Wellstone’s legacy lives on

Tomorrow’s St. Paul caucuses are the start of the process whereby political parties endorse candidates for various city council wards.

Jason Stahl

It is hard to describe the profound sense of emptiness that supporters of Sen. Paul Wellstone felt in the months after his death over four years ago. I say “emptiness,” not only because we had lost our most passionate advocate on the national scene, but also because it felt as if nothing would be able to replace the man.

While I still believe that Paul Wellstone is irreplaceable, it is now clear that his spirit is alive and well. The emptiness I felt in the months after his death has been replaced by a feeling of optimism that progressives are carrying on his legacy -particularly in Minnesota.

For two examples of this “carrying forward” of Wellstone’s legacy, one need only look at tomorrow’s caucuses in St. Paul. For those who are not aware, the caucuses are the start of the process whereby political parties endorse candidates for various St. Paul city council wards. Given that St. Paul is a Democratic city, the DFL caucuses are of particular importance. And it is in these DFL caucuses where two young reformers – with University ties – are running for city council in the Wellstone spirit.

In the 1st Ward, Melvin Carter III, a former graduate student in public policy at the University, is challenging incumbent Debbie Montgomery. And in the 6th Ward, Pakou Hang, a former graduate student in political science at the University, is challenging longtime incumbent Dan Bostrom. I had the opportunity to interview both Carter and Hang recently and the similarities of the campaigns they are running are striking. Both are making explicit use of the Wellstone model, which uses grassroots pressure to bring accountability and progressive change to the political process. This should not come as a surprise given that both, like Wellstone, were longtime community organizers before running for office. Thus, like Wellstone, both see their races as another way to empower the communities which they have been organizing for years.

Carter, in particular, kept returning throughout our interview to his experience as a community organizer for the groups Got Voice? Got Power!, Wellstone Action and Minnesota Victory 2004 as his primary qualification to represent his ward. He argued, “I’m a community organizer and already have a great relationship with the people of Ward One. I come from the community and have been walking the ward and understanding the ward.” His campaign theme, “As one we win,” reflects what Carter describes as his desire to bring together the diverse elements of the ward into a coalition which would ensure that projects such as the light-rail central corridor are planned to directly benefit the community. Carter steadfastly refused to directly criticize his opponent and instead continued to focus throughout our interview on the voices he heard as an organizer that he hopes to empower as a councilman.

Likewise, Hang also draws on her own experiences as an organizer. In 2001 she managed the campaign of State Sen. Mee Moua, the first Hmong state legislator in the United States. For Hang, the daughter of Hmong immigrants herself, the experience was proof that grassroots campaigns could empower underrepresented communities. After this experience, she worked with Progressive Minnesota on Wellstone’s 2002 campaign and then for America Votes organizing for the 2006 elections.

Thus, when I asked her why she was running for City Council, like Carter, it was not surprising that she saw it as an extension of the community organizing work she had always done. However, she also spoke of those in her ward (on St. Paul’s east side) who felt disconnected from their local government because of out-of-touch incumbents.

She said that she has spoken with many people who have said, “Pakou, I’ve lived here for 20 years and you’re the first phone call I’ve ever gotten (from a local politician).” She argued that her opponent, who has not faced an election contest in the last three cycles, has lost a sense of accountability to his ward and that the people she is talking to in her organizing are happy to simply have their concerns listened to once again – to be able to “dream again,” as Hang put it.

It remains to be seen whether the community organizing model will work in these two local races, but one thing is for certain – Wellstone’s legacy is being carried on.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected].