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Sheila Wellstone: ‘driven by principle and passion’ on domestic-abuse issue

Photo by Terry Gydesen
With Sheila’s determination and her husband’s political clout, she grew one of the senator’s causes from a grass-roots effort to passage of the groundbreaking Violence Against Women Act.

It was no surprise that Sheila Wellstone was with her husband at the end. She so often was. Except at times when she was working solo on the cause about which she was most passionate: promoting an end to domestic violence.

While the late Sen. Paul Wellstone was fond of saying he “wasn’t for the Rockefellers, he was for the little ‘fellers,’ ” Sheila’s mission focused on women and children. She sought them out in battered women’s shelters and in places where other groups serve survivors of abuse. She went to listen and learn about domestic violence, the shapes it takes and the possible solutions for it. And then she took action.

With Sheila’s determination and her husband’s political clout, she grew one of the senator’s causes from a grass-roots effort to passage of the groundbreaking Violence Against Women Act, first enacted in 1994. The groundbreaking federal law (re-enacted in 2000 and 2005) set up recognition and support for efforts of domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers and other community organizations working to end violence. States have since enacted 660 laws to combat domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. And since 1996, a national hot linehas answered 2 million calls. 

But re-authorization of the VAWA is now stalemated in Congress. The Senate bill includes resources for sexual assault victims, while the House hasn’t agreed to approve the funding. The Senate and House are also at odds on a proposal to grant jurisdictional authority to prosecute non-Indians who assault a woman on a reservation. The Senate favors that change but the House does not.

Friends and admirers of the Wellstones will celebrate Paul’s and Sheila’s work and legacies at a 10th Anniversary Remembrance at 1 p.m. today at the site of the Oct. 25, 2002, plane crash in Eveleth, Minn., that took the lives of all aboard. The couple’s daughter, Marcia, three other Wellstone staff members and the plane’s two pilots also died.

Ten years later, the work that Sheila Wellstone fostered is still very much alive. Vice President Joe Biden, then a senator, complimented Sheila for her work on passage of the Violence Against Women Act. Sheila’s photograph hangs on a wall in the office of Lynn Rosenthal, White House adviser on violence against women, in recognition of Sheila’s accomplishment.

‘Well-educated, well-read, highly informed’

Paul and Sheila met as teenagers on a beach in Maryland and fell in love. They went off to college in different states and married at age 19. Sheila never finished college but instead helped to put Paul through school, said Marcia Avner, coordinator of the Sheila Wellstone Institute, a part of St. Paul-based Wellstone Action, which offers several programs, projects and training opportunities for people who share the Wellstones’ goals. “Sheila was really well-educated, well-read, highly informed,” Avner said. Sheila was proud that she and Paul worked together on these issues. She discussed everything with him. He often said she was his “best adviser.”

The Wellstones moved to Northfield, Minn., after Paul’s graduation from college. He was hired to teach political science at Carleton College, where he also earned a doctorate. Sheila juggled care of their three children with working in the Northfield High School library.

It was in 1990, when Paul was elected to the U.S. Senate, that Sheila took a keen interest in issues of domestic abuse, said Avner, who was Paul’s communications director at the time. Sheila immersed herself in the subject, taking it on as her own.

“My work was to support her in the first year of her work,” Avner said. “It was a steep learning curve.” For a year, Sheila met with people to learn mostly by listening. “Not everybody,”Avner said, “is willing to be quiet and listen.” 

Rx for doctors

Avner recalls a town-hall meeting that Sheila convened in a theater in Alexandria, Minn., in the early ‘90s. A medical doctor stood up and said that when a woman comes to him with a bruise or broken bone, “I know how to treat it.” But he said he didn’t know how to ask her if she was a victim of abuse. Or, if she was, how to advise her.

At the time, “Sheila had been working on an educational campaign in doctors’ offices,” Avner said. Sheila suggested that any doctor ask his or her patients, “Do you wear a seat belt? And are you safe?” Sometimes, “you just have to listen,” Sheila had said, and to know what and where the community’s safe resources are and how to get access to them. Sheila was in a position to elevate the issue. She asked medical schools to include those directives in their curriculum, Avner said. “And to ask the medical association to include them in its protocol.”

