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Paul Wellstone remembered: Legacy bigger in death than life

ST. PAUL -- Paul Wellstone's death in a northeastern Minnesota plane crash a year ago today turned him into a bigger icon for liberal Democrats than when he was alive.

ST. PAUL -- Paul Wellstone's death in a northeastern Minnesota plane crash a year ago today turned him into a bigger icon for liberal Democrats than when he was alive.

Presidential candidates invoke his name. A nonprofit organization teaches citizens how to become involved in government and would-be politicians how to campaign in the Wellstone tradition. Citizens volunteer for political causes in record numbers.

"It seems like Wellstone now is a symbol of an idea," said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Report national political newsletter.

"The spirit of Paul Wellstone with his strong identification with working people ... his love of dealing with individuals at the grass- roots level, I think is being recreated in some of the presidential campaigns because it was such a genuine, people-oriented, citizen-driven approach to politics," added Consumers Union Director Gene Kimmelman. "It is his model for political activism that is critical to a lot of Democratic presidential candidates."

Wellstone, who for a while dreamed of being the Democratic nominee in the 2000 presidential election, died in a fiery airplane crash that also took the lives of his wife, daughter, three campaign workers and two pilots. The twin-propeller plane crashed two miles short of the Eveleth airport when Wellstone was en route to the funeral of a long-time friend and labor leader.


The two-term senator, 58 when he died, was known for eliciting emotion when he spoke. A year after his death, many friends and supporters still are overcome with their own emotions when trying to talk about him.

But instead of languishing in grief, many have launched efforts to carry on Wellstone's legacy, including those seeking the White House.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean lifted a Wellstone line to tell audiences that he represents "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party."

"Dean tapped into his party by the Wellstone line, these liberal Democratic voters who felt like they have been off in the desert, at least through the Clinton-Gore years," Duffy said. "The war was a big factor in lighting the fire."

Dean, a Democratic frontrunner, runs a grass-roots campaign much like Wellstone, Dean's Minnesota campaign chairman said.

"There are a lot of similarities about how Howard Dean approaches his candidacy and Paul Wellstone," Ted Mondale said. "He has his sleeves rolled up like Wellstone did."

If Dean stole the Wellstone line, other candidates also use his name to attract Democrats on the left.

"Paul and I fought against it," Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry told an Iowa audience recently when opposing the war with Iraq.


Wellstone's last major Senate vote was against going to war, the only senator seeking re-election to take that stance.

Another candidate, Dennis Kucinich, courted Wellstone supporters on a recent Minneapolis stop.

"On issues from national health insurance to ... the plight of family farmers, the Kucinich presidential campaign is running on the Paul Wellstone agenda," Kucinich press secretary David Swanson said. "While Howard Dean has swiped one of Sen. Wellstone's famous phrases, it is Kucinich who has brought Wellstone's issues into this year's presidential campaign."

Teaching Wellstone

While his name is being thrown around in presidential campaigns, Wellstone's campaign style is spreading across the country, thanks to nonprofit St. Paul-based Wellstone Action.

Wellstone's sons, Mark and David, gave rise to the organization as a way to carry on their father's work. Wellstone Campaign Manager Jeff Blodgett runs Wellstone Action, which presents Camp Wellstone sessions around the country.

Officially nonpartisan, Wellstone Action teaches camp participants the progressive -- liberal -- politics of its namesake.

"We definitely have a strong point of view," Blodgett said.


Eight camps are planned this year -- including one last week for Pennsylvania union workers -- with 25 to 30 expected in the election year of 2004.

Camp participants are divided into three categories -- campaign workers, candidates and community activists.

Blodgett, like other Wellstone friends, was convinced the Democratic senator was headed toward re-election. Wellstone was proud that he had organized what may have been the largest-ever grass-roots, get-out-the-vote effort, something those at Camp Wellstone are learning.

At least 5,000 volunteers were to knock on Minnesotan's doors on election day and get their supporters out to vote.

"That had not been seen or done here -- by anyone," Blodgett said.

Blodgett estimated that up to 25,000 extra Wellstone votes would have come from the effort.

Duffy said Wellstone Action is known around her home base of Washington, D.C.

"You do hear a lot about that," she said. "As it starts training people ... it becomes a brand. You will have classes of graduates who went through this program. That really is a legacy in the Democratic Party for him."

The legacy grows

Another way Wellstone's legacy is felt comes via volunteers. DFL Party Chairman Mike Erlandson said his Minnesota State Fair booth attracted more volunteers than ever this year. "A whole bunch of people who haven't done anything political in decades have waken up now," he said.

Political science professor Paula O'Loughlin of the University of Minnesota- Morris also has seen the change.

Democrats aren't the only ones getting more involved, she said. So are College Republicans, who organized a Wellstone memorial on the Morris campus.

O'Loughlin said students seem to feel that "Paul's not here any more, so we have to stand up for ourselves. It is time for us to make a difference."

In Washington, senators who worked with Wellstone -- and sometimes against him -- are picking up where he left off. Several have picked an issue or two of Wellstone's, but no one carries his entire agenda.

"He was a very, very critical part of the political system," Kimmelman said. "I think the respect for Paul Wellstone was growing by the day and the month and the year."

Biggest difference

"There is no true pillar standing out there in the path of these corporate giants that is at least going to deflect them if not totally block them," said Kimmelman, who often deals with consumer financial issues on Capitol Hill.

The biggest practical difference Wellstone's death created is that Republican Norm Coleman replaced Wellstone. Had Wellstone won his third term, the two major parties would have been virtually tied in the Senate.

With Coleman's win, Republicans kept a narrow edge.

"The difference is very significant," Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., said.

Those who oppose war in Iraq especially miss Wellstone, Dayton added. "Paul would have been all over the administration for its insincerity and that our troops are over there putting their lives on the line and in some cases losing them for reasons that were inaccurately stated to the American people."

Dayton is trying to take up some of the slack. "I'm not a natural orator as Paul was, but I'm getting used to speaking on the Senate floor," he said. "I'm not trying to fill a national role, but I am trying to fill some of that Minnesota void."

A new leader

The publicity after Wellstone's death has attracted attention to Coleman that he otherwise would not have enjoyed.

"People looked at that and had a chance to see me in one of the most looked-at pressure situations and prevailing and ultimately to be the 51st Republican," Coleman said.

"I am still overwhelmed at the amount of focus this race had. I am stunned."

Besides just ensuring that Republicans controlled the Senate, Coleman's victory over Wellstone replacement Walter Mondale has given the state's junior senator leadership roles.

Coleman is chairman of the subcommittee on investigations and sits on the coveted Foreign Relations Committee.

Erlandson said politics would not be the same if Wellstone and Missouri Democrat Sen. Mel Carnahan, who died in a plane crash two years ago, had lived

"Washington would look far different if not for two tragedies in the Midwest," Erlandson said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707

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