Politics with People, Reinvented

Senator Paul Wellstone, who died today along with his wife Sheila, his daughter Marcia and five others in a plane crash in Minnesota, was perhaps more than any other individual the very heart of American liberalism. His death leaves a gaping hole in our politics -- liberal politics, American politics -- that will be very hard to fill, and a gaping hole in our hearts that will not be filled at all.

In August, Prospect editor-at-large Harold Meyerson went to Minnesota to profile Wellstone and his campaign. Here is what he wrote:

I. The Back of the Bus

When Paul Wellstone decided last year that he would seek re-election to the U.S. Senate after all, much of his old operation was in mothballs. The volunteers had long since stood down. The legendary big green bus that had carried him all around Minnesota was in some museum way up in Hibbing, where Bob Dylan grew up and where notable buses, apparently, go to die.

The bus had been the symbol of Wellstone's first campaign, his 1990 shoestring, long-shot bid for the Senate. It was something of a relic even then -- a 1968 Chevy that two campaign volunteers had found behind some warehouse. As a way to move a Senate candidate around the state, it offered all the comforts of a pogo stick with a roof. But -- and it is of such things that legendary campaigns are made -- the Wellstone people couldn't afford anything better.

Everything about that campaign had been improbable. The candidate was this left-wing college professor who had turned two generations of students into community organizers and who'd thrown himself into every battle for unions, farmers, the environment, feminism and human rights that Minnesota had known since 1970. Thousands of volunteers had flocked to the campaign, not just walking precincts but parading around as human billboards and cooking up one oddball cultural event after another to promote Wellstone's candidacy. "You had to believe in the unbelievable to work on that campaign," says Pam Costain, a longtime Wellstone friend who is coordinating much of this year's ground operation. But the unbelievable happened: Wellstone ousted Republican incumbent Rudy Boschwitz by a two-point margin.

Six years later, Wellstone's re-election campaign (which he won handily) was a more conventional affair, with more money and more commercials, fewer volunteers and less of an air of a crusade. The bus still toted Wellstone around the state, but this time it was just one of several vehicles at the candidate's disposal, and this time the campaign needed no symbol of inspired desperation.

And that was supposed to be it. During his initial campaign in 1990, at the height of term-limits mania, Wellstone had pledged to serve just two terms. In the years since, his extraordinary network of progressive activists had dispersed and his bus had become a permanent installation in a collection, with explanatory plaques and a little fence surrounding it.

Earlier this year, though, the fence was removed, the plaques taken down and the bus brought back from history for yet one more campaign. There were more important considerations, Wellstone concluded, than honoring a term-limit pledge. The Senate was split down the middle, the new president was more dangerous than anyone had imagined and the Supreme Court was up for grabs. The Republicans thought their best shot at picking up a Senate seat -- and with it, just possibly, the Senate and the Court -- was in Minnesota. President Bush had recruited former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman to run for the seat, promising him as much money as it would take to recapture it.

So the bus is back, with a new engine, a couple of cozy couches piled with pillows and blankets, and an on-board bathroom. ("We've gone bourgeois!" Wellstone says.) Every Minnesotan, it seems, knows the bus. As it rolls down a rural highway, motorists honk and give a thumbs-up -- or the finger. The bus passes a late-summer high-school football practice, and some of the players run to the side of the road, where Wellstone hops off the bus for a schmooze. (Wellstone was diagnosed earlier this year as having multiple sclerosis, which has given him a rolling walk that, when accelerated, looks a bit like a hop.) At times, Wellstone repairs to the rear platform, where he can wave or shout or talk to voters as though he were Harry Truman giving Republicans hell. On an uncharacteristically cool and beautiful late-summer day, as the bus meanders through an all-but-depopulated hamlet, there is Wellstone on the porch, laughing, waving, though there's scarcely anyone to see him except the overflow campaign staffers in two following cars.

II. The Draw of Conscience

On a weekday morning in mid-August, the Wellstone campaign's St. Paul headquarters is teeming with so many volunteers that you'd think you'd stumbled on a mid-October precinct walk. The campaign has more than 100 paid (and disproportionately young) staffers, most of them in the field, and several hundred regular volunteers. On this morning, the regulars dart around the front room while seniors and a smattering of kids are busy stuffing envelopes.

The significance of this election has ratcheted up the intensity of the Wellstonites' commitment, but so has the candidate himself. For progressives, Wellstone has all too often been a prophetic tribune at least several years ahead of his Democratic colleagues. He was the one senator to go to Seattle in 1999, where he excoriated laissez-faire globalization; the one senator on the National Mall for a gay- and lesbian-rights demonstration in 1993, where he championed domestic-partner and right-of-adoption legislation; the one senator to consistently highlight the perils of corporate power in those market-mad pre-Enron days.

