“I learned so much from watching Sheila Wellstone,” said Rosenthal, who was the head of the National Network to End Domestic Violence in 2000, the last time the Senate considered a VAWA bill while the Wellstones were alive. “Her role was really amazing.”
Finding an area of her own
After Paul Wellstone won election to the U.S. Senate in 1990, Sheila Wellsone began looking for a policy area she could make her own, and quickly took up the cause of domestic abuse. Wellstone’s Senate communications director, Marcia Avner, staffed Sheila Wellstone’s trips around Minnesota, when she’d talk with members of the state’s domestic violence community — survivors, law enforcement officials, educators, clergy and so on.
By the time then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden introduced the original VAWA legislation, a few years into her husband’s term, Sheila Wellstone had begun working with her staff and, at times, her husband’s, to put violence prevention and outreach measures into the bill.
Early on, she had two main policy focuses, Avner said: framing domestic violence as a health care and social justice issue instead of just a legal one, and working with Minnesota businesses to highlight the impact of domestic abuse on the workforce.
“She was a fast learner and she had a very deep commitment to ending the violence,” Avner said.
One of her first major goals was to provide more services for children who lived in abusive homes. Paul Wellstone added the provisions to the VAWA bill, creating an educational initiative for children exposed to violence and worked to ease the exchange of custody for children in abusive homes.
Later iterations of the bill contained Wellstone-backed provisions to protect immigrant women, and study the effectiveness of college programs to prevent sexual assault. He introduced a bill establishing a full-time Office on Violence Against Women in the Department of Justice. Beyond just the VAWA, he introduced legislation to train health professionals to recognize domestic abuse, increase penalties for repeat offenders, and ban those with domestic abuse convictions from owning guns. By all accounts, Sheila’s fingerprints were all over those initiatives.
Sheila Wellstone’s advocacy went beyond legislation. She held an annual event on Capitol Hill to raise awareness about domestic violence, and eventually forged an informal national network of advocates, for which she became a national spokeswoman.
Her influence was noted early. At the signing ceremony for the original VAWA bill, Biden was the first to credit parts of it to Sheila Wellstone.
“She has done more than most people who serve in the United States Congress,” he said.
While Congress has considered an extension of the Violence Against Women Act this spring, the Wellstones keep popping up in efforts to gain support for the bill. Both Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, who holds Wellstone’s old seat, gave floor speeches in April praising their work.
“Paul and Sheila believed that domestic violence was not just a law enforcement issue,” Klobuchar said then. “It was an issue about civil rights, justice and human dignity.”
Franken’s address was emotional, and he choked up as he quoted Sheila Wellstone on the floor: “In a just society, I think we have to say this over and over and over — we are not going to tolerate the violence.”
Franken added, “The VAWA reauthorization bill is another step toward a more just society, as Sheila described it, and I look forward to it becoming law.”
Klobuchar and Franken were speaking mainly in tribute to the Wellstones, at a time when VAWA’s passage in the Senate was never in doubt (it passed 68-31). But when a divided House passed a different version of the bill last week, Minneapolis Democrat Keith Ellison invoked them to rally support against the legislation.
Democrats opposed the House bill because it didn’t include certain protections for Native Americans, immigrants and the LGBT community. Republicans say the bill is streamlined to ensure funding is there for people who need it.
The Senate bill contains the protections, and in a note to his constituents, titled “Sheila Wellstone’s Legacy,” Ellison called them “key provisions for which Sheila and Paul fought.”
“Sheila listened to the stories of victims of domestic violence, and became a leading expert on the issue,” he wrote. “We should heed Sheila’s words and make sure the Violence Against Women Act protects all women.”
The White House has backed the Senate version, Rosenthal said, because it includes the provisions the House left out.
“Every time VAWA has been reauthorized, it’s been improved,” she said.
Rosenthal was awarded the first Sheila Wellstone Institute advocacy award in 2006, four years after the plane crash that killed Paul and Sheila, their daughter Marcia, and five others. Rosenthal attended their funeral, and said she was not alone in having stories about the couple’s influence on policy.
“He was like our guy on domestic violence,” Rosenthal said. “He was everybody’s guy, and Sheila was everybody’s advocate.”