paragon of virtue. I, too, was confused by his decision to run again for the Senate after proclaiming he wouldn’t become a career politician. But, for me, he certainly was a beacon of hope, a reason for tempering cynicism, and a reminder to hold myself accountable for the way in which my choices impact the world around me.
His sense of humor, his emotional availability and his high regard for academics made him a wonderful teacher–and, of course, an extremely valuable representative of the people. I hope we have the courage and fortitude in the face of his loss to find someone of principle to send to the Senate in his place. The knowledge that there is no way one person could fill his shoes should be a call to action for each of us to do our part to make a difference.
Iowa can be a cold place in the winter. People up in Minnesota seem so numb to the cold and OK with the idea of 40 below, but to us Iowans, we’re always whining about how cold it is. For some reason on a cold Friday in November of 1999, Iowans in the Des Moines Convention Center were just plain fired up.
As the head of the Students for Bradley at the University of Northern Iowa, a bunch of us took a bus trip down from Cedar Falls to cheer on Bill at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Bill Bradley was on Al Gore’s tail, challenging him and winning over anyone from farmers in Denison to black preachers in Davenport, and I was Bradley’s number-one fan. In the middle of it all was this lame party gathering I went to where all the party hacks slap each other on the back and tell each other how really great they are.
Most of the evening was ho-hum. Bradley spoke first in his wonkish, (although inspiring) monotone. Gore was just plain mad–stomping on the podium and screaming in his best pseudo-populist pitch–making the Bradley supporters nervous that Al was winning over the crowd. That was until Paul Wellstone walked into the room.
Being the bright-eyed political nerd that I am, I got all excited, because I had heard so much about him, so I motioned to the other Students for Bradley to try to get a photo with him. As we gathered closer, one of Bradley’s aides leaned into his ear and spoke loud enough so that I could just barely catch what he said to him:
“They were impressed with Gore’s speech, Senator. We need real fire and brimstone stuff here. Fire and brimstone.”
And good lord, Paul marched right up to that podium, and boy did he ever bring the fire. I’m not sure exactly what he said–something about how the Senate was cutting congregate meals, cutting Head Start, cutting after-school programs. He talked about universal healthcare and fully funding special education. He talked about how we should be moving forward, but we were falling behind. He pretty much just yelled a lot and flapped his hands. But Paul Wellstone had me–a 21-year-old college senior–in tears.
And three years later, he still does.
About a month later, on another cold Saturday night, I had the profound privilege of driving Sheila Wellstone around in my piece-of-crap 1985 Lincoln Town Car to an event at the Waterloo, Iowa, Public Health Clinic. These are people, usually Bosnian refugees and Mexican meatpacking workers, who have no place else to go for healthcare for their children. Sheila listened to these doctors, she took notes and she urged them in her subtle North Carolina twang to support Bill Bradley. I sat next to her in my suit, wondering why I was a college student there on a Saturday night listening to healthcare policy issues. But I know now.
In the parking lot, walking toward the car, she told me how Paul was planning on offering a bill the next session, which would provide universal health care to all Americans. I thought then how cool it was to be there with her–such a progressive woman married to such a great guy. I was inspired.
And four years later, I still am.
My question to you is, Who will continue to fight for us? Who will be there for us when our most vulnerable ask us for help? Who will be there to inspire us to act–young and old–when there is injustice in government? My answer is simple. There will not be just another Paul Wellstone. There will be a thousand times a thousand Paul Wellstones. And why?
Because there is a kid who went to school today in Minneapolis without eating breakfast first. Because there is a teacher in Stillwater who has to battle underfunded classrooms. Because there is a farmer in Little Falls who wants to maintain her way of life. Because there is a steelworker in Virginia who wants to have a job next year. Because our issues, our PEOPLE-FIRST ISSUES, still matter.
Now here I am in Stillwater in a lonely campaign office. I’m just some displaced Iowan typing at my computer in tears over a man I only talked to once in a hallway for three minutes. I’m in tears over all the Wellstones–a hot couple I handed a bottle of water to after the unbearably hot Lumberjack Days Parade.
BUT I’M STILL INSPIRED, PAUL! I CAN STILL HEAR YOUR EMOTIONAL VOICE OVER BOOMING LOUDSPEAKERS, SENATOR! I CAN STILL SEE YOU FLAPPING YOUR HANDS AND YELLING–FIRING UP SOME NOW BOILING IOWANS.
Here’s one of those Iowans who’ll never give up Paul Wellstone’s fight.
The tragic passing of Senator Paul Wellstone, his wife Sheila, and their daughter Marcia is an unspeakable loss for the people of Minnesota and our nation.
