Wellstone fostered reciprocal relationships

I By Larry McDonough

i have known Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone for 20 years. We met through our involvement in Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, a Ralph Nader-organized and student-directed public interest group. When I started work at a rural legal-aid office representing low-income farmers, Wellstone was working to organize farmers to push for a minimum price similar to the minimum wage. My roommate at the time was Jeff Blodgett, a farm organizer and Wellstone’s former student, who would later become his manager for all three Senate campaigns.

Wellstone was a champion for my community of legal-aid workers for the poor and the many communities of low-income people we serve. Many people talk in churches, schools or social settings about lending a hand to the poor, disenfranchised and oppressed. They wonder why there isn’t someone there for the little guy. They think about it while watching “A Christmas Carol,” waiting for Scrooge to become the better person he is capable of being.

Not nearly enough people work toward this principle on a daily basis let alone consider it in the voting booth. Others even reject it. Sen. Paul Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, worked on it with every moment of their time and with every ounce of their energy. In doing so, they were not unique among citizens; there are many who have devoted their lives to the public interest. But they were unique among national leaders in their desire to serve those all but forgotten.

Some claimed Wellstone went too far, that he was only against things, didn’t get anything done and received financial support from outside the state. It only looked like he went far for his principles because he rose above the pack in doing so. He supported many things but was not afraid to oppose what would harm the most defenseless. He got so much done but often for those who are invisible to many: the poor, disabled, victims of violence, small-business owners and farmers. He received support from around the country because so many people do not have a voice in their representatives. Wellstone was the voice for Minnesota and the world we live in.

It broke my heart that so many would vigorously attack him for his principles and his work. But Wellstone was not one to recoil in anger. Just as he quietly dealt with his increasing physical disabilities, he would smile, look for the positive and move forward.

When Wellstone first ran for Senate, I thought his chances of winning were slim. But if I did not work on his campaign, how could I ever complain about the lack of assistance to and empathy for the poor? When he won, I thought it was a fluke but that he would still make the best of his time. I was wrong about the former but not the latter. I volunteered on each of his campaigns, played jazz piano for his fund-raisers and visited whenever I could. He always made time for me.

And then there were the hugs. I had a senator who hugged and was huggable. If I ever develop a bad back, I will blame Wellstone.

The Wellstones also had a unique marriage and partnership. His causes were hers and her causes were his. I loved them both. It was as if they were one person with two heads.

This might make you think that I was one of their best friends. I was not, but they made me feel like I was. They both remembered my family and they took pride in our accomplishments. When my daughter Shannon invited Wellstone to a band concert, he wrote back. Wellstone even called from an airport when he saw that I was the focus of a newspaper article. These last few days, I’ve learned that so many other people had similar experiences. Perhaps everyone the Wellstones touched counted them as best friends.

In 1968, at age 12, I was old enough to be aware of the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy but not old or aware enough to fully comprehend how their deaths touched so many people. While I came to understand it over time, I did not “feel” it until now.

My 16-year-old daughter Kelsey, who worked on Wellstone’s campaign, also feels it. When she was 4 years old, she thought the senator owned the color green. She called me from school when she heard of the crash, and we cried together on the phone. She has never known a time when Wellstone was not her senator, and he is the standard against which she and her friends measure politicians. That alone is a great legacy, leaving me with a sense of optimism in the midst of dark times.

So how do we remember the Wellstones, their daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson, Mary McEvoy, Tom Lapic, William McLaughlin, Richard Conroy and Michael Guess? Lend a hand to someone in need, give time and money to organizations that do the same, and work and vote for candidates who support the same issues.

Whenever I would see the Wellstones, I would start by thanking them for all they did. If I didn’t talk fast enough, Sen. Paul Wellstone would cut me off midstream and thank me and my legal-aid colleagues for all that we do in service to the poor. He said that “we” were “his” heroes. I think the Wellstones often felt that way – that all of the people they touched also touched them. Perhaps we all had the same lasting impact they had on us.

Larry McDonough is a University adjunct law professor. Send comments to [email protected]