Crusaders to the end, Wellstones lived to lead

Simon Chabel

Four years ago, while listening to the radio, Sheila Wellstone heard a report on sex trafficking. The report featured stories from victims such as a Ukrainian woman forced into prostitution because of threats against her son. That woman joined many others who were brought here with the promise of a better life only to be locked up. Last year more than 700,000 women and girls were shipped around the world and held as sex slaves.

An advocate of women’s and children’s rights long before she heard stories of women imprisoned and forced into prostitution, Sheila realized she had an opportunity to again make the world a better place.

And so she – as she had done so many times before – worked with her husband and partner, Sen. Paul Wellstone. In 1998, Wellstone introduced a resolution condemning sex trafficking. In 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 became law. This legislation, aimed at helping the more than 50,000 women and girls brought to the United States and forced into prostitution, is one example in the overwhelming list of Wellstone activism.

While Wellstone’s legislation helped people around the world, he was rooted to his adopted home state as well. He was hired by the people in the state of Minnesota to improve their lives. He did this job with as much vigor and vehemence as any who had come before him. He inspired and organized and cared about Minnesotans and Americans. His life serves as an example to anyone – liberal or conservative – who believes in the power of individuals to affect change.

The U.S. Senate is a powerful platform from which to wield the power of ideas. Wellstone stood on this platform and shouted at the top of his lungs. Sometimes he stood among Democrats, sometimes among Republicans, and sometimes he stood on the Senate floor alone. But while his colleagues may not have supported him, he was always joined in his fight for justice.

Sheila Wellstone saw the power of her husband’s position. But unlike the wives of so many U.S. senators, she saw the power and opportunity of her position as well. She knew that the wife of a U.S. senator could receive media coverage. The wife of a U.S. senator could draw a crowd.

Wellstone recognized that an opportunity to affect change is an obligation to do so. She embraced these opportunities and championed overlooked causes with tenacity.

Everyone agrees domestic violence is a problem. But few with a pulpit from which to speak have crusaded to help women and children who are victimized as long and as effectively as Wellstone did.

She is largely responsible for the passage of several domestic abuse laws and the recent establishment of the Violence Against Women Office at the U.S. Department of Justice. She taught advocates and activists how to make the world a better place. She organized with her actions and with her words. She showed that power comes in many ways, not just in a vote. Her power came in the conviction of her ideas and her refusal to quit fighting until justice was done.

As students, these are the lessons we must take from the Wellstones. Conviction in the strength and importance of ideas and values is paramount in the fight for a better world.

In their passing, Sheila and Paul Wellstone leave us with their lives as examples:

Examples of how to care.

Examples of how to fight.

Examples of how to inspire.

Examples of how to love.

And examples of how to live.


Simon E. Chabel is a student at the Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]