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Paul Wellstone: ‘Like Having One of Us in Congress’

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By Hugh B. Price
President, National Urban League


The word last Friday that Senator Paul Wellstone, of Minnesota, had been killed in a plane crash, along with his wife, Sheila, daughter, Marcia Markuson, and five others struck me with such devastating force that I did not want to believe it.

But it is true—we have lost a great political figure.
I had long thought I fully understood how valuable Paul Wellstone was—valuable to the forces of political progressivism, valuable to people who want to believe that the practice of politics still offers a chance to change things for the better for all Americans, valuable to those who like to see a politician who likes ordinary people.
Now I’m beginning to think that as much as I appreciated him and respected him, I didn’t understand the half of it.
Only now, as I read over the comments written to me by several of our staff at the National Urban League who worked with him and his Senate staff on numerous pieces of legislation, and as I read the comments of media columnists and others who knew him do I realize that American politics and American society have lost a great deal more than, for the moment, can be put down with precision by words.
But words can suggest what contributions Paul Wellstone, and his wife and soul mate, Sheila Ison Wellstone, made to America during their twelve years in the Senate, and four decades of working to make America better.
For example, Mark Alexander, an associate law professor at Seton Hall University and a top official for Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign in 2000, wrote of sharing "public moments of joy and pain, and private moments of humanity and camaraderie" with Wellstone during the grueling campaign in Iowa that year.
"While he and I agreed on most political matters," Alexander said, "my feelings for him do not center on any one political issue. I admired him because he always acted out of a selfless belief in the good that public servants could achieve. He saw what government could do to help people, and he wanted to make that happen … Why did he work so hard and never stop? Because that’s what a public servant does. The people deserve our public servants’ time, and Paul Wellstone gave it …"
That same quality, an enthusiastic commitment to being a public servant, was put in different words in The Nation magazine by Cathy Statz, education director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union.
"He was our flag bearer," she said. "There are plenty of people in Congress who vote right, but Paul did everything right. We didn’t have to ask him, we didn’t have to lobby him; he understood. It was like having one of us in Congress."
John Nichols, editorial page editor of the Madison, Wisconsin Capital Times, recalled that Wellstone had once said to him. "People have to believe you are on their side, that someone in the Senate is listening. If there is someone in Congress, maybe just one person, it gives them a sense that change is possible."
Wellstone was unwaveringly progressive: despite being locked in a tight re-election contest, he was the only incumbent in a Congressional race to have voted against the resolution giving President Bush an open-ended authorization to attack Iraq—and after his vote he forged to a narrow lead in the polls in that contest.
In 1996 Wellstone was also the only senator up for re-election that year to vote against the welfare reform bill!
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, of Massachusetts, rightly called him the nation’s "most passionate advocate for fairness and justice for all."
But it’s apparent that it was also Wellstone’s humanity—his friendliness—that drew so many people to him, including Senate colleagues who did not share his political views. Columnist E.J. Dionne wrote, "What made Wellstone special was a democratic spirit that matched his party label—it doesn’t always happen—and an unquenchable enthusiasm for the craft of pulling people together."
Another columnist, David Broder, writing with obvious personal affection and respect after having attended a memorial gathering on the steps of the Minnesota state capitol, quoted a Wellstone campaign volunteer who said, "People say there are no political heroes left in the world, but we know better. We had one here."
David Corn, a columnist for The Nation, noted that in his 2001 book, The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda, Wellstone, a former college professor, recalled his determination "… not to be an outside observer but to use my skills as a political scientist to empower people and to step forward with people in justice struggles."
Later in the same book, Wellstone said, ""There is, of course, no guarantee of success. But politics is not about observations or predictions. Politics is what we create by what we do, what we hope for, and what we dare to imagine."

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