Wellstone remembered at Carleton College two-day symposium

by K.C. Howard

Normally, few people protest when a professor does not receive tenure, and most professors won’t find students coming to their rescue, fighting for their chance to stay.

Students reacted differently, however, when the professor was Paul Wellstone – Minnesota’s former Democratic senator killed in an October plane crash.

During the 1973-74 school year, when Wellstone was a young professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., he learned he would not be tenured.

Never taking things lightly, his students organized rallies, petition drives and protests in his defense. Learning from the original

grass-roots organizer, Wellstone’s students had been so well schooled in how to organize effectively that the school reconsidered and gave Wellstone tenure.

Wellstone’s former students, friends, co-workers, political allies and political foes gathered at Carleton College this weekend to remember the senator. They conducted a two-day symposium honoring the lives of Wellstone and his wife, Sheila. They discussed their approach to policy and grass-roots organizing.

“Paul was willing to risk everything for a cause,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn. “I’ve always treasured the opportunity I had to work so closely with Paul Wellstone.”

Ramstad gathered with many of Wellstone’s former staff members and friends Friday afternoon for a panel discussion of issues for which Wellstone fought.

Although Ramstad and Wellstone come from different sides of the political aisle, the pair worked together to ban insurance discrimination against the mentally disabled.

Thursday, Ramstad said, he introduced the Paul Wellstone Mental Health Treatment Act of 2003 in the U.S. House.

“As Paul and Sheila would want, their important work must go on. Let’s renew our commitment to keeping their legacy alive,” Ramstad said.

Ramstad also joked about Wellstone’s fiery character and unabashed liberalism.

“Paul would always say, ‘Ramstad, I love you like a brother, but how can you be so wrong?’ ” he said.

Connie Lewis, the director of Wellstone’s Minnesota offices, spoke about Sheila Wellstone and her work helping domestic violence victims.

“She was committed to meaningful action and had an extraordinary dedication to women and their children,” Lewis said. “She was very good at bringing people together.”

Lewis said one of the Wellstones’ proudest moments was when the Violence Against Women Act passed in 1994.

“It affirmed for people that this was a serious crime. It’s up to us to continue their work,” she said.

Mark Ritchie, president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, spoke about Wellstone’s connections to the average farmers and people he represented.

“He knew that directly being there for people was the critical element. He talked about the impact of decisions being made in Washington on regular people,” Ritchie said.

David Foster, director of United Steelworkers of America District 11, said he believed all Wellstone’s social movements drew their legitimacy from how idealistic his grass-roots organizing was.

“Paul was a labor senator from the rank and file up, not the other way around,” Foster said.

“He was competitive, fiercely loyal and forever refusing to become cynical about American politics,” he said.

Bob Borosage, president of the Institute for America’s Future, said although Wellstone was seen as an idiosyncratic, crazy liberal and known in Washington as a maverick, he knew how to get people organized and get the votes he needed.

Wellstone knew how to get people involved, he said.

“His mix of politics was unique,” Borosage said, “but he knew that if you fought for people every day, you would not lose your base of working people.”

Borosage said Wellstone believed in a social contract focusing on what people owe each other as a society. He said Wellstone fought hard for health care for everyone, raising minimum wages and holding large corporations and institutions responsible for their actions.

“Paul represented the politics of the future, not of the past,” he said.

Emily Johns covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]