WASHINGTON, D.C. — In an emotional tribute to former Sen. Paul Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, who both died with their daughter in a 2002 plane crash, members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation gathered with Senate leaders and advocacy groups Thursday night for the annual Sheila Wellstone Award Reception.
The event, held in a Capitol Hill banquet room, was organized by Wellstone Action! to kick off October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month and to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act.
“I am so humbled to occupy the seat that Paul and Sheila held,” said Minnesota’s junior Sen. Al Franken during a speech to the crowd. “And, again, I say that because they were a team. They were partners in every sense of the word. Almost every time I saw Paul, I saw Sheila. But, even though they were a team and always were, it was really through this issue that Sheila found her voice before she became a leader on domestic violence.”
Both Paul and Sheila Wellstone focused on domestic violence and mental illness issues during their time in Washington, D.C. The Sheila Wellstone Institute was established to continue her work in that area.
“They understood that no matter where you came from in this country, and no matter what had happened to you to get to where you were, there was a way to climb out of it,” said Minnesota’s senior Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who hosted the event. “There was a way to be better — whether it was with mental illness… or whether it was about domestic violence. There was really a common thread going through all of that.”
This year’s awards went, posthumously, to Lupe Serrano, who was president of the St. Paul-based Casa Esperanza — a women’s shelter and advocacy group — and to Vice President Joe Biden, who was the lead author of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act.
“I can think of no one more deserving of this award than Joe Biden,” Klobuchar said. “Vice President Biden has spent his life working towards this goal. He has done so much for so many to raise awareness… back when nobody was talking about it in the halls of this building.”
Klobuchar noted that as vice president Biden had created a new White House position for a presidential adviser on domestic violence.
Klobuchar and Franken were joined by Franken’s wife, Franni, who emceed the event, and Minnesota Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania also attended.
Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada also spoke at the event.
“They were teenage lovers, they were middle-aged lovers, and they were lovers the day they were killed in that airplane crash,” Reid said. “And if there were ever two people who fought for something that didn’t have any direct application to their life it was them… I wish I could project to the senators who weren’t able to serve with Paul the kind of senator he was. He didn’t care about the political consequences of his conscience. Whatever it was, he voted his conscience.”
Sheila Wellstone’s family members, who were in attendance, commented that Thursday night’s crowd was the largest they had ever seen at the event.
“It is always so wonderful to come to these things, it’s just so emotional,” said Sheila’s sister, Kathy Ison. “Every time I come I hear something different. I hear a different story… because as sisters we did sister things and that was what I knew about [Sheila].”
Franni Franken, who works with the Sheila Wellstone Institute, said that she plans to continue Sheila Wellstone’s advocacy work while in Washington.
“What we really need to do is strengthen our legislation,” said Franni Wellstone. “We must continue to fund programs where women or children can make a phone call and say they need help. So, there is a lot of work that remains, but I am so delighted to be a part of it.”
And on the general mood of the evening, Franni Wellstone added that it was “sweet and it was sad.”
“But we do have a lot of reasons to celebrate,” she said. “We have the Sheila Wellstone Institute, we have had the Violence Against Women Act for 15 years… it is delightful for people to network, meet each other, and exchange ideas [at this reception]. So, for me, this really was a celebratory event.”