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Ten years later: We still need the ‘Wellstone way’

Photo by Terry Gydesen

Oct. 25 marks 10 years since the shocking day we lost Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife, Sheila, and daughter Marcia — along with beloved campaign staffers Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy and Will McLaughlin and two pilots — when their plane crashed near Eveleth, Minn.

The Wellstones’ sons, David and Mark, the other surviving families, the hundreds of staffers and thousands of passionate supporters still feel the devastating loss deeply.

One way to come to terms with the enormity of the tragedy is to ask ourselves: What would Paul want us to do now? We can find the answer by looking at the kind of public life Paul led. Three big things defined Paul in his role as a public servant and provide a model for others.

First, more than anything else, Paul Wellstone was about encouraging people to step forward and get involved in politics and public life to change their communities for the better.

He believed deeply that our democracy only works for all people if you have an engaged citizenry. “The future does not belong to those on the sidelines” and “politics is not a spectator sport,” he would say to anyone who would listen. When he met people around the state who told him what their families and communities were facing, he didn’t say, “I’ll take care of it.” He said, “You should get involved and together we can do something about it.”

The politics of conviction

Second, he practiced the politics of conviction. He believed that you should say what you believe and believe what you say. When he voted against giving President George W. Bush authorization to go to war with Iraq one month before the 2002 election, he said: “All I can do is vote the way my head and heart tell me.” When asked by the Washington Post if his vote was tantamount to political suicide, he said simply: “I think people want you to do what you think is right.”

It turned out he was right. His principled stands created a passionate following, but he actually won his elections by attracting voters in the middle who simply liked the way he operated. Lots of people would say: “I don’t agree with him on everything, but I like it that I know where he stands.”

Third, he ran his campaigns for elected office using grass-roots power that involved huge numbers of people talking to their neighbors, co-workers, and friends about the issues. Paul Wellstone’s campaigns very intentionally did not spend all their money on TV ads and mailings. Instead, they invested in empowering people to help Paul win.

Campaigns introduced people to politics in a positive way

His campaigns were an antidote to the current trend of pouring more and more money into cynical attack ads aimed at tearing down the other person. His method of campaigning not only brought Paul success; it also had a way of introducing people in a positive way to politics and democracy in action and helped launch the careers of many political professionals and recently elected officials.

Peggy Flanagan
Peggy Flanagan

After Paul’s death, his family and staff established Wellstone Action, a nonpartisan center to train other Americans to practice politics the Wellstone way.

We have trained more than 55,000 people in his style of principled, issues-based, grass-roots campaigning. More than 500 of our alumni have been elected to office.

One great example is Peggy Flanagan, who as a young activist was constantly pushed by Wellstone to consider running for office. After Paul’s death, she decided he had been right and, at age 24, she became the first Native American and youngest person ever elected to the Minneapolis School Board. Today, through Wellstone Action, she helps train others to be candidates.

Decided it was her turn to step up

Betsy Hodges
Betsy Hodges

Another quintessential Wellstone Action graduate is Betsy Hodges, a member of the Minneapolis City Council, who told me she decided to run for office after Paul died because she felt that it was her turn to step up and lead. U.S. Reps. Tim Walz and Keith Ellison and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie are other well-known alumni.

On the 10th anniversary of our painful loss, we nonetheless have a lot to celebrate. Just as Paul learned from those who came before him, we are now keeping his legacy alive by training the next generation of leaders.

Paul is gone, but in these times in which our political system often seems to be breaking down, we need his example and inspiration more than ever. 

Jeff Blodgett, a long-time aide to Sen. Paul Wellstone, is the founding director of Wellstone Action.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/25/2012 - 09:48 am.

    …and look Paul, it’s happening…

    “As a favor to the American People, we need more strong, authentic populist candidates to fight back against big money and their friends in Congress and focus on the kitchen table issues central to the lives of working families” “On The Road” newsletter, Senator Wellstone, Winter 1998

    …and your friend Jeff Blodgett is here naming those so inspired…it’s happening Paul so raise your fist in triumph still, ten years later, yes!

  2. Submitted by Terry Gips on 10/25/2012 - 12:23 pm.

    Thanks for Your Excellent Article

    Thanks so much for your excellent article Jeff. It’s painful to remember that 10 years ago about this time I was driving to a lunch to meet my cousin Katie and heard that Paul and Sheila Wellstone and 4 other people were killed in a tragic plane crash. I’ll never forget that moment and the immense sadness and overwhelm I felt. I’m reminded of it everyday by the Wellstone bumper sticker on my car with the black piece of tape.

    Paul was a dear friend and extraordinary inspiration to me and so many others. He taught so much on so many levels, including the power that each of us has to make a difference in the world. Your article really touched on this and took me back to Paul’s uphill battle to win election to the US Senate, which underscores how each of us can truly make a difference, even when facing seemingly overwhelming odds.

    Paul was losing badly in the polls (about 8 points) to US Sen. Rudy Boschwitz with under two weeks before the election. Sadly, Paul was being unfairly criticized by many Jews, including some claiming he wasn’t really Jewish and didn’t identify as a Jew, and others saying he was anti-Israel.

    Consequently, Sam (now US Ambassador to Morocco) and Sylvia Kaplan, Frank Hornstein (now MN State Rep.), myself and others felt there should be a meeting of Jewish community leaders with Paul to at least try to set the record straight. That’s exactly what we did, with Paul clarifying his position on Israel and noting that he began every speech by saying he was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. I shared how I had seen some of the hate mail and death threats Paul had received precisely because he was Jewish.

    I think many people were surprised by what they learned, including that there were some very unfair and untrue characterizations of Paul. Sam, Sylvia, Frank and I felt strongly that just out of basic fairness that the allegations needed to be cleaned up, even though I don’t think any of us felt it would really make a difference in the election. Frank and I suggested we should do some kind of ad on Paul’s behalf to just set the record straight with the Jewish community in the American Jewish World.

    We asked the American Jewish World for advertising space and set about getting people to sign on to the ad and donate to the ad. It turns out that the Boschwitz campaign heard about our forthcoming ad and became concerned. That lead to the Boschwitz campaign sending its infamous attack letter against Paul’s Jewishness to the entire Jewish community.

    The attack completely backfired and created such a huge firestorm that Paul won the election. Paul David Wellstone overcame the Goliath, something that was in Paul’s nature and I hope will be in all of our nature. Every day we each can make a far bigger difference than we know. I hope we will use that opportunity over the next 13 days.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/25/2012 - 04:44 pm.

    Favorite Memory Of Sen. Wellstone

    My favorite memory of the Senator is of his election in 1990. My new bride and I went to sleep before the outcome had been declared. When I woke up and heard the news, I had to wake her up and tell her. It was easily the most thrilling political moment I have had, even to this day. When I think of Paul, my first thought of is that election, not of his death.

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