Sheila’s unpretentious concern for human welfare allowed her to comfortably mix and talk with women in domestic-violence shelters and hear their stories reflecting the cycle of abuse. 

“People loved her,” Avner said. “She was charismatic in her own way. They would tell her things they wouldn’t tell their best friend.” Judges would tell their stories, some through tears when allowing a child’s abusive father to return home. “Court reform became a part of her work. She was a pretty strategic person, a woman of conviction who combined intellect, passion and character. A convenor, a spokeswoman, an advocate. In the course of it, Sheila became immersed in finding solutions — for abused women, children and shattered families at a time when few solutions had yet been offered. 

“Sheila, like Paul, was driven by principle and passion,” Avner said. She looked at the domestic-abuse issue from a multidimensional view. “In 1990, this was taboo in some ways. A lot of people said the subject was ‘private.’ What happens in our home isn’t your business. Or some priest would say, ‘It’s your marriage. Go home and make it work.’ ”

The more Sheila learned, the more appalled she became, Avner said. She met with police, judges, clergy and educators. She chose to take a public-health approach, a need for the entire community to establish a level of no violence. At virtually every appearance, Avner said, “Sheila said this: ‘We can no longer tolerate the violence. And we can no longer say it’s somebody else’s business.’ ” As she learned more, Sheila spoke on college campuses and elsewhere against human trafficking that forced some immigrant women into sex or hard labor.

Watching out for the kids

Sheila has been called a strategist, advocate and organizer. She thought intensely about the issues, Avner said. She appeared in court often to observe child-custody hearings. It was no secret that she favored those who became known as “Sheila’s judges,” those who made every child’s safety and welfare a priority over other considerations. 

What is Sheila’s legacy? “Who she was,” Avner said. “And what she did. She was a model of what a partner of an elected official can do to affect policy change. Some who noticed her ambitious work alongside Paul dubbed the couple “co-senators.” Then-Sen. Joe Biden also noticed. “At one point, Biden thanked Minnesota ‘for sending us two for one,’ ” Avner said.

In “Becoming Wellstone,” the just-released book by son Dave, he writes that he doubts his father would have been who he was without his mom. He includes a long list of complimentary adjectives to describe her. The one he underlined was “strong.”

Several people who wanted to continue the Wellstones’ work created the Sheila Wellstone Institute, a core component of Wellstone Action. Both programs train people to take on the kinds of roles that Paul and Sheila Wellstone modeled, said Connie Lewis, who helped shape the institute. Goals include “strong public policy, strong advocacy and building power to advocate,” said Lewis, now a vice president for external affairs at Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. “You can work for the kind of change you want to see.”

Shelter bears her name

Around the time of the fatal plane crash, Cornerstone in Bloomington announced a campaign to build a new shelter. The staff considered naming it for Paul and Sheila, said Susan Neis, its executive director. “But for some things, Sheila needed to have her own spotlight,” Neis said. “She was so down-to-earth. She had a wicked sense of humor. Sheila was fun.” The new 35-bed structure for women and children is called the Sheila Wellstone Center.

Naming it for Sheila inspired the structure’s design. Configured in small apartments rather than dormitory-style with congregate dining, each unit has a kitchenette, dining and living areas, two bedrooms and a full bath. “We were very dedicated to make it as warm, welcoming and child-friendly as Sheila would have,” Neis said.

As participants prepared to break ground – on a cold, wet September day – for the new shelter that would bear Sheila Wellstone’s name,  those who gathered were concerned about the weather, Neis said. “But about 45 minutes before the ceremony, the clouds broke up,” she said. “The sun came out. The field was filled with dragonflies and butterflies. You couldn’t not notice them.”  Those who gathered took the colorful scene as a sign from Sheila.

“They believed that she came to say, ‘This is good.’ ” 

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