News Column

Paul Wellstone: Voice for the "Little Fellers"

October 30, 2002

Dane Smith and Patricia Lopez

Paul Wellstone: 1944 - 2002
Paul Wellstone: 1944 - 2002

Over and over in his improbable first campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1990, the 5-foot, 5-inch liberal professor Paul Wellstone would bounce up and down on the balls of his feet, jab the air repeatedly with his finger and shout that he would be a senator for the "little fellers, not the Rockefellers."

His politics, he repeatedly said, were about "improving people's lives" and "the fact that too few people have too much power and say and too many people don't have enough."

Wellstone often was derided as an anachronistic 1960s-style radical and a polarizer.

But his friends and foes on Friday invariably agreed that his affinity and passion for the poor and every manner of downtrodden people were his defining legacy. And he improved thousands of lives in countless ways, they said, through personal connections and help he offered, and through his political achievements.

"There have been few people in our history who so naturally represented the concerns of people who have no voice in American life," said Pat Forciea, his 1990 campaign manager. "He had no political peers. He didn't view any issue as risky or insurmountable."

Wellstone enjoyed the company of people who were not so successful. They were not props for his politics. He was famous for talking not just to the customers of the cafes he loved to frequent, but for going into the kitchen, talking up the dishwashers and fry cooks, urging them not only to vote for him but also to demand more for themselves.

He befriended U.S. Capitol security guards and brought them home to dinner. But he remembered names and family members of Minnesotans at all levels, as people who waited to shake his hand every year at the State Fair found out.

Radical roots

Wellstone was the son of immigrant Russian Jews and grew up in a modest red brick house on a cul-de-sac in Arlington, Va.

His father was Leon Wexelstein, a frustrated playwright who ended up working for the U.S. Information Agency under Edward R. Murrow. His mother, Minnie Danishevsky, grew up in New York City and was the daughter of a garment factory worker and union activist. The family name was later Anglicized because of anti-Semitic bias, Wellstone said.

Late-night discussions over sponge cake and tea at the kitchen table with his father, who was sympathetic to Socialist economics but a foe of Bolshevism, informed his world view.

His upbringing was middle-class and comfortable enough but was deeply affected by a great trauma, his older brother Stephen's descent into mental illness, a form of severe depression that put him into an institution and plunged the family into debt.

The bills for treatment forced his mother to take a job as a school cafeteria worker, and Wellstone later said he was ridiculed by classmates who considered him "white trash."

Wellstone's passion for underdogs and life's most helpless people was shaped by visits to his brother in a mental hospital that he once described as a "snakepit." He became one of the Senate's leading advocates for expanding federal health-care benefits for mental problems and chemical dependency.

He was a full-fledged juvenile delinquent during a rough period in the late 1950s, a time he described as his "rebel without a cause" phase. He confessed to vandalism and stealing cars for joyrides. But he turned his life around and discovered discipline in high-school wrestling, and his passion for the sport earned him a scholarship to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

While still in high school, he began dating Sheila Ison, a Southern Baptist with Kentucky roots. They went to different colleges at first, could not bear the separation and were married in 1963, when both were 19. Their first child, Paul David, was born in 1965. Sheila worked in the university library as Wellstone went on to graduate school in political science.

He plunged into his studies and wrestling, winning a regional championship and earning his undergrad degree in three years.

Wellstone was hired to teach political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., in 1969, and his new responsibilities did not end his confrontative protest politics. He was arrested at a Vietnam War protest at the federal building in Minneapolis in 1970. He organized Rice County welfare recipients. He was arrested again at a Paynesville bank at a protest related to farm bankruptcies.

Wellstone was so controversial that Carleton officials tried to fire him in 1974. But with the vocal and organized support of students he had taught, he fought back and eventually won tenure.

Steve Schier, a Carleton professor, said Wellstone was "less of an academic, more of a grass-roots political activist. He viewed it as part of his mission to get students active in politics."

As Wellstone himself got involved in politics, his high-volume speeches, delivered in cadences that he copied from black gospel preachers, made him a favorite speaker at DFL functions. In 1982, as something of a sacrificial lamb against a popular moderate, Republican Arne Carlson, Wellstone ran for state auditor.

During the campaign Wellstone admitted that he had a learning disability that gave him trouble with numbers and statistics, an odd handicap for a state auditor.

He was soundly defeated, but Carlson said Friday that he had become good friends with Wellstone in the last couple of years, partly because Wellstone sought his advice about what people would think of the senator's revelation that he had multiple sclerosis.

"He grew in the job, and to me that's always the test of an individual's worth," Carlson said Friday. "He always used his public service as an opportunity to express his principles, his fight for the underdog."