Today, the United States Senate, and the Progressive Caucus, lost one of its most passionate and dedicated members. Paul was a dear friend and unparalleled public servant. Paul was a compassionate man who fought tirelessly for the people of Minnesota and for the greater good of our nation. Paul’s passing leaves a void that will be difficult to fill. Working people, farmers, the sick, and the mental ill have had no greater champion than Paul Wellstone.
Today is a sad day for our nation for we have lost one of our great public servants.
My heart is with the families of Paul Wellstone, his staff members, and the pilots involved in today’s tragic accident.
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH
About eight years ago, I was in Wellstone’s office in DC to get a picture of him with my 12-year-old nephew, who’s from St. Paul. Wellstone asked what I did, and I mentioned that among other things I was a contributing editor to The Nation. He said, “I’m working on an article called ‘What is to be Done?’–do you think The Nation would be interested in publishing it?” I said “yes,” and quickly called Katrina from the nearest phone. The Nation was important to him–and of course he was immensely important to us.
Paul was a friend of the Institute for Policy Studies since before he came to the Senate. As a professor he had invited our co-founder, Dick Barnet, to Minnesota to speak on his campus. Dick remained a close adviser to the end. When he arrived in Washington, Paul reached out to Marcus Raskin and the rest of us. He called on us often and we happily responded. There is no senator who has been closer or dearer over the past twelve years.
Paul spoke at our conferences. He presented a Letelier-Moffitt award, named after the former Chilean Ambassador and his assistant, who were assassinated by Augusto Pinochet’s agents in 1976. After he took his journey through the South in the footsteps of Robert Kennedy, Paul came to Howard University for a special speech that IPS organized. When he was exploring running for President four years ago, he turned to Bob Borosage and myself and others of us for two long morning discussions. He was a terrific listener. He was humble.
Three years ago next month, Paul traveled to Seattle with 60,000 of us to block the new WTO trade round. Several of us helped to organize an event at a big left bookstore in Seattle, and in the middle of the program, Paul walked in. I pulled him up to the microphone despite his protests, and he simply said: “This is your protest. This is the right issue. I am here to learn and I am with you.” And he sat down in the audience. Always learning. Always humble. Always growing. Leading through example.
A model public servant. A dear friend (equally so his wife). We must study how he stayed out of the pockets of corporate interests and still won his races. We must tell the story of how he voted against war twice and defied the political pundits and increased his popularity at home with the votes.
We learned of Paul’s death yesterday at the beginning of a meeting of more than 100 to coordinate antiwar work around the country. We dedicated the meeting to his memory and we pulled together a United for Peace coalition to work together in the months to come.
In Paul and Sheila’s memory, we must defeat war once again and build a world based on justice and peace and ecological sustainability.
On behalf of hundreds of thousands of American Greens, the Green Party of the United States expresses utter sorrow and deep condolences to the family of Senator Paul Wellstone, especially to surviving sons David and Mark for the loss of both parents and their sister, to the people of Minnesota and to all those who knew, supported and admired the Senator.
“I am deeply devastated at the news of the death of Paul, Sheila and others in today’s plane crash,” said Ray Tricomo, the Minnesota Green candidate for the US Senate. Tricomo has suspended all campaign activity for the rest of the weekend.
Senator Wellstone was an inspiration to Greens for his support, throughout his political career, for basic principles of social, economic and environmental justice, especially for the rights and needs of working people in Minnesota and across the United States.
Greens also mourn the loss of Sheila Wellstone, the Senator’s close partner in politics as well as marriage. Sheila Wellstone brought the issue of domestic abuse of women to Paul’s attention. Minnesotans knew the Wellstones as an inseparable and beloved couple who together made a tremendous impact on Minnesota and national politics.
The Green Party especially notes Senator Wellstone’s leadership on healthcare issues. Senator Wellstone led the Senate on healthcare because of his belief that healthcare is a basic human right. He was the sponsor and lead advocate for a single-payer national healthcare system; he also used his Senate seat to promote mental health issues. Senator Wellstone turned the lessons he learned from dealing with a mental illness in his family into a passionate campaign for the recognition of mental illness. He recently reintroduced a major Senate bill that would require health insurers to provide parity in the coverage of physical and mental healthcare.
Greens have also praised Senator Wellstone for his last, most important vote, which he cast against the war on Iraq.
“Senator Wellstone has taught us throughout his too short life, ‘Don’t mourn, organize,'” said Carol Miller, a New Mexico Green who worked closely with Wellstone on public health legislation. “We will mourn his loss, but we will also honor him by organizing against the war in Iraq and for universal healthcare.”
GREEN PARTY OF THE USA