On the campaign trail today, Wellstone is a profile in prudent courage. Meeting one morning with a group of county and township supervisors in a rural area north of the Twin Cities, Wellstone pledges his continuing commitment to winning federal funds for a light-rail line connecting the area to Minneapolis. The supervisors are a bipartisan bunch; while they applaud Wellstone's efforts on behalf of the transportation corridor, many have little enthusiasm for the more global aspects of Wellstone's agenda.

Plainly, Wellstone's under no obligation to promote broader issues, but he does. The rail line, he says, is just one of a number of investments that the state and the nation must make to improve schools, housing and transportation. "But you can do just so much in investments as long as we have these tax cuts," he says. "Now, the Bush tax cuts have us running a deficit, and some people are saying there's no money for projects like this one. So we need to look at the tax cut again. I'm not saying I know what the proper balance between cuts and investments is, but I am saying we need more for investments."

Wellstone's tone is studiedly unpopulist, but he is calling for repealing the very large share of the cut that goes to the rich, even as most of his Democratic colleagues cheerfully support new programs without so much as mentioning the tax cut that aborts them. "I know consultants are saying we shouldn't be talking about this," Wellstone tells me, "but there's an old Yiddish proverb: You can't dance at two weddings at the same time. You have to be honest: Where else would the resources for the investments we support come from?"

That Wellstone is willing to push past the conventional wisdom on so controversial an issue in so close a race endears him to his activist base even more. "I believe in Paul's conscience," says Karen Jeffords, a mental-health worker who's supported Wellstone in his two previous outings but who this year, for the first time, is volunteering.

And the Wellstone campaign believes in Karen Jeffords, in all the Karen Jeffordses. It is committing fully 30 percent of its resources to a ground campaign this year. (My own survey of Democratic campaigns in California in the late 1980s and early 1990s showed that less than 3 percent of resources were spent on foot soldiers.) For the past three decades, "capital-intensive" campaigns have become the rule; candidates raise money and spend almost all of it on advertising and mail. Citizen engagement is a sometime thing, and the ability of campaigns to organize that engagement has become a bit of a lost art in American politics. "Relying on volunteers is back-to-the-future," says Robert Richman, a onetime Wellstone student who is now a partner in Grassroots Solutions, a firm that helps campaigns mobilize those volunteers.

So it's not just the bus that the Wellstone campaign is dragging out of a museum. The whole idea of a campaign that devotes a great deal of resources to shoe leather harkens back to an earlier age of American politics. This year in Minnesota, Wellstone is betting that it's an idea whose time has come again.

III. The Logic of the Ground

Even by conventional political standards, there are reasons why a major ground operation in this year's Wellstone campaign makes perfect sense. First, the race is painfully close. Polling from late July and early August shows Wellstone leading Coleman by three or four points, with Ed McGaa, the Green Party candidate, polling at 2 percent or 3 percent.

Second, this is a race where voter mobilization may be even more important than voter persuasion. Nearly everyone knows the two main candidates: Fully 99 percent of voters can identify Wellstone, and 97 percent know Coleman. What Coleman stands for may not be all that clear, but after 12 years in the Senate, Wellstone is a known quantity. The senator recounts that in the midst of the 1996 campaign, when a torrent of Republican ads called him "embarrassingly liberal," one voter stopped him in an airport and said, "Why do they keep saying you're embarrassingly liberal? We know that!"

Third, the electorate is unusually expandable. Minnesota has election-day voter registration: Show up at the polls with some documents establishing who you are and where you live, and you can vote. It was just such last-minute impulse voting by young men that made Jesse Ventura governor four years ago.

Campaign consultants invariably tell their candidates to forget about enlarging the electorate and focus on turning out "high-propensity" voters. In Minnesota, however, the election law itself scrambles the conventional wisdom, and Wellstone has scrambled it some more. "My whole background is teaching community organizing," he says. "If it's a 'normal' campaign -- television spot versus television spot, my pollster versus yours -- we don't win. We have to mobilize people outside the normal electorate. That's how we win."

