Celebrating Wellstone

I By Libby George and Josh Linehan

it was part memorial, part campaign rally and all populist.

Williams Arena nearly burst at the seams with mourners and cheering throngs Tuesday as more than 21,000 people – 1,000 of whom gathered around screens outside – showed up to say goodbye to the eight people lost when Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone’s plane crashed near Eveleth, Minn., on Friday.

The old Barn and adjacent Sports Pavilion were full by 5:30 p.m. – a full hour before the event was scheduled to start and nearly two hours before it actually began.

The crowd cheered as former President Bill Clinton entered with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. They were followed by other key Democrats including Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., Tom Harkin, D-Iowa and former Vice President Al Gore.

Several Republican officials also attended the event, including Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Trent Lott, R-Miss. and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson. Most were booed by the crowd when the camera focused on them.

Chants of “Wellstone” rang out whenever there was a lull in the action.

University freshman Noelle Razidlo said supporting Wellstone brought her to the event.

“I just want everyone to remember him for what he deserves to be remembered for,” Razidlo said. She added that she will vote for his successor, whoever it will be, because “it’s supporting Wellstone and what he stood for as best we can.”

Wellstone’s challenger, Republican Norm Coleman, had canceled all campaign activity until today, but speakers did not hesitate to use the event to promote Wellstone’s apparent successor in the race former Vice President Walter Mondale.

The new campaign got off to a furious start Tuesday.

A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll conducted Monday night found Mondale with an eight-point edge over Coleman. Forty-seven percent of respondents favored Mondale, compared to 39 percent supporting Coleman. The 8-percentage point gap is slightly larger than the poll’s margin of sampling error of 3.9 percentage points.

Because pollsters surveyed 639 people in a single night instead of gathering data over several days, the results represent only a snapshot of voter sentiment at a time of political tumult.

“Together we can win and achieve great victories in Paul Wellstone’s name,” said Rick Kahn, a Carleton College professor who spoke about Wellstone. “Can we not set aside for just one week all the partisan bickering Ö to honor the life of a man who gave his life?” Kahn said.

The crowd gave Kahn a standing ovation several times, continually chanting “Wellstone.”

Fourteen times Kahn roused the throng to its feet by yelling, “We will win this election for Paul Wellstone!”

Kahn went as far as calling upon Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad, who attended the event, to “help us win this election for Paul Wellstone.”

Harkin, who also spoke about Wellstone, continued the rally for support.

“Most of these people didn’t have lobbyists or anyone, but they had Paul Wellstone, and he was their best friend,” Harkin said. “We must continue Paul’s journey for justice in America.”

The crowd erupted when Wellstone’s signature green bus appeared on the video screens above the dais. It preceded a video showing photos of Wellstone and the other victims. It was set to native Minnesotan Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” and featured excerpts from several key Wellstone speeches.

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman and approximately 40 Minnesota clergy members opened the ceremony with a prayer, followed by “America the Beautiful” sung by the White Bear Lake High School choir, and then speakers for each of the campaign workers and Wellstone family members killed.

“Everything he did was top-notch and full steam ahead,” said David McLaughlin, brother of deceased campaign worker and former University student Will McLaughlin.

Friend Brian Ahlberg eulogized Tom Lapic, a close Wellstone confidant.

“How cruel that at the toughest time of crisis in the Wellstone campaign, that the person everyone would turn to is gone,” Ahlberg said.

Interim University President Robert Bruininks mourned the loss of University professor Mary McEvoy and announced the founding of a scholarship in her name for graduate and professional students.

The most emotional speeches came at the end. Close friends of Marcia Wellstone Markuson and Sheila Wellstone spoke in their memory, reminding the crowd of Marcia’s dedication to her father’s campaign and of Sheila’s passionate fighting on behalf of domestic violence victims.

University police Chief George Aylward said event security went smoothly, but “because there was so many people, it was difficult.”

Aylward said officials conducted a ground and chemical search before the event.

Aylward said security included metal detectors and bag searches but added that different measures were implemented in different areas, depending on whether diplomats, family members or the public were admitted at that entrance.

Although organizers initially encouraged everyone to attend the event, after the arena filled up, they asked that any other potential attendees stay home.

Wellstone’s sons David and Paul both paid tribute to their sister, mother and father near the end of the program. David said his feelings applied not only to himself and his family, but also to the whole state of Minnesota.

“When you really, really needed it, there was no one else you wanted in your corner.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.