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Paul Wellstone: a leader who respected people — and was inspired by them

Photo by Terry Gydesen

The phone on my desk was ringing. I had just left a tense meeting about a crisis surrounding our last event for Sen. Paul Wellstone’s 2002 U.S. Senate race. The crisis, which had been upsetting me for days, was as solved as it was ever going to be. The call, from a journalist friend, was awkward. She assumed I had heard the news already. I hadn’t. None of us had. We were insulated in our campaign office working hard a week and a half before Election Day.

It was the morning of Oct. 25, 2002. A plane carrying the senator, his wife, his daughter and three of my co-workers had gone down.

When I got my job as a deputy finance director in Wellstone’s last campaign I was so excited to be there. The most noticeable thing about Paul Wellstone, to me, was that he really seemed to like people. As I observed him, he genuinely enjoyed the interactions he was having. You could feel it when you were in his presence. When I drove Paul and Sheila to an event my first week, I spent the entire car ride answering their questions about my life. Paul was especially interested in my stories about my high-school running coach who would be joining us at the event we were headed to.

As I reflect on 10 years without these remarkable people I know exactly what it is that I miss. Paul was a politician and leader who was inspired by the people he represented. He listened, he empathized, he respected and he liked people, even those he disagreed with. It’s that simple. Some days I wonder if anybody likes anybody anymore. We have so many problems, but we’re too polarized to solve them.

A motivating principle

When Paul said politics is about the improvement of people’s lives, it was not just a clever line. It was a core belief. It was a motivating principle of his leadership. And it was why I loved working for him.

On the morning of Oct. 25 I put down the phone and watched those around me as they started to hear the news. It traveled from room to room by email, by phone, by coworkers walking through the office pale, in shock and whispering. At the all-staff meeting just minutes later our campaign manager spoke haltingly, in shock himself, and told us it had been confirmed: Everyone on the plane was dead. Three of us stood together, arms linked, held up by each other and the wall we were leaning on. After such crushing news I couldn’t even stand by myself. Some around me didn’t. They collapsed on the floor.

Fawn Bernhardt-Norvell
Photo by Christine FreundFawn Bernhardt-Norvell

I don’t know how long we all stayed in that room. As we slowly filed out I walked by the copy machine outside the door of my office. My co-worker had been standing there the day before. There was a jam; we laughed, and complained, as we fixed it. He was on the plane. Now I just stared at it. I wanted to grab the machine and make it turn back time. I reached out and touched it. What we were supposed to do now?

Craving respectful discourse

In 10 years I can’t tell you how many people have told me where they were when they heard the news and how many more have said, “I didn’t vote for him but I really respected him.” In Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” he addressed several white clergyman who had criticized him, stating, “Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. … But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” The tension was monumental, and yet King argued with them from a place of respect. I believe Paul embodied this kind of leadership. And I also believe people crave it.

I know that Paul Wellstone was just a person like you and me. But he was doing something incredibly powerful and effective. And simple. And it’s something we can all do. We can listen, respect and like each other as we try to make this world a better place.

Fawn Bernhardt-Norvell was a founder and former deputy executive director of Wellstone Action. She is now the director of development at Jeremiah Program.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by myles spicer on 10/24/2012 - 10:30 am.

    Two terrible deaths…

    Having voted and been politically active since the 1950’s I beleive there were two signficant deaths of political leaders that changed the landscape of American politics. This first was John Kennedy and the demise of Camelot; and the second was that of Paul Wellstone. It is hard — maybe impossible — to predict the future of a person once gone, but Wellstone had several qualities that made him a leader and voice for the common man. Among these are his honesty, and ability to articulate his positions with enough persuasion he could often reach consensus with those of other views. We lost a lot when he died, and I am not sure we have seen another Paul Wellstone since.

  2. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 10/24/2012 - 02:15 pm.

    our losses

    We will never see the likes of Paul and Sheila Wellstone again and we did lose a lot. I agree, that JFK was a brutal loss, especially in the disillusioned aftermath. I would put Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in that roster of people who had begun to change the world and would have done so much more if they had had a chance.
    David Wellstone, the son, says he is satisfied that this was not an assassination, and I’ll take take his word for it. But I can’t help but wonder why so many of our best men and women in the political realm, the liberal wing, keep getting killed.

  3. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/25/2012 - 10:29 am.

    Ten yers gone, yet still respectfully remembering…

    North Woods Benedictions 2002:

    North Woods in Autumn carry a heavy burden now…moss and lichen thrive here, hidden under leaves where alien chips of metal and debris share this place as smoke rises; a grey steam-like fog above the tops of broken trees.

    Fuel fumes do not blend well with natural perfumes of Cedar, Aspen, Birch…or is it Jack-Pine? These woods are no cathedral but one dark, dank place of shadows unresolved; where even the birds have flown away.

    Yesterday there was secret habitat, varied shades of greenness all around. Foliage, a ragged curtain, azure sky peeking through…so now only a ragged puzzle all awry?

    White clad figures bend low, sifting; trying to find some clue to tell those, waiting there beyond the woods….mourners who come hesitantly to this dark place?

    They place torn boughs to form a wreath, its shape no clear definition. Yes it is a fitting tribute for those who died here too, too soon..

    Someone has sprinkled confetti…such is a final gift by those who loved them best of all.

    The birds are waiting on a farther limb beyond the shattered clearing. They come when the mourners leave; when the white clad figures call it a day.

    Chickadee, Sparrow, Cardinal, Crow. White Owl too; sentinels from a battered tree top. Birds eat silently.

    Winds blow gently now even as snow falls and covers these wounded woods. b j-k 2002

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