Today marks the four-year anniversary of Senator Paul Wellstone’s death. Less than two weeks before his re-election, the most outspoken, progressive and passionate Democrat in the United States Senate died in a plane crash with his wife Sheila, daughter Marcia, and three campaign staffers. I still remember where I was when I heard the news, and it was the worst day of my life.
My cell phone started ringing off the hook, as my mother, my father, my sisters and many of my friends (even some who I hadn’t talked to in years) immediately called me to offer their condolences. Not only were they aware of how much Paul Wellstone had been an inspiration for my life and my career – but that I had also known him personally, and had worked for him when he briefly considered a run for president.
It’s not just that Paul was a liberal and proud of it – he represented a different kind of politics that expresses idealism in a gloomy and cynical world, stresses that we will only take our country back if we engage communities at the grass-roots level, uses electoral politics as an engine for activists, and conducts genuine outreach to poor people and communities of color. Paul’s last vote in the Senate before he died was against the Resolution authorizing War in Iraq – the only Democrat running for re-election in a tight race to do so. Had he lived, Paul would have been a powerful critic of the Bush-Cheney administration – and would have been especially effective during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Paul was a short, Jewish professor at Carleton College in rural Minnesota. While most political scientists are content dealing with political theory and analyzing data, Paul urged his students to go out into the community and use politics to improve peoples’ lives. He was also a troublemaker, as the University tried to get him fired until students held a sit-in to protest. In 1990, at the urging of progressive activists, Paul decided to run for the Senate against Rudy Boschwitz, a popular Republican and legendary fundraiser. Nobody gave him a chance in hell, but Paul ran a principled campaign against Reaganomics that emphasized – rather than blurred – his differences with the incumbent. Because Paul had a long track record advocating for family farmers, labor unions and grass-roots peace activists throughout Minnesota, his campaign electrified those communities. Despite being outspent 7-1, Paul became the only Senate candidate that year to defeat an incumbent.
I first heard about Paul Wellstone in 1995, when he was one of the few Democrats out of Washington D.C. to aggressively attack the Newt Gingrich agenda. During my senior year of high school, I read Professor Wellstone Goes to Washington, which should be required reading for anyone who considers a run for public office. In 1996, when President Clinton completely betrayed poor people by signing Welfare Repeal, Paul was the only Senator up for re-election to vote against it. Pundits began writing his political obituary, but what it did was galvanize progressive activists to his side who felt that his re-election was now more critical than ever. When Republicans barraged Minnesota with attack ad after attack ad, Paul said, “it’s true. The pharmaceutical companies, the tobacco companies and the oil companies – they don’t like me very much as a Senator. But they already have a voice in Washington, and it’s real people who need to be heard.”
After his re-election, Paul began contemplating a run for President in 2000 for the Democratic nomination against Al Gore. In April 1997, after meeting him in person, I started a “Wellstone for President” website to build grass-roots support online. Keep in mind that this was long before Howard Dean used the Internet to run for President – and liberal blogs like Daily Kos wouldn’t exist for years. For two years, I worked closely with Wellstone activists throughout the country and met Paul several times when he came to California, until he decided not to run in January 1999 because of a back injury. Today, two of my prize possessions include the voice-mail message that Paul left for me after he dropped out of the race, and a letter of recommendation that he wrote for me when I graduated from college.
Because Paul never ran for President, I never got to truly experience a Wellstone campaign operate in high gear. But after his death, some of Paul’s closest advisers founded Wellstone Action which recruits, trains and cultivates progressive leaders to run for office. Besides holding training camps across the country for new leaders, Wellstone Action has published a book called Politics the Wellstone Way, which gives progressives a basic blue-print on how to run a successful campaign.
The book offers instrumental advice on how to build a real base among the disenfranchised. “These communities,” it writes, “feel little connection to politics and are skeptical of politicians. They have heard promises before, and more often than not have been let down. Successfully organizing disenfranchised communities can be done only if there is an existing relationship of trust and confidence between the campaign and communities.”
While people think of Minnesota as a very white state, there are many people of color – especially in the Twin Cities – and Paul truly engaged them and brought them into the political process. In his 2002 re-election campaign, Paul had at least one paid staff or volunteer organizer for each of the major communities – African Americans, Somalis, West Africans, Latinos, Hmongs and Tibetans. Far from just distributing campaign literature in different languages, Paul had invested in many of these communities so that when election time came around they were willing to play an active role. And the benefits have paid off beyond Paul’s death — this year, Minnesota activist Keith Ellison will become the first Muslim elected to Congress.
Since his death, many have wondered who will be the next Paul Wellstone. I had my early hopes pinned on Barack Obama when he jumped into the national spotlight in 2004. Obama was my neighbor when I lived in Chicago, and I remember him as a reform-minded progressive who knew how to shake up the system. But now that he wants to be President, Obama has triangulated and spends a lot of time bashing liberal Democrats. His voting record, although decent, has had a few dark spots. Obama pales in comparison to someone like Paul Wellstone, and I no longer see him as the “great progressive hope” that I thought we were going to have.
Four years after Paul’s death, we have to keep doing what his campaign theme song urged us to do – “stand up, keep fighting.”
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