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20 years after Paul Wellstone’s death, his legacy may be stronger than ever

The senator’s death in a plane crash, just two weeks before the election, inspired a generation of progressives. Now they’re in power themselves.

Flowers adorning the fence outside of the campaign headquarters of Sen. Paul Wellstone in St. Paul on October 28, 2002.
Flowers adorning the fence outside of the campaign headquarters of Sen. Paul Wellstone in St. Paul on October 28, 2002.

Sen. Tina Smith remembers exactly when she knew, the morning of October 25, 2002, that Sen. Paul Wellstone had died. She was a DFL operative then, advising Roger Moe’s ill-fated gubernatorial bid, and was calling Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone’s campaign manager, to coordinate the final stretch. “I got Jeff on the phone, and he was like ‘Hey! Hey!’ and immediately hung up,” she says. “I thought, ‘That’s weird.’ And then I saw the television reports, and realized I’d been on the phone with him as he was receiving the news that the plane had crashed.”

It took a while to sink in. Wellstone had been going to a funeral on the Iron Range, a route he’d flown many times — same plane, same pilot. Now, as the plane lay broken in a bog outside Eveleth, along with the bodies of Wellstone, his wife and daughter, three campaign staffers, and both pilots, there would be more funerals. And investigations. And, of course, an election in 11 days.

“We didn’t have time to grieve,” Smith says. When former Vice President Walter Mondale agreed to run in place of Wellstone, Smith took over the campaign. But it was both too late and too soon. “Paul was gone,” Mondale told me, some years later. “There was a lot of depression and despair. It was hard to get momentum.”

During the DFL Election Night party at the InterContinental hotel in St. Paul, Smith decamped to a room upstairs with her two young sons. It was late. Her husband, Archie, had gone home. “I remember being in this big hotel room with a king-size bed with those little guys and not being able to sleep,” she says. The race was finally called in the early morning—Mondale had lost by a little more than 2 points. When he conceded to Norm Coleman, he insisted all the volunteers and activists share the stage. “He felt he had let them down,” Smith says, “that somehow their dreams of a politics that worked for regular people had been let down by his loss.”

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In the 20 years since, there hasn’t been another Wellstone, exactly — no politician has talked like him, walked like him, wrestled like him. (A championship college wrestler, he had been inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2001.) Wellstone Action, the nonprofit formed to carry on his work, recently reconstituted itself as Re:Power to focus more narrowly on racial and gender justice, dropping Wellstone’s sons from its board and his name altogether. The green bus that ferried his campaigns across the state, in fits and starts, has been dragged from one farm to another around Northfield, its mercurial motor finally kaput.

People attending the service for Senator Paul Wellstone leaving flowers at the school bus before the start of the memorial service at Williams Arena on October 29, 2002.
REUTERS/Eric Miller
People attending the service for Senator Paul Wellstone leaving flowers at the school bus before the start of the memorial service at Williams Arena on October 29, 2002.
Yet there has never been more Wellstone! in government. Senators Smith and Amy Klobuchar, Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov Peggy Flanagan, Attorney General Keith Ellison and U.S. Attorney Andy Luger — all were inspired, at some point, by Wellstone. In the statehouse, despite high turnover, many Democrats still have a Wellstonian pedigree. State Sen. Kari Dziedzic served as his executive assistant. State Rep. Frank Hornstein volunteered on his 1982 campaign for state auditor. House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler drove Mondale around during his short-lived 2002 campaign.

“His legacy is thinking about how to build power,” says Smith, who now holds Wellstone’s seat. “By organizing, by building power around people who aren’t rich and powerful themselves. He built power not for himself—though he was ambitious about what he wanted to accomplish—but for others. It’s certainly how I approach my job. And that is a straight line to Senator Wellstone.”

The ghost of Wellstone is so ubiquitous as to make Minnesota seem haunted by his memory. When the New Yorker profiled Ellison a few years ago, the writer visited the Twin Cities and reported that “Wellstone is a key figure in Minnesota’s long liberal tradition; while I was there, everyone I spoke to invoked him.”

If everyone knew Wellstone, however, it’s because Wellstone knew everyone. David Wellstone, his older son, remembers his father running parade routes “from side to side, sweating profusely” to greet as many people as possible. Connie Lewis, Wellstone’s former state director, calls him “probably the most extroverted person I’ve ever known.”

“He was everywhere all the time,” says former Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, who met him shortly after moving back to Minnesota in 1998. She was impressed by how much talent he had assembled around him: “smart, good-hearted people, who, for the most part, were in it for the right reasons.”

