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On 14th anniversary of his death, remembering the career of Sen. Paul Wellstone

Sen. Paul Wellstone

Paul Wellstone once described himself by saying, “I’m short, I’m Jewish, and I’m a liberal.” He was also a Southerner, a college professor, and a rural community organizer who became a two-term U.S. senator from Minnesota. He inspired a passionate following, in Minnesota and among liberals nationwide. Wellstone died in a plane crash while running for a third term.

Among successful Minnesota politicians there have been orators (Hubert Humphrey and Floyd Olson); Easterners (Norm Coleman, Rudy Boschwitz, and George Latimer); professorial types (Eugene McCarthy and Don Fraser); and Jews (Coleman and Boschwitz). Only Wellstone was all of these and one unique thing more; before coming to Minnesota he had always lived in the South.

Wellstone was born on July 21, 1944, in Washington, D.C. His Ukrainian immigrant father, Leo (original surname Wexelstein), worked as a writer for the government. His Ukrainian American mother, Minnie, was a school cafeteria worker. Young Wellstone’s family life was not easy—his father distant, his only brother schizophrenic. In high school in Virginia, he starred in wrestling and cross country.

At the University of North Carolina in the early 1960s, he wrestled, studied political science, practiced civil rights organizing, and married Sheila Ison of Kentucky. When UNC denied him admission to a Ph.D. program in political science, he protested and demanded reconsideration. The university gave in.

In 1969, Wellstone was hired to teach political science at Carleton College in Northfield. There, he dressed like a student, refused to publish in academic journals, and enlisted students in his avocation: organizing Rice County’s poor people to assert their rights and Southern Minnesota farmers to resist installation of power lines across their land.

After three years, Carleton’s political science department told Wellstone to look for work elsewhere. Wellstone protested again, and so did students. Instead of being fired, he was granted tenure a year early.

In 1982, Wellstone made a surprise, and successful, bid for the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) nomination for state auditor—a job for which he had few qualifications. He lost decisively to Republican Arne Carlson.

Eight years later he won the DFL nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz. Boschwitz had been elected to the Senate twice, both times crushing his DFL opponent. Wellstone started far behind in the polls and in money, but he ran a clever, underdog campaign featuring funny ads and a beat-up green bus. His win made national news.

In his career as a community organizer Wellstone had used Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, which advocated the tactical creation of conflict. This translated badly to the Senate, where in his first days he offended many by violating traditions and decorum. He quickly reformed and became well liked. Wellstone concentrated on constituent services and issues such as mental health and veterans’ needs. He voted against the use of force in Kuwait in 1991.

As his 1996 reelection campaign approached, Wellstone made two risky votes, one against President Clinton’s popular welfare reform plan and the other for the Defense of Marriage Act. The second upset his liberal supporters. Nevertheless, he easily defeated Rudy Boschwitz in a rematch.

In his second term Wellstone voted against the Iraq War resolution, made a well-publicized “poverty tour” of the country, and started a campaign for president in 2000. He withdrew for health reasons: chronic back pain and mild multiple sclerosis.

As a senator Wellstone was a reliable liberal voter. Both the Americans for Democratic Action and League of Conservation Voters gave him exemplary marks. In his twelve years in office he sponsored a modest total of 185 bills and resolutions, few of which passed. His successes lay in lobbying reforms: limitations on international sex trafficking (with Republican Sam Brownback); the Workforce Investment Act (with Republican Mike DeWine); and the Mental Health Parity Act (with Republican Pete Domenici).

Soon after his first election, Wellstone announced that he would serve only two terms. He changed his mind and ran for a third term in 2002 against former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman. He appeared to be trailing when he cast his controversial vote against the invasion of Iraq on October 11. The vote gave him a lift. Polls showed him ahead when Wellstone, his wife, Sheila, his daughter, Marcia, and four others were killed in a plane crash near Eveleth on October 25.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Kyle Thomas on 10/25/2016 - 10:10 am.


    Can you cite the poll that showed Wellstone ahead when he was killed?

    • Submitted by Josh William on 10/25/2016 - 10:50 am.

      Old NPR article

      Here is the link showing polling data in Sept 2002:


      • Submitted by Kyle Thomas on 10/25/2016 - 02:58 pm.

        Poll Data

        Ok, according to the MPR poll you showed it was within the margin of error. To say that Paul Wellstone was on a path to victory is false and has been repeatedly been made by Wellstone supporters who look to blame the Memorial on Walter Mondale’s loss. It was not a year for Democrats, the only state office won in 2002 was incumbent Attorney General Mike Hatch. The article itself says there was an October poll that said Wellstone was on a path to victory, this is not the case.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/25/2016 - 04:06 pm.

          More Data

          A Strib Minnesota poll from October 2002 (about a week before he died) showed Wellstone at 47% and Coleman at 41% (there is a reference in the FreeRepublic archives).

          I’m not sure why this is important.

          • Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/25/2016 - 06:20 pm.

            I Suspect It Matters a Great Deal

            to those who are uneasy about how Paul Wellstone died,…

            and how much the were happy about it at the time.

            They don’t have to feel so guilty about that,…

            if he would have lost anyway…

            (winning or losing being far more important to some of our friends,…

            than the value of a human life).

            • Submitted by Kyle Thomas on 10/26/2016 - 10:58 am.

              Who was happy?

              I didn’t support Paul Wellstone but I respected him as a human being and his right to run for public office. Cite some public figures who were happy that he died?
              My point in this is that Pro-Wellstone authors revise history into thinking that victory was only taken away by his tragic death. The polls, past election results, and climate of the nation do not fall into this legend. It make for good articles every October, just not accurate history. Half this state never supported Paul Wellstone in any of his three elections.

              • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/29/2016 - 10:48 am.

                I was not living in Minnesota at the time, but I visited family over the holidays, and the Strib carried an article about Norm Coleman looking forward to settling in in Washington and saying, “God really pulled the camel through the needle’s eye.”

                Aside from the fact that this is a misinterpretation of that Biblical passage–it actually refers to the difficulty of a rich person entering heaven–I found that quote offensive. In effect, he was saying, “God killed eight people so that I could be a senator.”

                So yeah, it came off as gloating.

                • Submitted by Kyle Thomas on 11/07/2016 - 01:24 pm.

                  Cite the article.

                  Cite the article you are paraphrasing from your ideological point of view. Also, the election was still tough and hard fought, including the tragedy. Add some context to your biased comment. Your opinion is that it was gloating.

                  I find it offensive that Al Franken often channeled Paul Wellstone as if he was getting campaign advice from him during the 2008 campaign.

                  I guess Hillary Clinton isn’t going to heaven then.

          • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/25/2016 - 09:29 pm.

            Well, It May

            Be important, if one wants to think that Norm Coleman would have won anyway, and not just because an accident took the life of his opponent, who had just stated to pull away from him.

            • Submitted by Kyle Thomas on 10/26/2016 - 10:54 am.

              Norm probably would have won the polls were wrong that year.

              The same polls to my recollection showed Tim Penny neck and neck with Tim Pawlenty and Roger Moe. It was a good year for Republicans and Wellstone never had commanding victories (1990 by 2-3 points, 1996 9 points in a 3 way race but only 50%).
              The legend that Wellstone supporters have created is that he was coasting to victory, and if it wasn’t for Republicans highlighting the funeral turned political rally Mondale would have won. We don’t know what would have happened but to say Wellstone was cruising to a third term is false.

  2. Submitted by John Deitering on 10/25/2016 - 11:00 am.


    Dear God, I miss Paul Wellstone.

  3. Submitted by dstockmo Stockmo on 10/25/2016 - 03:08 pm.

    Our country would be significantly better off if Paul were still with us.

    • Submitted by Kyle Thomas on 10/26/2016 - 11:00 am.


      Paul Wellstsone would vote for every Clinton/Obama global war/bombing raid just as he did when Bill Clinton was President. He didn’t author any legislation.

  4. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/25/2016 - 09:45 pm.

    Thank goodness

    “limitations on international sex trafficking” was a successful reform. Not a ban mind you, but limitations. I think that Senator Amy has followed up on this since then. Which begs the question: What Senators are FOR human sex trafficking?

    “few of which passed” is also an accurate reflection of the late Senator’s career. But never give up the fight.

  5. Submitted by Carrie Anderson on 10/26/2016 - 08:31 am.

    Thank you, Paul …

    … for the article reminding me of a life well lived. I empathize with John Deitering and wonder about all the what-ifs, had that crash not taken those lives.

  6. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 10/27/2016 - 07:36 pm.


    I also have often wondered about the what-ifs.
    Will we ever see anyone even remotely like him again?

  7. Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/28/2016 - 11:34 am.


    Let’s recap:

    Where are the polls showing Wellstone winning?

    – Here’s one.

    That poll only shows him up by 3

    – Ok then, here is another one with Wellstone up by 6

    Well, the polls were wrong.

    • Submitted by Kyle Thomas on 10/28/2016 - 12:20 pm.

      Still no evidence to the legend being created based on polls

      Pat –

      I asked for a poll. Someone cited one that was within the margin of error. Then someone pulled another poll but actually there was no linkable information to it so I don’t even count that. The same polls that my friends on the left are pounding were wrong about many other state and local elections that year. So my point of debunking this myth that Paul Wellstone was on his way to win a third term has merit. MPR and Star Tribune are not known as polling that is either accurate or friendly to non liberal candidates.

  8. Submitted by Roy Everson on 10/29/2016 - 11:10 am.

    Oh, please

    As long as “myth” and “debunking” have entered the conversation let’s go one further: where’s the proof that some legend exists that Wellstone was “coasting” to victory? Nothing to it. His supporters were well aware that Paul’s ideology was not his selling point but rather his independence, authenticity and knack for well-representing the entire state. But his lefty views would always make him vulnerable especially in that conservative year. The polls were grounds for optimism but the reality is that late-deciding (and non-ideological) voters are amenable to Wellstone’s authenticity in contrast to the artificial opportunism of his opponent, whose weaknesses were proven by losing campaigns for governor and reelection as senator. The brave vote against the Iraq war was a plus; recall that the war was not popular until the imminent invasion months later.
    It all adds up to a reasonable prediction that the senator was on a path to victory in 2002.

  9. Submitted by Kyle Thomas on 11/07/2016 - 01:29 pm.

    Speaking of artificilal opportunism

    I assume that you have the same opinion of war voting anti gay marriage Hillary Clinton?

    The war was popular until it was found we had no exit strategy. And then the wise Democrats (Hillary, John Kerry etc) tried to revise history and their own positions, frequently depending on the polls.

    I will give Paul Wellstone credit for usually being authentic. He broke most of his campaign pledges and was a rubber stamp for Bill Clinton but I will give you that he stuck to his credibility with war issues. (Unless of course Bill Clinton wanted to bomb someone in the middle east).

    None of what you say points to a Paul Wellstone victory. And maybe if Norm Coleman had the opportunity to run in a real election outside of a side show (Jesse Ventura) or a carpet bagging opportunist (Al Franken) he may have been able to actually debate and run outside of the Minnesota fascination with celebrity.

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