Paul Wellstone, 1944 – 2002: A Voice for the Voiceless

Josh Linehan

Lonely, sporadic raindrops splashed off the green awning and mingled with tears Friday as mourners gathered outside of U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone’s, D-Minn., campaign headquarters to begin saying goodbye to the senator.

An unabashed liberal, an intense, passionate advocate, a fiery orator and a friend, Wellstone died in a plane crash near Eveleth, Minn., at the age of 58.

As speeches and statements floated in from around the nation, the emerging picture was one of a public servant and a dedicated fighter for his firm convictions. They called him the “soul of the Senate,” and the “pied piper of Minnesota politics.” Most of all, they called him a tireless voice for his beliefs.

From the steps of his Twin Cities headquarters or from Washington, D.C., those in the highest seats of power – and his own beloved “little guys” – remembered a man who changed the face of Minnesota politics.

The son of Jewish Russian immigrants Leon and Minnie, who came to the United States in 1914 to escape persecution, Wellstone was born July 21, 1944, and raised just outside the nation’s Capitol in Arlington, Va.

He attended Wakefield and Yorktown high schools. After graduation, he headed to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the first seeds of a political phenomenon were sown.

Thad Beyle, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina, met Wellstone during his graduate years at Chapel Hill and remembers an overwhelmingly intense man who protested the Vietnam War and worked hard for the civil rights campaign sweeping the area.

In many ways, Beyle said, Wellstone was one of the few who never lost the courage of his convictions forged during the hectic days of student activism on college campuses during the 1960s.

“He took that into the classroom with him, and he obviously took it with him to the Senate. I’ll remember him as an incredibly intense person and also a very bright person,” Beyle said.

Wellstone’s intensity was perhaps best personified on the wrestling mat, where he grappled his way to an undefeated record in the 126-pound weight class in two years as a varsity wrestler for the Tar Heels. He won an ACC championship in 1964.

Wellstone earned his B.A. in political science in 1965, followed by a doctorate in the same subject in 1969. In North Carolina he also met and married his wife, Sheila, who died with him in the crash.

He moved to Northfield, Minn., where he began a teaching career that would last 21 years. Lecturing on political science at Carleton College, Wellstone first displayed a dazzling ability to inflame passions and mobilize support for positions often far outside the political mainstream.

Charles Backstrom, professor emeritus at the University, said the ability to do what only Hubert H. Humphrey had done before – to excite and unify disparate parts of Minnesota’s DFL Party – would be the late senator’s legacy.

Backstrom said the three main parts of the DFL, farmers, labor unions and progressive academics, often quibbled over different goals within the party. But in 1990, when a 46-year-old Wellstone burst onto the scene, stumping around the state in his now-famous green bus, Democratic politics in the state turned upside down.

“Wellstone had that enthusiasm. He was an advocate, not an academic,” Backstrom said. “But he was the first Democrat in Minnesota since Humphrey to rebuild that unlikely coalition.”

Backstrom said he wrote Wellstone a letter before the elections. He tried to console his friend about the election Backstrom was sure he’d lose and told him not to forget he had done a noble thing by invigorating the state’s youth.

It was a letter Backstrom would never send.

Outspent 7-to-1 by incumbent opponent Rudy Boschwitz, Wellstone pounded both the pavement of the Twin Cities and the gravel roads of the North country in a grass-roots campaign.

And on Nov. 6, 1990, Wellstone stunned the state and the nation by defeating Boschwitz. At his raucous victory celebration, Wellstone looked out at his supporters and workers, mostly young adults, and proclaimed, “We never really had all the money, but we had you!”

“He changed the political life of the state,” Backstrom said.

As a junior senator, it didn’t take Wellstone long to establish himself as a man not afraid to vote his conscience, even if he was the only vote on one side of an issue.

He famously defied former President George H. Bush by voting against the resolution authorizing force in Iraq, the only senator to do so.

He worked hard for his many progressive causes, including health care, raising the minimum wage and protecting workers’ rights.

More recently, he again spoke out against war on Iraq, and on behalf of the underprivileged, including homeless veterans.

Across the nation Friday, the tables were turned as one speaker after another took their turn standing up for the little guy, eulogizing the 5-foot-5-inch Wellstone.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said in a statement, “Paul Wellstone was the soul of the Senate. He was one of the most noble and courageous men I have ever known.”

President George W. Bush, speaking after a meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, said: “Paul Wellstone was a man of deep convictions, a plain-spoken fellow who did his best for his state and his country.”

From the steps of the Wellstone campaign headquarters, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., – in town to stump for Wellstone and DFL-gubernatorial hopeful Roger Moe – remembered Wellstone as one of the Senate’s greatest speakers and a man of conviction.

A single tear was visible on Kennedy’s face as he fought for the words to remember Wellstone, a man who claimed Kennedy’s nephew Robert as one of his heroes.

Wellstone often quoted Robert F. Kennedy, including a memorable passage in a commencement address he gave at Swarthmore College (see opposite page) in 1998.

With the United States’ economy booming, Wellstone railed against a failing education system, asking why such a rich country still couldn’t get the basics right.

“How can it be that we are being told that we cannot do this at the peak of our economic performance?” Wellstone asked. “I say to you today that it is not right. It is not acceptable. We can do much better, and if not now, when? If we don’t do this now, when will we do it as a nation?”

If such a quote encapsulates the progressive views of Wellstone, the words of one supporter who waited for news in the rain Friday sums up many Minnesotans’ feelings in the wake of his sudden death.

Sue Rohland, a worker on both of Wellstone’s previous campaigns, cried outside the senator’s campaign headquarters as men spoke from an impromptu platform and flowers slowly piled up on the wet concrete.

“It’s incredibly tragic. We can’t afford to lose him. We just can’t afford to lose him,” she said.


Josh Linehan covers student life and welcomes comments at [email protected]