Paul Wellstone lives on.
A decade after he died in a northeastern Minnesota airplane crash, the U.S. senator’s legacy remains strong and his namesake son is looking to make it stronger.
More than two dozen buildings and programs are named after Wellstone. An organization carrying his name has visited all 50 states to train 55,000 candidates, campaign staff and community organizers in the late senator’s unique style. Six years after Wellstone’s death, and 12 years after he began fighting for it, Congress passed a bill giving mental health and addiction patients equal coverage by insurers.
Now, as the crash’s Oct. 25 anniversary approaches, Paul David Wellstone Jr. is coming out of self-imposed exile to launch what could be the biggest honor yet for his father, an organization to make sure the federal Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 improves the lives of mentally ill and addicted Americans as it was designed. The law was written to force insurance companies to treat mental health and addiction patients similar to those with physical medical issues.
The younger Wellstone, who goes by “Dave,” returned to St. Paul two months ago after living in the California mountains most of the time since his father, mother, sister, three campaign aides and two pilots died on a chilly, gray and wet Friday morning.
The mental health organization launch comes on the heels of release of his book, “Becoming Wellstone,” about the crash, his father and his own experience as he felt a need to escape post-crash pressures.
Wellstone had withdrawn to a home amid California’s redwood trees, in a house now billed as a place in the Santa Cruz Mountains for “bolstering creative energy” with a variety of programs for artists, writers and others.
He gradually came out of his retreat from society to help get the mental health act passed and once his two children graduated from high school, he began looking at moving back to Minnesota.
Wellstone now lives in St. Paul with his second wife, arriving in time to promote his book and prepare the mental health initiative.
“I am set to pounce as soon as the election is over,” Wellstone said.
The elder Wellstone saw problems in the country’s mental health system with issues his brother faced getting treatment.
“I got thrust into it,” the younger Wellstone said about the issue. “It found me, I didn’t find it.”
He said the new non-profit group is a good way to extend his father’s legacy, and the younger Wellstone said he is the person to do it.
“I have some access through who my dad was,” Wellstone said during an interview a couple of blocks from his home in the Grand Avenue neighborhood of St. Paul.
His father’s name still carries weight in many circles.
“My dad was well respected, well loved,” Wellstone said. “So if my name is Paul Wellstone Jr., I can use a nonprofit to make sure the law we passed in his name has teeth and is being followed. That, at least for me, brings some meaning to everything.”
Many wonder if the younger Wellstone will follow his father’s political path, but he said that he can accomplish his goals without an election certificate.
His father worked with Republicans. They got along and worked together, in part because they understood their differences.
“His best friends were Republicans,” Dave Wellstone said. “You would not find that now. There is not the civility.”
In Minnesota, Republicans did not agree with Democrat Wellstone’s ideas, but many respected him.
The senator gave “candidates and officeholders some encouragement and some hope,” said Jeff Johnson, Minnesota’s Republican national committeeman. “He was very frank and honest and still could win.”
“I disagreed with him vehemently on many fundamental issues, but I appreciate that he always was frank,” added Johnson, a Detroit Lakes, Minn., native who served in the state House and now is Hennepin County commissioner. “He proved to us in politics that you can run a big race with a grassroots campaign.”
That type of campaigning is just what Wellstone Action teaches to “progressives,” a term usually applied to liberals who want government reform. Dave Wellstone and his brother, Mark, are co-chairmen of the organization, which trains candidates and political activists.
Wellstone Action was founded less than a year after the plane crash. The organization began Camp Wellstone on June 27, 2003, with general training programs; it has since expanded into eight programs, including those targeting American Indians, labor and students.
“Paul knew if you didn’t have a good idea and an organized base, there wasn’t much you could do,” Executive Director Ben Goldfarb of Wellstone Action said.
Wellstone Action will conduct 160 training workshops in 30 states this year alone with 18 full-time workers and many volunteers.
The organization has grown “beyond our wildest dreams,” Goldfarb said, even though a decade after the senator died fewer of its students had a direct connection with him. Still, Goldfarb said, most people know about him.
“In us, we see the Wellstone legacy,” Goldfarb said. “That name does mean a lot to a lot of people.”
For Dave Wellstone, Goldfarb’s organization is one of three major legacies his father left. The mental health law is another one, but the younger Wellstone made it clear that No. 1 is how his father lived.
“He walked his talk,” Wellstone said. “I always want people to remember that he wasn’t just a politician who once he became a politician did all this good stuff. I think that is an important kind of lesson that can permeate everyone’s life. … Just do it in your own life, like my dad did with us.”
Wellstone crash started political saga
A decision Paul Wellstone made 10 years ago may have cost him his life, but it was typical for the U.S. senator.
While running for his third U.S. Senate term representing Minnesota, Wellstone opted against appearing with former Vice President Walter Mondale and U.S. Sens. Edward Kennedy and Tom Daschle in the Twin Cities to instead attend a funeral of a friend on the Iron Range. The senator’s son, Dave Wellstone, said in a recent interview that his father connected with common folks.