Two parts of the Wellstone operation are fairly conventional in kind if not in scope: the district-by-district field operation that focuses on identifying and mobilizing Wellstone voters where they live, and the AFL-CIO's independent operation with its own members on Wellstone's behalf. More unusual, however, is the campaign's campus operation, headed by Annie Davidson. A politically precocious 19-year-old University of Minnesota student who earlier this summer attended "Camp Wellstone" for students interested in the campaign, Davidson took a leadership role there and is now coordinating the campaign's efforts on 79 campuses. "They offered me a salary," Davidson marvels while slurping a Coke in the coffee shop nearest to campaign headquarters.

In return for her salary, Davidson is planning a get-out-the-vote operation that is designating one coordinator for every dorm floor at every major college in the state. And because Minnesota law allows a registered voter to bring six unregistered ones with him or her to the polls -- and allows those six each to bring one more -- the potential for swelling student turnout, and the Wellstone vote, is considerable.

Davidson will be spending some of her time making the case for Wellstone to students who might vote for McGaa, his Green Party opponent. It's not a hard case to make, inasmuch as Wellstone is probably the greenest public official in the nation and McGaa doesn't seem very green at all (unless by "green" you mean "inexperienced").

That seems to be the conclusion many disaffected Greens reached soon after the Green Party convention that nominated McGaa, who'd been unknown to the delegates before they convened but who won them over on his platform of being an environmentalist, a feminist and a Sioux. As Davidson can demonstrate, Wellstone's bona fides as a feminist, enviro or progressive vastly exceed McGaa's, but any Greens still on the fence should spend some time with McGaa himself, as I did at a candidate debate at the Minnesota Game Fair (for hunters and their dogs) this August. A debate before that crowd should have been an occasion for Republican Coleman (who showed up in a camouflage hunting jacket) to shine, and while he certainly played the identity politics card -- "Wouldn't it be great if Minnesota had a senator who hunted?" -- Wellstone more than held his own.

Coleman's general line of attack throughout the campaign has been to paint Wellstone as "the most partisan" member of the Senate, and to contrast that with what he claims to be his own record of working across party lines. The attack is really no different from the allegations Wellstone has weathered in previous campaigns, and after months on the stump, Coleman has yet to register appreciable gains. Wellstone counters the charge of ultrapartisanship by citing bills he's co-sponsored with Republicans, and then merrily and indignantly going after Coleman's dependency on the very industries, such as pharmaceuticals and securities brokers, blocking long overdue reforms. Coleman had raised $97,000 from the securities industry by late July.

But Coleman is basically your standard-issue Republican. The genuinely mind-boggling performance at the Game Fair (and in general) was McGaa's. A folksy character who seems to have wandered aimlessly onto the political stage, McGaa was hard-pressed to define any differences he has with Wellstone. Asked why he was running, he handed me a one-page biography and position summary and said, "It's all here." After peering at it himself for a minute, he looked up and said, "I've got more qualifications than Paul Wellstone had the first time he ran for office!" Because the paper touted his position on prescription-drug benefits and veterans' health care -- two issues on which Wellstone has taken the lead in the Senate -- I asked him to differentiate himself from the senator in these two areas. "We have the same position on prescription drugs," he said, "but as an independent, I'd be the swing vote. Do you understand? If they want to get any bill through, they'd have to come to me -- and my price would be passing the prescription-drug bill." (Did I understand? What about McGaa? Didn't he understand that independents are in a position to cast a swing vote no more often than any other senator, and that's not very often at all?) On veterans' issues, I asked, hasn't Wellstone been pretty much the vets' leading advocate? "Sure he has," said McGaa. "But I could do the same thing. And he isn't a veteran. I served in the Marines twice. He didn't serve once."

To sum up: The official Republican case against Wellstone is that he isn't a hunter. The official Green case against Wellstone is that he wasn't a Marine.

IV. Standing Armies, Floating Crap Games

Campus organizing, labor organizing and neighborhood organizing, no matter the quantity, don't mark a conceptual breakthrough in the campaigner's art. But the kind of community-based organizing the campaign is undertaking in immigrant communities is something else again. Wellstone's longtime friend Costain, who's devoted her professional life to low-income leadership training and development, is now the campaign's organizing director for communities that are still relative strangers to U.S. elections -- among them the Twin Cities' Mexicans and Central Americans, West Africans, Tibetans and Hmong. The campaign has assigned an organizer to (and from) each of these groups, to develop their political skills and electoral proficiencies and to turn out the vote for Wellstone.

