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Gauging a terrible loss
When Senator Paul Wellstone died, the tiny liberal-progressive-populist wing of the Democratic Party sustained a mighty blow. Let’s hope it wasn't fatal.
BY SETH GITELL

THE DEATH OF Senator Paul Wellstone has devastated his home state of Minnesota and heightened questions about the future balance of the Senate. But Wellstone’s death has also ripped a hole in the heart of the Democratic Party. Through much of the 1990s, the national Democratic Party fell increasingly under the sway of the pro-business, fiscally moderate Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Many of the policy initiatives of former president Bill Clinton came from the DLC. Despite the results of the 2000 presidential election, the group continues to predominate: when the DLC held a major meeting in July, all the major 2004 presidential hopefuls — Connecticut senator Joseph Lieberman, Massachusetts senator John Kerry, North Carolina senator John Edwards, and House minority leader Richard Gephardt — showed up. (Only former vice-president Al Gore dared to stay away.) Hence, a generation of Democratic politicians who play to "soccer moms" and "office-park dads."

But Wellstone was different. He was one of the few senators — one of three, to be exact — who voiced the concerns of those who punch time cards. (The other two are Senator Ted Kennedy, who was campaigning for Wellstone in Minnesota the day he died, and Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, who adopted Wellstone’s quirky campaign style to get elected and then appropriated some aspects of Wellstone’s good-government legislative stance once he was in office.) But only Wellstone embodied an unconventional mix of unreconstructed 19th-century populist, classic New Dealer, and 1960s radical.

The final days of the 2002 campaign season will certainly see references, both direct and indirect, to Wellstone’s political concerns. Massachusetts treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Shannon O’Brien imported a host of blue-collar workers from Buffalo, Kansas City, and Marion, Indiana, to Boston Monday to join Senator Kennedy in denouncing the anti-worker practices of Republican candidate and millionaire Mitt Romney. They came from Ampad and GST Steel — two companies that suffered layoffs and work-site closings following purchase by Romney’s old company, Bain Capital. But such an occasional and opportunistic embrace of blue-collar concerns for electoral gain does not constitute the full-throated championing for which Wellstone was famous. How Wellstone’s political legacy is carried on, then, will help define the future of progressive American politics and the Democratic Party. As former secretary of labor Robert Reich puts it: "Nothing can replace Paul and nothing will replace his voice. But his death requires progressives do everything we can to make sure his ideals live on."

Before considering where Wellstone’s legacy will end, though, it’s worth taking a look at its origins.

WELLSTONE GREW up in Arlington, Virginia, where he was weaned on the ideas of liberal Jewish thinkers. His father, Leon Wexelstein, had fled the anti-Semitic pogroms of Russia. Wexelstein steeped his son in the works of Martin Buber, whose ideas informed Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of nonviolent protest against racial segregation; Abraham Heschel, a King ally; and his friend Alexander Kerensky, the democratic-socialist Russian leader, who was deposed by the Bolsheviks. "I mean, I was raised on Abraham Heschel and Buber — I have all my father’s books in my office in DC," he told the American Jewish World, a Minneapolis/St. Paul newspaper, on May 3. It wasn’t a religious upbringing, but it was one that seemed to instill in him the Jewish commandment of "tikkun olam," which means "to repair the world" — in his case, through service to society.

Wellstone attended the University of North Carolina, where he studied the increasingly militant black-liberation movement. "His heroes were John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King," says Reich, who met the freshman senator in 1990 and worked with him on labor issues. "He came out of the ’60s — the hothouse of civil-rights and the antiwar movements."

