Patti Smith scanned the thousands of antiwar demonstrators who filled Washington the day after the death of Paul Wellstone and reflected on the enormous loss of the Minnesota senator whose last great act in Congress was to cast a courageous vote against attacking Iraq. Then, as she prepared to rip into a rendition of “People Have the Power,” the poet and rock star declared, “He would not want us to give him a moment of silence.”
Paul Wellstone would have loved that–not just for its echo of the labor movement’s “don’t mourn, organize” tradition that he cherished but for its essential optimism. More than any prominent progressive political leader in decades, Wellstone relished the good fight. And he relished politics. He believed it mattered enormously to rally, to march, to walk a precinct and to run for public office–be it school board or the Senate. And he believed all those tasks should be undertaken joyfully.
Wellstone may have been a member of the most exclusive club in the world, but he always thought of himself as part of a movement. And to him, building the movement was not a duty, it was a pleasure. Whether he was picketing with immigrant workers outside a St. Paul hotel, rallying with family farmers, touring the South to raise awareness of poverty in the midst of plenty, marching in Seattle against the WTO or campaigning in this year’s high-stakes run for a third term in the Senate, Wellstone displayed delight rarely shown by politicians. He would frequently open his speeches by shouting, “It is great to be here with my friends.” More often than not, he was their only ally in the Senate, as his record of placing himself on the losing end of 99-to-1 votes illustrated. Yet no matter how uphill the struggle, he would finish those speeches by recalling the triumphs of Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Mother Jones and a thousand other crusaders and bellowing: “We’re going to win this fight! You! Me! Together! Our politics is a winning politics!”
Wellstone’s words carried weight because he had won.
In 1990, at a time when the Democratic Leadership Council was using every corporate dollar it could find to drag the Democratic Party to the pro-business right, Wellstone came on the national political radar as an unabashed progressive populist who declared himself in solidarity with the causes of union workers, family farmers, peace activists, abortion rights campaigners and racial and ethnic minorities. He took a cue from filmmaker Michael Moore’s anticorporate masterpiece, Roger & Me, and cut a television commercial that had him chasing after his Republican opponent, millionaire Senator Rudy Boschwitz, seeking a debate. That November, Wellstone was the only Democratic challenger to upset a Republican incumbent. It was a huge win for what Wellstone called “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” And if party insiders tended to dismiss the lesson of Wellstone’s victory, grassroots Democrats did not. “He sort of showed me the way–how a guy can run for office without a lot of money and win,” recalled Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, another maverick Democrat. After Wellstone, his wife, Sheila, their daughter, Marcia, three campaign aides and two pilots died in a plane crash in northern Minnesota on October 25, Feingold recalled how before either of them was elected they would talk about how remarkable it would be if guys like them sat in the Senate.