“That is one of the things that no one ever knew that was a legacy of my dad,” he said. “He had a knack for the personal stuff.”
Wellstone, 58, died on the gray morning of Oct. 25, 2002, in an airplane crash upon approach to the Eveleth-Virginia airport.
Also dying in the crash were his wife, Sheila; their daughter, Marcia Wellstone Markuson, and three members of the campaign staff, Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy, and Will McLaughlin. The two pilots, who eventually were blamed in the crash, also died.
They were stopping at a funeral for the father of Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, before heading to a Duluth campaign event.
The crash was 11 days before the election, setting in motion the rapid nomination of a replacement, Mondale, who had served in the Senate two decades earlier.
Republican Norm Coleman beat Mondale.
Democrat Wellstone became involved in issues such as a Hormel meat-packing plant workers’ strike and a farmer protest against a power line. The Jewish college professor of Russian ancestry won his first Senate race in 1990.
Mondale and the two visiting senators rushed to the Wellstone campaign office on St. Paul’s University Avenue when word began to spread about the crash on that drizzly Friday morning. They emerged with somber faces, telling the country that it had lost a special person.
“Today, the nation lost its most passionate advocate for fairness and justice for all,” Kennedy said. “All of us who knew and loved Paul Wellstone in the Senate are devastated by his loss. He had an intense passion and enormous ability to reach out, touch and improve the lives of the people he served so brilliantly.”
Within minutes of the crash, hundreds of Minnesotans headed to the campaign office, many bringing flowers they put on a chain-link fence. Others posted notes honoring the Wellstones.
The gray, damp day was appropriate for their mood.
“We must be strong,” then-Gov. Jesse Ventura said. “And to be strong, we only need to remember Paul Wellstone’s energy, Paul Wellstone’s integrity, Paul Wellstone’s absolute love of his country, the people he represented, his friends and most of all his family.”
The night of the crash, thousands gathered in front of the Minnesota Capitol for a memorial event.
Most Minnesota politicians suspended campaigning right after the crash, but talk almost immediately began about nominating Mondale to replace Wellstone on the Nov. 5 ballot.
The decision was important nationally because the Senate was in Democratic control by a single vote before Wellstone’s death. He was in a neck-and-neck contest with Coleman.
Politics remained quiet, in the public eye at least, until the night of Oct. 29, when 20,000 gathered in the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena for a Wellstone memorial service televised nationally.
As political dignitaries such as former President Bill Clinton watched from the stands, the service began rather routinely. But when Wellstone follower Rick Kahn began speaking, everything changed.
Kahn’s voice became louder and louder as he delivered an emotional speech.
“If Paul Wellstone’s legacy comes to an end, then our spirits will be crushed and we will drown in a river of tears,” Kahn said. “We are begging you, do not let that happen. We are begging you to help us win this Senate election for Paul Wellstone.”
As Kahn urged Minnesotans to “win this election for Paul,” Ventura walked out in protest. Republicans accused Wellstone supporters of turning the memorial service into a Democratic pep rally.
Many political observers said Kahn’s remarks sealed the Coleman victory, and affected other races, because it upset Minnesotans who expected a more traditional service.
Minnesotans remember Paul Wellstone
Some testimonials on a Website set up for the 10th anniversary of Sen. Paul Wellstone’s death:
To me, every time I heard the name Paul Wellstone, I thought of the positive possibilities of the American democratic process. The possibility that we could change the world one person at a time, working together towards the greater good.
– Emma Stensvaag, Fergus Falls, Minn.
Back in the ‘60s there were hawks and doves in D.C. All I see there now are hawks. We need more doves in D.C. All we are saying is give peace a chance. Paul had the courage to do that.
– Cynthia Kafut-Hagen, Hibbing, Minn.
Paul was, and is, my political hero. I, along with many of my good friends growing up in Minnesota, were driven by Paul’s example to organize to make this world a better place.
– Ryan Nagle, Fargo, N.D.
I am in public office because of Paul and I often talk about his impact on how I approach my work. He taught me that community organizing and service in elected office are not mutually exclusive, so I was elected to the Minnesota House as a community organizer.
– State Rep. Frank Hornstein, Minneapolis
Paul and Sheila Wellstone were friends. They were mentors. … Memories are good. Looking back is necessary. But pushing forward and making the world a fairer, more just, more peaceful and kind place is what Paul and Sheila’s politics, and lives, represented.
– Erik Peterson, Duluth, Minn.
Learning about Paul Wellstone’s legacy inspired me to get involved in politics. I attended the first Camp Wellstone in the campaign track. … While I am now teaching high school English, I remain politically active and engaged.
– Mindy Christianson, Fergus Falls, Minn.
I often speak about the way that Paul’s decision to engage in electoral politics inspired me to consider this way of giving back to my community, and how Camp Wellstone made it possible to turn that dream into reality. … When politics are being practiced as some form of “blood sport” it is so important to have Paul as an example of values-based political leadership that put respect for others — no matter party affiliation — as the guiding principle.
– Mark Ritchie, Minnesota secretary of state