Paul Wellstone's Legacy, Ten Years Later

Ten years ago today, on October 25, 2002, the plane carrying Senator Paul Wellstone, Sheila Wellstone, and their daughter Marcia crashed in Minnesota's Iron Range, to the shock and grief of Wellstone's friends and allies across the United States.

I spoke with Ben Goldfarb, executive director of Wellstone Action,

this morning, as he was driving to a memorial at the site of the crash.

At 1:00, friends, family, former staff, and current Senators Tom Harkin and Al Franken will gather on the road near Eveleth, Minnesota, for a memorial service. Another, larger memorial took place in the Twin Cities two weeks ago. And on November 28, there will be a Washington, DC, event on Capitol Hill.

On his drive to the crash site, Goldfarb shared his thoughts about Wellstone's legacy and what it means for progressive politics today.

"Before it was cool to talk about conviction politics and authenticity, Paul Wellstone was the embodiment of the idea that if you're authentic and speak from the heart, you can create a deep level of trust with voters." Goldfarb said. "You can be true to who you are and overcome traditional issue divides."

This is the message Wellstone Action tries to instill in its candidate trainings for progressives who want to learn how to win elections, pass legislation, and carry on the Wellstone tradition.

Wellstone's campaigns--which he won on a shoestring budget, using a battered bus and a community organizing strategy to reach the U.S. Senate—inspired a generation of progressives (and helped spark Russ Feingold's similar low-budget, little-guy run for the Senate from Wisconsin).

More than that, Wellstone's stands--against the wars in Iraq, for universal health care, and as the only Senator to vote against Bill Clinton's welfare reform legislation eliminating AFDC—showed that a true representative of ordinary people could hold on to his progressive values even as a member of "the world's most exclusive club."

I joined Wellstone for his "poverty tour"--retracing Bobby Kennedy's steps through the hills and hollows of Appalachia--when he was thinking of running for President, and wrote about it in a May 1998 cover story for The Nation.

It was a quixotic journey. Trying to draw attention to poverty during the economic boom of the Clinton years was an uphill fight to begin with. Then there was Wellstone's style--humble, generous, respectful of regular folks. "I want to be the smallest part of this," he said at one point during the tour. Long listening sessions with coal miners and pig farmers in Kentucky left the national press who were following him, hoping to hear more about Wellstone's presidential ambitions, scratching their heads.

"I think a lot of people, including a lot of progressives in this country, feel discouraged and demoralized," Wellstone told me at the time. "Somebody needs to be organizing and galvanizing people and providing as much hope as possible."

Wellstone's message: that the Clinton-era surplus should be used to invest in education, jobs, and health care resonates more than ever today. He criticized the Clinton Administration for its puny tweaks to Medicare, and called for a massive expansion of federal health insurance at a time when such ambitions seemed truly realizable.

"If someone wants to say to me that focusing just on low-income people and economic-justice issues is a losing politics, I wouldn't disagree," Wellstone told me. "But somewhere along the line, the argument became: `Therefore you don't focus on these issues at all.' I think that's also a losing politics. You have to talk about things like how to earn a decent living and how to raise your child successfully in such a way that you're talking to the vast majority of people in this country."


In some ways, Wellstone's message is more relevant than ever for progressives and Democrats today.

As Goldfarb puts it:

"Triangulation may be a path to winning, but it's not a path to being able to actually govern as who you are."

If progressives want to win power--and then use that power to effect real change--we need to pursue the Wellstone strategy of building our movement and being true to our ideals.

But in the era of Citizens United, the barriers to citizen activism are higher than ever. It's easy to feel that the flood of money that is buying elections for corporate interests is just too much for ordinary people to overcome. Goldfarb acknowledges this. But, he says, "Paul would never say, 'Oh, no, it's too hard,' during the farm crisis or his struggle with the banks in the Reagan '80s."

Money in politics--and the degree to which it has turned people off--is also an opportunity, Goldfarb says.

"The economic crisis has clarified for folks who the good guys are and who the bad guys are," says Goldfarb. "Yeah, it's hard--but we see signs all over the country of people fighting back and winning."

Wellstone, who liked to say he represented "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," would approve.

"I think it's extremely important to thrust forward our own leadership and our own politics and to not be an adjunct to the powers that be in the party," he told me back in 1998.

He would have been as engaged as ever in that project today--talking with his fellow community organizer, President Obama, about how the economic crisis is making life harder than ever for the poor and middle class, and pushing the Democrats and progressives to be their best selves.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Conservatives Forgive Mitt's Me-Too Debate Performance."

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