Remembering Paul Wellstone: The Dreamer’s Realist

Robert Borosage

“Sometimes the dreamers are the only realists”
Sen. Paul Wellstone

10 years ago today, a phone call brought the unimaginable news: Paul Wellstone, his wife Sheila, his daughter Marcia, three staff aides and two pilots had died in a plane crash in northern Minnesota. Paul, the source of energy, joy, inspiration was gone. Along with thousands of others, I couldn’t stem the tears flowing down my face.

I first met Paul Wellstone in the late fall of 1987 when he was serving as chair of the Jesse Jackson for President campaign in Minnesota. Paul was leading Jackson through a series of meetings and speeches in the Northern Minnesota Iron Range. The Reverend was bundled up in a large heavy coat and thick scarf against the fierce Minnesota cold. Paul was dressed in a suit without gloves, a sparkplug of irrepressible energy, collaring people on the street to introduce them to Jackson, pushing the Reverend and his aides to move, talking as fast as he scampered, with a twinkle in his eye and a big smile on his face. That night took me back to his home to meet Sheila, offering me a bed on his “newly winterized” porch. I froze my duff off and became a devoted friend to a special man.

Two years later, Paul, a college professor and inveterate organizer, challenged a sitting Republican Senator, Rudy Boschwitz. He was outspent seven to one. He stormed across the state in a green bus, engaging young people to counter money with mobilization. Short of money, he put on a brilliant ad — “Fast Paul” — that featured him talking double-time to introduce himself to Minnesotans. When Boschwitz refused to debate him, another ad reprised Roger Moore’s famous bit in Roger and Me, with Paul vainly looking for Rudy. He laid out a populist agenda, overcame last minute slurs, and unbelievably won. He was the only Democratic candidate to knock off an incumbent Republican Senator that year.

Paul was a conviction politician. He saw politics as a moral calling. “Politics is about what we create by what we do, what we hope for, and what we dare to imagine. ” He urged organizers to not only protest but to seek power to make things better. “Politics isn’t about big money or power games,” he said, “it’s about the improvement of people’s lives.”

In stark contrast to chameleons like Mitt Romney who shamelessly change their views to fit their needs, Paul walked his talk. His first vote in the Senate was against the first Iraq War resolution under daddy Bush. His popularity immediately plummeted in Minnesota, but he felt he had to vote what he believed. Facing Boschwitz again six years later, he was the sole Senator up for re-election who voted against Clinton’s dismantling of welfare. He was scorned as Paul Welfare, too extreme for Minnesota. Voters didn’t agree with him but they re-elected him. Paul last vote, ironically, was against George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. And there is little question he would have won re-election once more had he not been taken from us.

Paul was called the conscience of the Senate, but he was more than that. He was building what he dubbed the “democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” He opposed the so called New Dems who tacked to prevailing conservative winds. He opposed the Democratic Party’s slide into big money pandering. He urged the party to stand with working and poor people, engage them in politics, and win. In his last race, the Bush White House, the Republican Party, the big oil and mining interests put money and energy behind challenger Norm Coleman, a Romneyesque shape-shifter, former Democrat turned conservative. Wellstone wasn’t daunted: “I don’t represent the big oil companies, the big pharmaceuticals, or the big insurance industry. They already have great representation in Washington. It’s the rest of the people that need representation.”

It’s worth noting that on issue after issue, Paul was right. He opposed the war in Iraq. He fought to limit big money in politics and curb revolving door lobbyists. He single-handedly stood against the banks and credit card companies holding up the bankruptcy reform that trampled consumer rights. He voted against repeal of Glass-Steagall, and the disastrous deregulation of banking. He voted against the NAFTA trade accord that became the model for our ruinous trade policies. He opposed the Democratic Party version of lowering the inheritance tax. With his wife Sheila, he championed the Violence Against Women act, which he co-sponsored with Joe Biden. He was a fierce opponent of drilling in the Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Preserve. He championed single-payer health care legislation – a form of Medicare for all – that this country will eventually get to after wasting hundreds of billions trying every other alternative. He called for giving states the power to adopt their own single payer plans, and would be delighted to see Vermont moving to do just that.

I always wondered whether Paul was unique or a model. It takes a special kind of joy and energy and integrity to mobilize people to counter big money. Too often, as we will see in this election, money rules, even against very talented candidates. Paul believed strongly that a conviction politician, yoking a vision, organizing, and commitment could transform the electorate, rouse young people and minorities, stir working and poor people and win. He thought the Democratic Party operatives who assumed the electorate couldn’t be changed and urged candidates to appeal to swing voters in the ever more conservative center had it wrong. And surely, in 2008, Barack Obama proved Paul’s case.

Fittingly, a centerpiece of Paul’s legacy is Wellstone Action, set up by family and friends and co-chaired by his sons Mark and David, to train a new generation of progressive organizers, campaign aides and candidates. Wellstone action teaches people to people politics. It instructs organizers about the need to engage in electoral politics, and politicians about the need to organize. 55,000 activists, campaign aides and candidates have received its training. To learn more and offer support, please go here.

“I’m short, I’m Jewish, and I’m liberal,” Paul would say, marveling at his success in Minnesota. But he was far more than that. He stood tall, he was a mensch, and he championed the concerns of people against a politics rigged increasingly to serve the interests of the powerful few. He was special. And for those of us lucky enough to have known him as a friend, he will ever be remembered and ever be missed.

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