Remembering Paul Wellstone

A longtime staffer recalls how the Minnesota senator took principled stands and cast principled votes -- and used them to win.

Topics: George W. Bush,

Paul and Sheila Wellstone, along with their only daughter, Marcia, and five others, died Friday on a rainy, snowy fall day on northeast Minnesota’s Iron Range. It is a remote area with a steelworkers’-union culture that goes back generations, and though it is heavily Democratic, it was a far cry from native soil for Paul and Sheila. Still, it was a place where this inseparable team felt at home.

Back in 1989, I’d traveled with Paul Wellstone in his beat-up maroon Chrysler LeBaron as he traveled through rural Minnesota to Duluth and the Iron Range, for exploratory meetings before his first Senate campaign. Paul would lie down in the backseat of the car complaining about his back, and we knew his back wasn’t going to get any better if he ran. But Paul had a different worry — how he’d be accepted during this swing outside the progressive Twin Cities. Even though he was a member of the Democratic National Committee, he had a reputation as a fiery speaker and protest organizer.

But Paul was a skilled organizer whose years of teaching enabled him to read his audience and engage them in conversation. On this trip Paul was cautious. He was the first potential candidate to make the rounds, and he didn’t want to appear too pushy. Former vice president Walter Mondale had been out of politics for five years, since his unsuccessful presidential campaign against incumbent Ronald Reagan, and he had not yet indicated whether he would run for the Senate seat. Paul did not want to put anyone on the spot regarding commitments. He focused his meetings on how this race would help the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which is what the Democrats are called in Minnesota.

Paul spoke at a gathering in Tower, Minn., in a home that served as the last stop for Central American refugees en route to Canada. St. Louis County Commissioner Herb Lampa said: “Sounds to me like you really want to run. If you want to, you should just do it.”

Paul was pumped as we drove through a light April snowfall to the next stop, the house of Gabe Brisbois, a political operative whose support would spread wide and deep. There aren’t many hotels up on the Iron Range, so candidates need to collect guest-room or couch invitations along with donations and votes. After dinner Gabe gave Paul the key to his house. Paul didn’t know what to say. He began delicately with, “I know Walter hasn’t decided to run and I know you’d be bound to him …” Gabe interrupted and said: “Paul, I’m giving you the key to my house because I’m supporting you.” On our way home that night, I told Paul the race was ours to lose. He thought I was crazy but acknowledged that he had a chance if everything broke his way.

The race was on. Paul managed to lock up the Iron Range endorsements before the ground froze for six months, ensuring that his were the only lawn signs up during the caucus season. As Minnesota political legend goes, if you win the Range, you win the state. The influential steelworkers of the territory that bears their name were the first union to endorse Paul in his 1990 race.

Some have called Paul Wellstone the first 1960s radical elected to the Senate, but that misses the mark. He was the first “justice organizer” elected to the U.S. Senate. Instead of spending the ’60s listening to the Jefferson Airplane and hitchhiking to Woodstock, Paul married his high school sweetheart and attended the University of North Carolina. He quit the UNC wrestling team after winning the Atlantic Coast Conference championship because he had to support Sheila and the first of their three children. Paul was not a ’60s radical, but a person committed to family and justice.

Wellstone projected his sense of justice into the classes he taught as a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. He encouraged his students to do active organizing in their communities. Paul and the students helped organize the rural poor people of Rice County who were having trouble finding affordable housing. When the college attempted to deny tenure to Wellstone, saying that he spent more time on organizing and too little time on academia, his students used the skills they’d learned from Paul to protest the decision. They won.

During the 1980s, as their kids got older, he and Sheila were able to devote more of their time to the struggle for justice. Paul helped organize the striking meatpackers at Hormel’s Austin plant and supported the steelworkers on the Range as jobs evaporated in that industry. He stood with rural communities fighting a controversial power line, and he was arrested with farmers protesting bank foreclosures. He protested against U.S. policies in Central America. In all the years I traveled with Paul, there wasn’t a picket line or protest he could ever pass without jumping out of the car to join it.

Wellstone combined his justice work with activism in Democratic Party politics. In 1984, he ran unsuccessfully for state auditor. He crisscrossed the state stumping at local party events and inspiring the party faithful. But Democrats continued to nominate seemingly “safe” candidates who failed to win the Senate seats vacated by Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. Hubert’s son, Skip, suffered a telling double-digit loss in 1988.

