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Paul Wellstone, in retrospect

Those green “Wellstone!” signs aren’t political. They’re a bat signal — a beacon. They seem to say, “Will someone please come fight for us?”

Sen. Paul Wellstone
Sen. Paul Wellstone outside the U.S. Senate chamber in a 1999 photo.

I was late to the party. I came to Minnesota in 2009, seven years after Sen. Paul Wellstone died with his wife and daughter in a plane crash. And yet, every election season “Wellstone!” yard signs emerge, like seasonal decorations. Paul Wellstone wasn’t running for anything. Was it nostalgia? Ennui? What’s the story behind those yard signs?

Turns out, it’s not the story of a senator, though Paul Wellstone served two terms in the U.S. Senate representing Minnesota. He won’t be remembered for his legislation. He lost more than he won. History might remember him for a vote he lost by a wide margin. He voted not to authorize the use of force against Iraq. Everyone said the vote would cost him his seat, but he voted the way he always did – he voted for what he believed in. And since Wellstone believed in the little guy, he was known as “the conscience of the Senate.”

But this is not the story of a statesman; it’s the story of a private citizen — with a voice. Paul Wellstone was an activist and a community organizer far longer than he ever served in office. He fought for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. He organized welfare recipients, stood with farmers facing bankruptcy, fought power companies from traipsing over poor people’s land, and walked picket lines with unions.

This is not a story about a teacher, though he taught at Carleton College for 20 years. Wellstone taught his students (who often call themselves successors) how grassroots organizing could shift the balance of power. When Carleton fired Wellstone for being too politically active, his successors led protests, got signatures, wrote op-eds, and nudged the college to rehire and tenure him.

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But it’s not the story of a teacher; it’s the story of a lifelong student. At night, Wellstone studied the theory, reading everything about policy he could get his hands on, including books penned by writers he didn’t agree with. During the day, he studied the practice. He got the real story from real people. At the end of the day, he combined both theory and practice into policy.

This is not a story about an orator, though he inspired many when he spoke. Those who saw Paul Wellstone speak were moved beyond applause and ovations. His audiences were moved to do something, to make a difference.

Rob Perez
Rob Perez
But this is not a story of someone with something to say; Wellstone’s real gift was that he knew how to listen. He listened to people talk about their lives, their families, their struggles, their successes. Listening wasn’t political or optics or some kind of party trick. Paul Wellstone listened to people because that’s why he was doing any and all of this – for the people.

This is not a story of one man. Paul Wellstone and Sheila Ison met when they were 16. High-school sweethearts who were married in 1963, they had their first child in 1965. They were best friends. She was his conscience, his rock. Some people say there would be no Paul without Sheila, but it seems there was no Paul. There never was Paul. From the moment they met on that beach in Virginia until the very end, there was only ever Paul and Sheila.

This story is not a tragedy, though this chapter ends with senseless loss. When Paul and Sheila Wellstone died, along with seven others, in a plane crash on Oct. 25, 2002, they had much more to give. But it’s not a tragedy because Paul and Sheila Wellstone were here. They touched us. They moved us. They taught us how to listen. They taught us how to live. The next chapter is better because Paul and Sheila Wellstone were here yesterday. That’s not a tragedy. That’s a story about hope.

When I think about Paul Wellstone today — the activist, the student, the listener, the partner — I cannot help but think about how he would fare in times like these. And that’s when the yard signs make sense. Those green “Wellstone!” signs aren’t political. They’re a bat signal — a beacon. They seem to say, “Will someone please come fight for us?”

Rob Perez is a screenwriter based in Minneapolis. He is currently writing a biopic on Sen. Paul Wellstone’s life.


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