Sen. Tina Smith on Paul Wellstone: “His legacy is thinking about how to build power.”
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Sen. Tina Smith on Paul Wellstone: “His legacy is thinking about how to build power.”
Tom Berg, a former U.S. attorney and state legislator who ran against Wellstone for the DFL endorsement for the Senate in 1990, had watched him build support for years. “We would sit in the back of the hall at various DFL conventions, and it was clear for a long time that Paul planned to run for office,” he says. The caucus and convention system really mattered then — you didn’t run without seeking the party’s nomination — and Wellstone knew it.

“He had excellent rhetorical skills that none of us could match,” Berg says, “and a flair for entertainment.” He remembers Wellstone bringing a grogger to a convention — a noisemaker of the sort that’s spun on New Year’s Eve or Purim, the Jewish holiday — to get people’s attention. “Theatrical is a fair word, he had a sense of that, but he also had a wonderful grasp of politics.”

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Ellison first met him in North Minneapolis, in a park where a housing community had been demolished (now rebuilt as Heritage Park). “I was fresh out of law school and I was asking him a challenging question,” Ellison says, “sort of like here’s Mr. Senator Man, I’m gonna see if he can answer this. And you know what? He was so kind and so patient and he took me seriously. He looked me straight in the eye and gave me a straightforward answer, and then he asked who I was and what I was up to. And I thought, ‘This guy, this is a special person.’”

Ellison thinks of politics, in some ways, as Before and After Paul. “Look, before Paul there were always people who stood up for values of inclusion and the environment,” he says, “but they usually lost. Because they didn’t really make it pragmatic. Paul made sure his message made sense to those who would benefit the most. It’s moral politics and good politics, but it’s also winning politics. And he proved that.”

Ellison won his first race for office in 2002, joining the Minnesota House, and has won every race he’s competed in since. “Wellstone is the blueprint for my political career,” he says. “We do it like he did it. It’s the Wellstone way.”

In January 2004, I went to Camp Wellstone, an intensive weekend workshop organized by Wellstone Action. Over the next decade, at camps across the country, tens of thousands of activists and potential candidates would be trained to win hearts and minds the Wellstone way. This one was at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, a little more than a year after Wellstone’s death. Things still felt raw. I was told to mark my nametag “PRESS” so participants could avoid me if they wanted: “Some people get uncomfortable.”

You could learn to make a campaign ad or write a press release or get an “ask” — a commitment to phone bank, door knock, or whatever needed doing. A PowerPoint slide advised, “Remember: Body position, eye contact, and SMILE!” (Full disclosure: One of the students I interviewed, who had volunteered for Wellstone’s 1996 campaign while still in high school and was apparently unfazed by my press badge, would eventually become my wife.) Ellison gave a talk. Flanagan, who had volunteered for Wellstone’s 2002 campaign while a student at the University of Minnesota, was a seminar leader.

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The following year, Walz took the camp’s candidate class, as did Luger and Mark Ritchie. “I came out of it thinking this is a noble profession,” Walz told me. “Politics doesn’t need to be a pejorative.” Two years later, Ritchie was Minnesota’s secretary of state and Walz was Minnesota’s 1st District congressman.

The memorial for Paul and Sheila Wellstone near Eveleth on September 24, 2022.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
The memorial for Paul and Sheila Wellstone near Eveleth on September 24, 2022.
Walz was Flanagan’s student at Camp Wellstone. In a statement to MinnPost, Flanagan says, “walking by the Wellstone for Senate office my senior year of college changed the entire trajectory of my life. I would not be where I am today if not for Senator Paul Wellstone and his vision for Minnesota.” Walz says it was “Wellstone’s passion that inspired me to run for Congress in Southern Minnesota. Senator Wellstone never wavered from his convictions or his commitment to improving the lives of working people.”

Hodges, too, had never run for anything when, in October 2002, then-State Rep. Scott Dibble suggested she run for Minneapolis City Council. She demurred. Two weeks later, Wellstone died, and she changed her tune. “Paul had done so much for so many of us,” she says. “I thought if someone I respect thinks some of that work should go on my shoulders now, I should take that seriously.”

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Hodges, who now lives in Washington, D.C., and consults with corporate and civic groups on racial equity, says she sometimes thinks of Wellstone as Luke Skywalker at the end of Return of the Jedi. “He doesn’t forget that Darth Vader still has good in him,” she says, “just as Paul was capable of remembering the humanity of everyone—including people whose policies were inhumane, whose behavior was repugnant. We have a thirst for that as human beings that we don’t recognize or honor nearly enough.”

I wonder if Wellstone is also like Obi-Wan Kenobi, whose end marks the beginning of something larger. Hodges says, “You know, I am so grateful for all the good that has come in the wake of Paul’s death. But I can’t say with full honesty that I would trade any of it for him.”