It was in that same year that the seeds of Paul’s Senate race were planted. As co-chair of Jesse Jackson’s second-place finish in Minnesota’s Democratic presidential primary, Wellstone helped bring new blood and experienced community organizers into the party. After Jackson lost, Wellstone moved over to co-chair the state’s presidential campaign of Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, and by doing so helped unify Minnesota Democrats, making it one of the few states won by the Democrats that year.

Anyone who heard Wellstone had to concede he was the best stump speaker the Democrats had. Even at contentious party conventions, his rousing speeches would bring delegates of all stripes to their feet. Paul had told me his cadenced style was developed from hearing civil rights leaders speak during his college days at North Carolina. And he never wrote a speech. About a half hour before an event, he would ask for quiet to prepare for his remarks. With his mind clear and his cadence carefully measured, the speeches were often inspirational.

Paul’s activism brought him the respect of labor unions, farmers, peace and justice activists, pro-choice women, environmentalists, people of color, community organizers and the party faithful. So restless activists at that year’s state DFL convention, looking toward the 1990 Senate race, added up all the disparate groups supporting Paul and formed what seemed to them a logical conclusion. At the convention that year, folks first began greeting Paul Wellstone, not quite jokingly, with the title “Senator.”

By early 1989, Paul and Sheila were seriously considering an exploratory run against the popular Republican incumbent, Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, best known in the state for hokey TV ads pushing his plywood business. The faint-hearted DFL party establishment feared Boschwitz but dreaded a Wellstone candidacy, arguing his liberalism would bring down the whole ticket. Paul’s backers argued that only someone with Paul’s passion and conviction could beat the incumbent.

At one exploratory meeting in Minneapolis, early in 1989, a noted political operative encouraged Paul to run for state party chair instead of the U.S. Senate. He told Paul a loss in the Senate race would finish his political career. Sheila Wellstone responded that she wasn’t giving up her husband for a relatively small state position. After Sheila’s declaration, Paul’s Senate campaign took a giant step forward.

Minnesota’s process for obtaining the party-caucus endorsement gives a grassroots organizing campaign a chance to beat a candidate with money. Paul, who lived on a professor’s salary and took his sabbatical to run, would raise only $100,000 during his first 12 months of campaigning, but he won the endorsement through his grassroots organization.

All three of Paul’s races relied on that same grassroots organizing strategy. Motivated volunteers gave Wellstone’s campaigns a sense of vitality and a feeling of ownership. Paul was in a role he felt most comfortable with, as the lead organizer of a base that shared his passion for justice.

In that first race, Paul still had to prove that justice politics was winning politics. He crushed his opponent in the September 1990 primary, with 70 percent of the vote, but he still trailed Boschwitz, and his trips to Washington for money and support were disasters. No one in Washington took him seriously. But at home in Minnesota, things started to break his way. Paul’s grassroots campaign continued to grow. His volunteers were everywhere. His television ads were risky and groundbreaking. Two weeks out from the election, polls showed Paul to be in a dead heat with Boschwitz. Washington started calling, and money started walking in the door. Finance director Dick Senese was the happiest guy on earth; the day the poll was published he had written checks to TV stations to buy ads, but there hadn’t been enough money in the bank to cover them. By the end of the day there was plenty more to spend.

Paul’s grassroots campaign surged in the final days. He simply was overwhelmed by the commitment of his volunteers. I still remember the look of amazement he flashed me at 10 p.m. on election eve. He had come to send off thousands of supporters armed with a quarter-million get-out-the-vote flyers that they’d put on windshields overnight. He had just come from phone banks where the biggest challenge was finding phones for the hundreds of people who showed up that day. And so when he won the next night, he knew who brought him there. He had seen the grassroots support grow exponentially. He was jubilant but humbled at the same time. “Politics is not left, right or center,” he would often say. “It’s about improving people’s lives.” He said it on election night in 1990 and he lived it throughout his Senate career.

As a senator, Wellstone focused on becoming the parliamentary equal of Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat, and North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms, using Senate procedures to protect and advance his causes. Former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, the chairman of the Consumer Federation of America, told Paul that the pharmaceutical industry had attached a patent extension for a seniors’ drug to a veterans’ funding bill. Nobody thought a senator would dare to hold up a veterans’ bill, but Wellstone tied it up until the extension was removed, arguing that the sneaky attempt to prevent the money-saving option of generic drugs would cost seniors hundreds of dollars. That was typical: Never in his lifetime would Wellstone’s name appear as the sponsor of a bill that was passed and signed into law, but his record of passing amendments, placing holds, calling for unanimous consent, and using the parliamentary procedures of the Senate to work for justice is unparalleled.