The Twin Cities are home to the nation's largest concentration of Hmong -- a mountain tribe from Laos that sided with the United States during the Vietnam War. Wellstone has been a particularly forceful champion for the group, authoring legislation that enables Hmong veterans and their widows to take their U.S. citizenship tests in the Hmong language. It's less Wellstone than the American electoral system that's still a stranger to many in the community, and Pakou Hang, a 25-year-old investment analyst, has come home from Boston "to teach Elections 101, explain how the ballot works, explain the issues, connect those issues with Paul and help get him elected." Hang was hired in part because she knows the patterns of Hmong society. ("You organize events through families, not churches or community groups," she says.) But, as part of a strategy that would confound any conventional consultant, she was also hired in part to "build political consciousness in the Hmong community. This year, they need to be there for Wellstone. But next year, it may be some other candidate or cause."

However novel it may seem in today's world of cookie-cutter campaigns, Hang's job would sound very familiar to Al Smith or James Michael Curley. Teaching immigrants how to vote, knowing whom in the community to go to when organizing events, even cultivating new leadership -- this is the Wellstone campaign reinventing Tammany Hall. The legendary New York machine, lest we forget, met immigrants at the docks and signed them up to vote right there, sped up their naturalization process and ensured a high-level of working-class voter participation -- or at least that part of the working class that was loyal to the machine.

To be sure, the machines also built a remarkably mediocre and clannish municipal workforce, whose mandatory kickbacks to the machine kept everything purring along. But Tammany, like the Daley machine in Chicago, the O'Connells in Albany and the Pendergasts in Kansas City, fielded a standing army. They didn't need a candidate with Wellstone's charisma to inspire foot soldiers to bring old ladies to the polls. They didn't require a Vietnam War to have thousands of people walking precincts. All eventually succumbed to some larger social change -- new immigrant groups moving in, old immigrants' children moving out -- but until the world undid them, they did not ebb and flow with each political tide.

Over the past half-century, there have been volunteer upsurges in both major parties that enterprising leaders have sought to convert into new-age standing armies, machines held together by zeal, not patronage. Looking just at the Democratic side of the ledger, the 1950s candidacies of Adlai Stevenson gave rise to the Reform Democrat clubs of New York, the Independent Voters of Illinois and the California Democratic Council, politically serious insurgent groups that were given a new lease on life as a forum for anti-war perspectives during Vietnam. As these groups' battles with the last of the old urban machines proved successful, though, and as the Vietnam War wound down, their members drifted away. Tom Hayden's 1976 U.S. Senate candidacy in California spawned the Campaign for Economic Democracy, through which left-wing activists played major roles in local politics for almost a decade until their careers and children slowed them down, and Hayden (and Jane Fonda) turned off the spigot. Wellstone himself established a similar, if less well-funded, organization (the Wellstone Alliance) after his 1990 victory, but there was no money for a staff. In time its key activists ended up on Wellstone's Senate staff, where coordinating that kind of political activity was simply not possible.

There are standing armies of volunteers today, but they are those of key constituency groups -- the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, the National Abortion and Reproduction Rights Action League -- pulling their own members to the polls in independent expenditure campaigns. For candidate campaigns, however, ground operations are a bit like floating crap games: Volunteers have to be recruited anew in each election cycle, and developing their skills has to be started from scratch -- and are you really going to have enough volunteers to cover a sufficient number of precincts in any event? Besides, the other side just made a $4 million television ad buy; how can you justify diverting your last dollars to your door-knockers when there are 30-second spots still unseen?

So Democrats consign the ground to the earth, and Wellstone is convinced they're making a major mistake. "My Democratic colleagues always say I need to raise more money, and they've helped me," he says. "I tell them, 'I'll help you set up a field operation, a ground campaign. It will be worth three to nine points to you.' And I get these glazed looks."

It's not that his fellow Democrats are simply dense. Many of them just recognize that they're not Paul Wellstone. In American politics, it's the conviction candidates -- from Barry Goldwater to Wellstone -- for whom the volunteers turn out. Most politicians aren't able or inclined to make the kind of principled run that can turn out the precinct walkers by the thousands. That doesn't mean sinking resources into a ground campaign couldn't yield them those three points. But absent a candidate who inspires as Wellstone does, it could hardly get the candidate those additional nine.

Wellstone understands that but is nonetheless "determined to show this is one way to win." For one thing, the more volunteers a campaign can field, the less beholden its candidate can feel toward big-money contributors. For Democrats, a ground campaign is a moral and ideological good in itself. And this year, Wellstone increasingly feels, the prospects for a convincing demonstration of people power look bright; the field headquarters is filled with volunteers, and it's not even Labor Day. "I didn't begin this campaign feeling this way," Wellstone says, smiling, as passing motorists on both sides of the bus begin honking in rhythmic support, "but it's in the air. I feel the pricklings in my fingers."

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