"I don't represent the big oil companies. I don't represent the big
pharmaceutical companies. I don't represent the Enrons of this world.
But you know what? They already have great representation in
It's the rest of the people that need it." -- The text of what would
been Paul Wellstone's final election ad
Paul Wellstone never lost his rumple. He served as a
senator in Washington for 12 years, but he never succumbed to the
senatorial make-over: the $1000 suit, the $100 tie, the manicured
haircut. Even when Sheila got him to put on a new suit, it would be
disheveled 10 minutes later.
The rumple -- tie loosened, sleeves rolled up, hair
was the expression of this special man. Paul was, first and
in motion, an inexhaustible source of energy, ideas, optimism, drive.
He grabbed you with both hands, clapped you on the back, hugged you,
reached for you, argued about what you wrote, talked about what he
thinking. Shirts wouldn't stay tucked, suits wouldn't stay pressed
all the commotion.
Paul was an organizer, a mentor, a mobilizer. When he taught at
Carleton, he was more activist than academic, taking his students to
picket lines and sit-ins, exposing them to real life struggles. As a
Senator, he was more tribune than legislator. He gave voice, as Sen.
Barbara Boxer put it, to those who had no voice. He loved to join
rallies and demonstrations, to add his energy or just his presence to
people in motion.
I first met Paul in late 1987 when he was organizing
Minnesota for the Jesse Jackson '88 presidential campaign. Paul took
Jackson on a sweep across the Iron Range, speaking at churches, union
halls and small state colleges. It was very cold and grey, but Paul
dashing about without a hat, shaking hands without gloves on,
shy people up to meet the Reverend, excited about the prospects,
exhilarated by Jackson's message and oratory. At the end of a long
he took me back to stay overnight at his house. We talked into the
night, until I could no longer keep my eyes open. Reluctantly, he
me go to sleep, putting me on a couch in what was supposed to be a
"weatherized porch" where I froze through the night.
Paul's rumple reflected his connection to the people he fought for.
cared deeply about poor and working people, about the struggles of
everyday life for poor mothers, family farmers, the afflicted, the
He became their tribune in Washington, and was always accessible to
them. He didn't come from money and didn't care much about it, an
oddity in the millionaires' club that is the U.S. Senate. He and
lived very modestly in a little warren on Capitol Hill. His
with Sheila was the real thing, again a rarity in Washington. He
cared about his family, and agonized over the life challenges they
faced. Perhaps that helped make him far more approachable and human
than most in Washington politics. It's fitting that he's becoming
for the fact that he knew and cared about the people who served the
senators -- the guards, the restaurant workers, the cleaning people.
He and Sheila stood up for working and poor people even when he knew
would hurt him politically. In 1996, up for reelection, Bill
faced the Gingrich assault on poor women, children and immigrants
as "welfare reform." Clinton knew the bill was unconscionable and
as much later. But his pollster warned him that a veto could cost
votes, so he caved and signed the bill. Paul was up for reelection
that year also, and knew he would be assailed for coddling "welfare
queens." But he couldn't stomach the damage the bill would do to the
most vulnerable -- poor mothers and their children. The son of an
immigrant, he couldn't abide the assault on the new immigrants. And
wouldn't go along with the big lie that the problem was welfare
than poverty. He voted no, believing that in the end voters would
respect his principles, even if they disagreed with his position.
sure enough, he went up, not down, in the polls after that vote.
Paul's rumple reflected the political promise that he
uniquely represented. He loved talking to people, but hated asking
money. He believed that mobilization could match money. In the
campaign, he helped bring remarkably talented young organizers into
electoral politics. They then decided to run Paul for Senate in
not exactly a promising route to high office. No one gave him or
chance. But combining wit and whimsy, hustle and energy, he and his
crew upset the incumbent, while being outspent seven to one.