It took time for Wellstone to find his voice. He came into his political own as a professor at Carleton College, a small liberal-arts school in Northfield, Minnesota. In the 1970s and 1980s, Wellstone took his government classes to the streets. He involved his students in political organizing and brought them to the state capital so they could see how politics worked. Bill Hillsman, the Minneapolis/St. Paul advertising consultant known for developing Wellstone’s innovative 1990 campaign spots, first met the future senator when Hillsman was a Carleton undergraduate. He wasn’t a student of Wellstone’s, but it was a small school — everyone knew each other. He recalls Wellstone leading a campus-wide strike in protest of US action in Vietnam. Hillsman, who thought of the strike as little more than a day off from class, planned to take advantage of the event by lounging outside. But Wellstone caught him as he was carrying a case of beer down to a nearby softball field. "Hillsman, you’re coming to the teach-in," Wellstone shouted to him. Hillsman eluded Wellstone then, but was pulled into his passion two decades later when the former professor ran for Senate.

Wellstone did not stand out as an organizer for the antiwar activism that was so prevalent in the early 1970s. Rather, he made his mark with more rudimentary community organizing in the manner made famous by Saul Alinsky in Chicago, with particular focus on the plight of the family farmer. Wellstone helped the farmers of Central Minnesota fight utility companies that wanted to install huge power lines across their fields. He protested against banks that foreclosed on farms. At the same time, he came to know the concerns of the working people who struggled in the northern reaches of Minnesota in an economically depressed area known as the Iron Range. By 1987, as Wellstone, still a professor, became increasingly involved in political organizing — he ran unsuccessfully for state auditor in 1982 — he was drawn to the possibility of uniting the interests of central Minnesota's farmers with the interests of Northern Minnesota’s industrial workers, an idea he would soon put into practice. Although this seemed consistent with the populist origins of the Democratic Party in Minnesota, officially known as the Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) Party, nobody had seriously considered such a coalition in generations. By 1980, after all, most of the farmers and workers were so-called Reagan Democrats, and some of the farming districts already had Republican congressman. Wellstone, however, recognized the potential of re-forging this kind of coalition.

When Jesse Jackson was planning a bid for the presidency in 1987 — one that attempted to unite the interests of white working people and African-Americans — he sought out Wellstone, who had remained active in the left wing of the DFL after his auditor’s run, to work on his campaign. During one of their first meetings, Wellstone greeted Jackson and Bob Borosage, Jackson’s issues director, and promptly took them to the Iron Range. It was bitterly cold outside, but Wellstone hurried about, showing the men around without even wearing a hat, while Jackson and Borosage, bundled up in heavy hats and coats, shivered as they followed along. Although Jackson ultimately lost the 1988 presidential nomination to Michael Dukakis, the experience altered Wellstone, who decided to run for office himself. In 1990, he took on incumbent Minnesota senator Rudy Boschwitz.

Elected against very long odds, Wellstone became a senator whose record stands out: votes against the 1991 Gulf War and the pending war against Iraq. Consistent votes against President Clinton’s North American Free Trade Agreement and welfare-reform legislation (Wellstone particularly hated its anti-immigrant provisions). An ardent advocate for the economically downtrodden, Wellstone was the most vocal Senate opponent of bankruptcy-reform legislation. Most Democrats bowed to the wishes of Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, who, some believe, wanted it passed to appease MBNA, a major credit-card company and employer in Daschle’s home state of South Dakota. Wellstone thought it odious to strip ordinary consumers of their right to relief from debt owed to exploitative credit-card companies charging near-usurious interest rates. Says Borosage, who is now the director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a nonprofit group that seeks to remove money from politics and redress economic disparity: "At the basic core of his stomach, Paul could not believe that they would do this."

Despite his proud legislative record and the fact that it looked as if he would defeat former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman to win re-election, some say that Wellstone’s politics did not represent the future. That his view of the world was archaic and did not fit easily into modern politics. "I saw his populism as being a bit old-fashioned," says Ruy Teixeira, co-author with John Judis of The Emerging Democratic Majority (Scribner, 2002). "He was defending the rights of the common man, the common woman, it was simple and powerful in its own way. I don’t think he had a very nuanced analysis of where the country was going. I don’t think he had much sensitivity for the post-industrial transition America had been going through." To bolster his argument, Teixeira points to the fact that Wellstone garnered far more support in the liberal districts in and around Minneapolis/St. Paul than in the working-class and farming areas with which he so identified.

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Issue Date: October 31 - November 7, 2002
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