Paul Wellstone: The Conscience of a Liberal (G.W. Carlson)

Ten years ago today, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN), his wife Sheila, his daughter Marcia, and five others died when their small plane crashed en route to Eveleth, MN. Running for a third term in the Senate, Wellstone was scheduled to debate Republican challenger Norm Coleman later that night. It was less than two weeks before Election Day.

In commemoration of that tragedy, my recently retired Bethel colleague G.W. Carlson, who knew the Wellstones from their work together in Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, asked me to post this essay on the late senator and his commitment to a “moral liberal” vision. (GW’s previous guest post was a tribute to “radical Baptist” Clarence Jordan — expect a follow-up on that soon.)

Of course, opinions of guest-posters are their own, posted here to invite reflection and discussion; this one is lengthy, but well worth your attention.

It is the belief that extremes and excesses of inequality must be reduced so that each person is free to fully develop his or her full potential. This is why we take precious time out of our lives and give it to politics. (Paul Wellstone)

Sen. Paul Wellstone
Sen. Paul Wellstone (1944-2002) – U.S. Senate

“The Soul of the Senate” was the headline of the Minnesota Daily extra edition announcing the tragic death of Paul and Sheila Wellstone along with members of their staff. One of the deaths was their driver, Will McLaughlin. His parents were very active in the DFL party and hosted several fundraisers for my successful St Paul School Board campaigns.

The crash was eleven days from the November election in which Paul was seeking a third term as the U.S. senator from Minnesota. He was campaigning on the Iron Range, attending the funeral of a friend and seeking to continue to spread his commitment to a “moral progressive” vision.

In January 1999 Wellstone wrote an essay for The Progressive in which he argued that progressives should effectively articulate their “moral values” and understand that they can have their roots in the Judeo-Christian traditions. He wrote:

…we must reform not just politics. We must renew democracy itself. We have to fight cynicism and inertia and restore faith in the advancement of our country.

To do that, progressives need to rejoin the debate over an overarching set of values in government. For too long, we have left that battlefield to the right. Progressives have a long tradition of fighting for values like equality, civil liberties, opportunity and justice. We need to recall the values that have spurred broad-based efforts like the civil-rights movement – values that today can spark a new movement for social justice.

I was driving to Bethel University to teach my political science class when on the car radio I heard the announcement of the plane crash. Several months earlier I had interacted with Paul at a fundraiser in St Paul. He had walked slowly down the steps, experiencing great pain in his back and needing to go home and rest. We talked a while about moral values and public policy and the need to stand up for economic justice in an age of growing plutocracy. He took time to sign my copy of his book The Conscience of a Liberal and asked me, knowing I taught at Bethel, to carry on the prophetic tradition which encouraged us to look at politics from the bottom-up rather than from the top-down.

Paul’s family came to the United States as Jewish immigrants from Russia. He was always proud of his religious heritage and continued to value the immigrant experience as a major dynamic of the American experiment. His wife Sheila was the daughter of Southern Baptist family from Appalachia. Early in their lives together they engaged the civil rights movement. After Paul received a PhD from the University of North Carolina he accepted a teaching position in political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. [Here’s Carleton’s tribute to Wellstone, published a few days ago.]

While at Carleton Wellstone combined an academic commitment to scholarship and effective teaching with a strong involvement in social and economic change. Probably most significant were the campaigns on behalf of the rural poor in the areas of housing, health care and nutrition, and advocacy on behalf of the striking workers at the Hormel meat packing company. In 1988 he became the Minnesota campaign manager for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign.

Wellstone's green bus
Wellstone’s famous green bus – Wikimedia

However, the first major run for public office came in 1990 when he challenged the incumbent Republican Senator Rudy Boschwitz. There were not many who believed that Wellstone would be successful. However, his campaign featured the emergence of the green bus, extremely creative television ads, and an effective populist message. He was able to inspire several new constituencies. These included college students, poor people, and veterans.

Once in the Senate he worked hard to advocate for veterans, was willing to take controversial votes in opposition to welfare reform and the Iraq War, and supported efforts to stabilize immigration policy for such peoples as the Hmong American community in Minnesota. However, he was also willing to work across party lines on issues such as mental health and domestic violence.

Wellstone explored the possibility of running for president in 2000, a typical trait of Minnesota senators, and did a “Children’s Tour” during which he explored issues of poverty in both rural and urban environments. He decided against a run for the presidency because of his back injury (probably from his championship wrestling days in high school and college) and his desire to press reforms in the Senate.

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