Senate campaign

Wellstone's next campaign was for the U.S. Senate. He declared his candidacy in April of 1989 at a community center in a low-income Minneapolis neighborhood. The DFL establishment gave him little chance of defeating a popular and entrenched incumbent Republican, Rudy Boschwitz.

But Wellstone worked tirelessly to persuade DFL activists, concentrating on the urban core, distressed agricultural regions, and above all the blue-collar enclaves of the Iron Range.

His debate coach that year, whom Wellstone later nominated as a U.S. attorney, David Lillehaug, recalled that "he was about the only person who really believed he'd win. . . . The DFL establishment thought I was crazy to want to help him but I loved his heart. He always said he wouldn't be the senator for big oil, for the drug companies. It was straight populism, 180 proof."


Wellstone caught the beginning of a populist reaction against 1980s Republicanism under President Ronald Reagan. He presented himself as the enemy of corporate privilege and wealth. He called for a single-payer national health-care system and sweeping campaign finance reforms, and managed to put together what has been called a "blue-green" coalition, composed of union members in hard hats and liberal and environmental activists in pony tails.

Luck played a big part in his 1990 upset. Three weeks before Election Day, the Republican ticket was swept up in allegations of sexual improprieties by gubernatorial candidate Jon Grunseth.

And Boschwitz, also Jewish, stumbled badly with a late campaign letter in which he accused Wellstone of raising his children as Christians. It infuriated many Jews and earned broad public disapproval.

Wellstone, who often talked about politics being affected by the "winds and tides," eked out a narrow victory, 50.5 percent to 47.9 percent. The day after his election, he surprisingly announced that he would serve no more than two terms, a promise he broke in 2001 when he announced that he would seek a third term after all.

After riding his well-known green bus all the way to Washington for his swearing-in in 1991, Wellstone started stomping on toes immediately and got off to a bad start in the Senate. He held a showy press conference at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, greatly offending veterans and many of his new constituents.

In his first trip to the White House, he buttonholed President George Bush for a harangue on the inadvisability of war, and Bush reportedly said afterward, "Who is this chickenshit?"

He was one of a few senators who voted against authorizing war in Iraq, and by midsummer of 1991, his approval ratings had fallen to an all-time low for a Minnesota U.S. senator.

In the late 1990s, with Vice President Al Gore the obvious favorite to succeed President Bill Clinton as the Democratic nominee, Wellstone began angling for a run himself.

He eventually dropped out of the race, citing health problems, specifically chronic back problems. Two years later, as he was opening up his third Senate campaign, Wellstone revealed that he had a form of multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the nervous system.

Along the way and especially during his early days in the Senate, Wellstone managed to irritate and anger many who came in contact with him. Aides and Capitol observers discovered that he could be thin-skinned and harsh. His flaws were functions of his virtues, some said. His passion and drive came off as self-righteousness to some.

But among those praising him Friday was former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams, a Republican who served with him for six years and often was described as his polar opposite.

"We got to know each other a little better in recent years," said Grams, who worked with Wellstone on establishing a center in Minnesota for international torture victims.

"The fellow had a set of beliefs and fought for those very hard. He did what he believed, you always knew where he stood. He had deep convictions."

From the moment he arrived in the Senate, Wellstone was a crusader for the poor, the disadvantaged, workers, struggling family farmers, the environment and human rights causes. Wellstone's was the voice of the true left.

He began what would become a yearslong effort to derail efforts to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In 1995, after Republicans seized control of the House and Senate, he became more vocal. Using parliamentary maneuvers, he obstructed GOP efforts to loosen environmental regulations.

He voted against the Republican-backed welfare plan that President Clinton signed into law, landing him the nickname, "Senator Welfare."

But despite taking positions on the fringes, Wellstone made friends and forged bipartisan alliances. In what may be his proudest legacy, he and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., joined ranks to author legislation to require health insurance plans to provide "parity" coverage for mental illnesses. While their bill was scaled back, President Bush recently endorsed the concept, and it is seen as a pioneering step toward helping a huge segment of sick, but often ignored, Americans.

Weeks before he died, he made another defining vote. Despite facing a tough reelection and a tide of support for Bush's push to rein in Saddam Hussein, he voted against authorizing the president to take military action against Iraq.

Poll results suggest that Wellstone's vote on principle didn't set him back in the least. He was leading Republican Norm Coleman in the polls when his plane crashed.

Wellstone is survived by his sons, Paul David and Mark, and his grandchildren, Cari, Keith, Joshua, Matt, Acacia and Sidney.

-- Washington Bureau Correspondent Greg Gordon contributed to this report.

Source: Star Tribune

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