Wellstone’s base expanded during his years as a senator. He hired organizers to join his Senate staff. Paul entrusted these staffers to bring issues to him. He had a hectic schedule and demanded much from his staff, but he always made time for issues of justice. Paul’s days started at 5 a.m., when he would work out and read the papers. If there was any bad press, the staff’s day would start with a wakeup call shortly after 5 a.m. Needless to say, staffers worked hard to limit the bad press.

It was imperative for staffers to have all their facts right and to provide the full political picture on an issue. You never wanted to be the one who ordered a sandwich with onions and mayonnaise. And woe to the staffer who got lost driving to an event. In 1989, I asked a friend from St. Cloud to drive Paul there, but that would be my friend’s last trip with Paul. The car was towed while they ate lunch.

In 1996, a new fundraising staffer named Jim was taking Paul and Sheila to a house party one night in Minnetonka, a suburb known for similar sounding streets and cul-de-sacs. As it became apparent that Jim was hopelessly lost and very late, Paul and Sheila were anything but understanding, and their impatience was compounded by the lack of a cellphone in the car. Poor Jim was so frazzled he drove up in what he thought was a circular driveway but which was, in fact, someone’s lawn. With his lights shining on the house he got out and rang the doorbell; the babysitter who answered refused to let Jim use the phone, no matter how he begged. Paul finally came to the door and persuaded the baby sitter to give him the phone. The host of the house party came to get them.

Minnesota’s veterans were one of the factions that came to Paul’s side later on. Veterans’ groups hadn’t voted for Paul in 1990, but a small group of vets came into the St. Paul office one day with evidence that their exposure to radiation tests in Nevada and Utah during the 1950s had resulted in health problems for them and their families. The vets told stories of being exposed to radiation with no protection and of washing contaminated vehicles with soap and water. Many vets died from cancer at early ages; others had documented a pattern of reproductive problems. Paul organized hearings, brought the group’s leader to Washington to testify before the Senate, and authored an amendment to extend health benefits to families of the “atomic vets,” as they became known.

In 1996, Paul got a rematch against Boschwitz. This time, Boschwitz felt certain he could use Paul’s opposition to welfare reform against him. After all, Wellstone had been the only incumbent up for election to oppose welfare reform, saying it would take food out of the mouths of children and the elderly. When Boschwitz ran a series of ads calling him “Senator Welfare,” Paul responded with TV spots saying his parents had taught him to stand up for what was right. Senator Welfare won a second term.

Paul relished the role of being the lone voice in the Senate on controversial votes. He considered it a sign that he was doing what the people had elected him to do. These votes actually helped him mobilize his base. He did what few other senators have done — he cast principled votes and used them to win.

Paul’s last major vote was to oppose President Bush’s war resolution on Iraq. Once again, he was the only senator up for reelection to oppose the president. The week after his vote, polling numbers showed Paul’s lead increasing. And in those days, individual contributors invested more than a million dollars in his reelection campaign.

After 12 years in office, Wellstone finally passed a bill through the Senate and the House. Cosponsored with Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the measure provides parity in health insurance coverage for persons with mental illness. It wasn’t hard for Paul to reach across the aisle on this issue. His only brother is mentally ill, as is Domenici’s daughter. They spent nearly 10 years trying to force health insurance providers to cover mental illness and medical illnesses equally, working tirelessly to guide the measure through a closely divided Congress. The bill now sits on the desk of President Bush. Until Friday morning, Paul’s organizing skills had gone as far as they could go. Word had it that the president felt signing the bill would give the Minnesota incumbent a campaign edge against the Republican challenger, former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman.

But with his death, Paul Wellstone’s final organizing effort may succeed. Expect the president to sign the Wellstone-Domenici Mental Health Parity bill. It will be a tribute to Paul’s lifetime of work supporting those whose voices would not otherwise be heard.

Scott Adams served as Sen. Paul Wellstone's political director in 1990 and 1996, and as a policy advisor in the Senate office from 1991-96. He now runs his own consulting firm in San Francisco, Political Movers & Shakers.

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