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Remembering Senator Wellstone

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By Marian Wright Edelman

When Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota died in a plane crash in October, our country lost one of its most passionate and committed public servants.

Senator Wellstone, his wife Sheila, their daughter Marcia, and the Senator’s aides were all killed as they were taking time away from his busy re-election campaign schedule to travel to a friend’s funeral. Many Americans may not know very much about politicians who are not from their own city or state, and many others are so disillusioned with politics they believe all politicians are the same. But those of us who knew Senator Wellstone know how unlike other politicians he was.
He arrived in Washington not as a career politician but as a career teacher—he had been a college professor in Minnesota for two decades before running for the Senate. Once in office, Senator Wellstone always made clear that his commitment was to "the little people," the people he felt he came from. He earned a reputation for consistently voting his conscience although those votes were often politically unpopular. He was a champion of policies that supported children and families—especially the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, and victims of domestic violence. Every year the Children's Defense Fund compiles a voting record that gives Members of Congress a score based on their votes on issues affecting children, and Senator Wellstone earned perfect scores year after year.
Senator Wellstone was an impassioned and reasoned voice for helping parents to get and keep real jobs, and for protecting children when their parents couldn't work. “Health care, education, and jobs” was his mantra to end poverty and ensure self-sufficiency. He was a tireless advocate for poor children and their families. He fought to give low-income parents a chance to get the education and training they need to get jobs at above-poverty wages. He opposed bankruptcy provisions that were unfair to low- and moderate-income families and a tax cut that will hand half a trillion dollars to the richest one percent of Americans with incomes over a million dollars. The week Senator Wellstone was killed, the Bush Administration celebrated a new report that found that more than one in four single mothers and their children was poor but only about one in ten was receiving public assistance. Senator Wellstone would have had something to say about that. He did not just want fewer children to receive public assistance—he wanted fewer of them to need it.
Senator Wellstone constantly fought to provide every child in America affordable quality health care and was a dependable and forceful voice for those children who lack health coverage or access to the services they need. He spoke out unceasingly for parity of mental health services in any health care plan. He had watched his own brother struggle to receive mental health services and believed it was wrong for insurance companies to discriminate against people with mental health needs. His friend Senator Pete Domenici, speaking at a Washington memorial service for the Senator, promised that the Wellstones’ struggle to establish equal insurance coverage for mental health and substance abuse services will become reality with bipartisan support. Senator Paul Wellstone was also one of the Senate's most outspoken champions for the full participation of disabled children and adults in the life of our nation.
Senator Wellstone and his wife Sheila were our eyes and ears and voice and conscience for women and children victimized by domestic violence. They helped educate all of us about the terror in these families and took steps in the Senate and through local programs to get women and children the help they need. Senator Wellstone was a leader in passing the Violence Against Women Act and Children Who Witness Domestic Violence Act and in establishing safe havens for visits in these families.
After his death, praise for Senator Wellstone poured in from political leaders and ordinary citizens around Minnesota and our country. In the Senate and at his memorial service in Washington which I was privileged to share in, speaker after speaker stood up to say what a passionate and dedicated colleague he had been and how his voice of clarity and conscience would be missed. But some of the most important praise came not from Senators or Senate staffers but from the cleaning staff, elevator operators, waiters, and police officers who work behind-the-scenes at the Capitol and who Senator Wellstone also counted as his colleagues. One Capitol employee recalled that some of his co-workers had never even spoken to a Senator until Senator Wellstone stopped to thank them for their work. This was the person, the real man of the people, so many of us admired.
Throughout his career in Congress, Senator Wellstone was committed to speaking out for individuals and groups whose voices were unheard. Those of us who loved and respected him and those of us he fought so passionately to help are taking the time to speak up and say thank you—and to say how deeply he will be missed.
Marian Wright Edelman is President and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund whose mission is to Leave No Child Behind‚ and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.

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