Without Wellstone: Activists carry on

Despite the senator’s death, his supporters have not been idle.

Molly Moker

Though Sen. Paul Wellstone’s life ended nearly a year ago, one group of political activists work to make sure his voice continues.

Wellstone Action focuses on issues important to Wellstone and his late wife Sheila.

The group’s largest effort is to pass the Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment legislation.

Since the mid-1990s, Wellstone worked to pass legislation that would make insurance companies cover mental health problems equally to physical problems.

Wellstone’s interest in the cause came from his brother’s fight with a severe mental illness, said Pam Costain, Wellstone Action director of education and advocacy.

Wellstone’s first mental health bill – the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996 – passed but had limited scope. From then until his death, Wellstone worked to make mental health insurance more available. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M, introduced a similar bill with stronger provisions earlier this year as the Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act.

Costain said the speaker of the house could recognize the bill any day, and it should immediately pass because of the number of co-sponsors.

She said Wellstone Action has worked hard to support the bill, sending out 15,000 letters to Congress last week and coordinating with Wellstone’s son to find other avenues of support.

University students are also taking an active role at Wellstone Action.

Third-year political science student Annie Davidson said she worked as deputy political director in charge of campus outreach for Wellstone. She now works for Wellstone Action.

Davidson said she feels privileged to be working under Wellstone’s name.

“Paul Wellstone is one of the only politicians that I would want to work for. I looked up to him a lot,” Davidson said. “He was so down-to-earth. The guy you met was who he really was. He was really excited about what he was doing.”

Davidson said University students volunteer for the organization and help with mailings, networking and coordinating various projects.

Davidson said in addition to passing the Wellstone mental health legislation, Wellstone Action is also working on other projects.

Wellstone Action runs a two-and-a-half-day political training camp called Camp Wellstone. The camp travels nationally and trains participants in the philosophy, strategy and tactics for winning grass-roots political and electoral campaigns. Since its takeoff earlier this year, the camp has trained 550 participants.

The Sheila Wellstone Institute is another program created by Wellstone Action, with University involvement. The institute works to focus attention on violence against women and children, an issue Sheila emphasized.

The program originated last spring, but its public launch will be Nov. 13 at Coffman Union. The institute will also hold a conference focusing on child custody and visitation safety issues for battered mothers. Nearly 200 people have registered so far.