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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 64

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This is the grave of Paul Wellstone.

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Born in Washington, DC in 1944 and educated with a BA and PhD in political science at the University of North Carolina, Wellstone moved to Minnesota in 1969 when he became a professor at Carleton College. He instantly became involved in left-wing politics there, working in the anti-war and poverty movements. The FBI began a file on him in 1970 after he was arrested during an anti-war protest. He founded Organization for a Better Rice County, a welfare-rights organization that mobilized the poor for social and economic justice. The trustees of Carleton found all of this unseemly and attempted to deny Wellstone tenure. But a student protest movement forced them to cave and grant him tenure.

In 1982, Wellstone sought public office for the first time, winning the Democratic primary for state auditor. He lost in the general election to future govenror Arne Carlson. He remained active in state politics, co-chairing the state’s Dukakis campaign in 1988 after he had chaired Jesse Jackson’s run in the primary.

In 1990, Wellstone decided to run for Senate. This was a serious long-shot. He was a leftist professor with no money and no record of winning public office. He faced Rudy Boschwitz, a generally well-respected two term senator. But Wellstone ran a brilliant underdog campaign and Boschwitz made a number of stupid errors, including calling Wellstone “a bad Jew” for marrying a Christian, a move that did not work well in this Lutheran and Catholic-heavy state. Despite being massively outspent, Wellstone won the race, the only successful challenge of a sitting senator that year.

As senator, Wellstone made a name for himself as a leftist voice in an increasingly centrist and pro-business Democratic Party. He took a leadership position on issues such as opposing Clinton’s welfare reform, as well as on environmentalism, health care, labor, and domestic violence. In 1996, Boschwitz ran for his old seat but Wellstone defeated him again, a sign of the grassroots passion Wellstone inspired in many of his voters. He was not perfect, as he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which he later regretted. There was a grassroots effort to get Wellstone to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2000. But facing a lot of back pain due to his college wrestling days that was later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, Wellstone decided against it.

In 2002, Wellstone faced another tough race. This race was made tougher because the Green Party, that paragon of political brilliance, decided to run a candidate in that race, even after in 2000 Green Party VP candidate Winona LaDuke had openly lauded Wellstone for standing up for their issues. He also faced a well-funded Norm Coleman on the Republican side. None of this stopped Wellstone from taking strong stances. He authored the Wellstone Amendment in the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform bill, creating hard money limits on outside campaign advertising from nonprofits that ranged from the NRA to the Sierra Club. The Supreme Court upheld this in 2003 but of course it was destroyed in Citizens United in 2010. Wellstone also voted against Congressional authorization for the Iraq War in October 2002, a vote he believed would lead to his defeat the next month.

On October 25, 2002, Wellstone, his wife, his daughter, and some campaign staffers were flying to a funeral in northern Minnesota, a steelworker whose father was in the Minnesota House. That night, he had to debate Norm Coleman in Duluth. Alas, the plane crashed, probably from the flight crew not maintaining a proper speed, although we will never know for sure. No one survived.

In the aftermath, Minnesota Democrats asked Walter Mondale to step into Wellstone’s place in the Senate race. His funeral, rightfully, was a partisan rallying cry for Democrats. This is certainly what he would have wanted. However, conservatives went crazy over this, with very principled people such as Rush Limbaugh and Peggy Noonan leading the outcry. Unfortunately, Coleman won a narrow victory over Mondale in November.

The American left lost a great leader when Wellstone died. With the Iraq War about to begin and the horrors of the Bush administration just becoming clear, Wellstone would have provided critical leadership against him and probably a 2004 presidential run. We will never know if he would have won the nomination, but given the initial grassroots support of someone pretty lame like Howard Dean and the relatively indifferent choices Democrats had that year, there’s no question that Wellstone would have changed the dynamics of the race.

Were Paul Wellstone still alive today, he would still only be 72 years old. Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney continue to live.

Paul Wellstone is buried in Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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