That belief -- that mobilization could overcome money -- enabled Paul to remain independent. Paul will be remembered for
entrenched interests he was willing to take on -- big Pharma,
agribusiness, big oil, HMOs, toxic polluters, the pirate CEOS. During
past year, for example, the credit card companies and banks lined up
majorities of both parties for a bankruptcy bill that would enable
to collect against people even after they were forced into
Most of these are families whose lives have been shattered by
divorce or loss of a job. Paul could not fathom why wealthy CEOs
Ken Lay could shield their mansions from the people that they looted,
while divorced mothers would have to compete with credit card
to get child support payments. He filibustered against the bill,
despite pressure from Tom Daschle, his party's leader in the Senate
(MBNA and other credit card companies are big employers in South
Dakota). And in part because of his efforts, it has not yet passed
Paul Wellstone invited us to dream, but he was not a
dreamer. He urged people -- particularly young people -- to get
He fought ceaselessly about the direction of his party and the
When Paul considered running for president in 2000, he traveled to
announcing that he was the candidate of the "Democratic wing of the
Democratic Party." He was in open revolt against the money wing,
warning that the party could not thrive compromised by the same
entrenched interests that fund Republicans. He was a small "d"
democrat, a warrior for democracy. He pushed to get big money out of
politics, to limit the ability of lobbyists to curry favor with gifts
and trips. His passion was to build a grassroots politics that would
engage those who had lost hope or grown cynical. He worked hard to
build a progressive infrastructure that could bring energy into
politics. He crossed over to the House and became the only senator
join the Progressive Caucus. He headed up Americans for
Action. He helped found the Progressive Majority to help identify,
recruit and support the next generation of Paul Wellstones. He
with 21st Century Democrats to put young people into campaigns across
the country. "Politics," he said, "is what we create by what
what we hope for and what we dare to imagine."
In the tributes to his liberalism, many have suggested
he was a throwback, a holdout against a party that was moving more
the "center." But in fact, his politics point the way to the party's
future, not its past. He understood -- long before it became a
pollster's trite phrase -- the importance of the "kitchen table"
that his constituents talked with him about over coffee in Minnesota.
He championed health care, investing in education, the minimum wage,
clean air and water, holding CEOs accountable, empowering workers,
Social Security and pension reform. He married the triumphant values
the movements of the 1960s -- on civil rights, the environment and
rights -- with the lunch-pail concerns of working and poor people.
politics anticipated the emerging majority for progressive reform
Democrats must learn to speak to.
Paul went out like he came in; with everyone clear about where he
Virtually every Democratic senator -- and many Republicans -- expressed
reservations about the president's rush to war in Iraq. But when the
vote came, Paul was the only senator in a contested race that dared
defy his political consultants and cast a "no" vote that could hurt
He simply couldn't go along with a policy that seemed so profoundly
wrong-headed on a matter of life and death. And in Minnesota, he
in the polls after the vote, as if voters once more were rewarding
for standing up what he believed.
For this rumpled warrior, the battle lines were clear. After the
vote, www.moveon.org, a Web-based network developed during the Clinton
impeachment battles, sent out an email asking people to help Paul
Wellstone and a handful of House candidates in contested races who
"no." In 11 days, the site raised more than $1 million in small
from across the country. People everywhere correctly saw Paul
as their champion.
That same week, one of the many business fronts operating in this
election - Americans for Job Security, a group that refuses to
announce where its money comes from -- announced that it would
more than $1 million in ads to attack Paul Wellstone. The entrenched
business interests behind the group understood correctly that he was
I will miss Paul and Sheila - their energy, their passion, their
commitment, their bedrock decency. I find it still hard to accept
they are gone. Even through my tears, I can see him coming back
victorious, charged up to take his passion and his politics across
country. Now we'll have to do that without him. But with his
and his energy, he has shown us just how much is possible.
Robert Borosage is co-director of the Campaign for America's Future and co-editor of The Next Agenda, published by Westview Press.
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