We Need More Senator Paul Wellstones
Senator Paul Wellstone posthumously played a significant hand in my development as an organizer. In the 2008 election I got involved in a campaign to mobilize voters around an environmental pledge encouraging people to vote for political officials who would act on climate change. I gained a lot from the campaign including a bunch of really comfortable Power Vote t-shirts, a community of organizers and activists with a lot of knowledge and emotional support on offer, resume fodder for years, and a healthy distrust of the Democratic establishment. The most valuable lessons I learned from this campaign came from the organization founded by his friends, family, and colleagues after his death, Wellstone Action.
Wellstone died in a plane crash while leading in a Senate reelection bid against a well-funded Republican challenger being pushed by both Presidents Bush and Karl Rove. His suspicious death was preceded by a remarkable political and academic career where he acted more as a community organizer than an elite power broker. While teaching in Minnesota he was arrested in protest of the Vietnam war and in protest of farm foreclosures. He encouraged his students to engage in political and social-change campaigns. He ran his first electoral campaign with the Democratic Farmer Labor Party. He won his first Senate campaign in 1990 from a rickety bus, in a campaign that cost one-seventh that of the incumbent, and saw him personally knocking on doors throughout Minnesota.
The senator once requested that Bush Senior spend more time on social issues, apparently causing the President to ask a staffer, “Who is this chickenshit?” The senator was able to garner popular support because people trusted him and believed what he said. He was consistently the most liberal Democrat and he wanted his constituents to know that whether they agreed with his political philosophy or not they were getting what he presented to them. He would follow through on his word and he wouldn’t base his message on what they wanted to hear.
He opposed war, cuts to social welfare, and the trade agreements put forward by the establishment. He supported universal healthcare, environmental protection, and campaign finance reform. And, after making a vote for the Defence of Marriage Act he received a backlash from the Progressive community to which he admitted that he had made a mistake and asked to be educated on the issue.
He was committed to his role as representative of the American people in political office. When arguing against Clinton’s cuts to welfare he claimed that the cuts would hurt young people in poverty because, “They don’t have the lobbyists, they don’t have the PACs”. Wellstone also continued to join picketers and strikers while serving as a congressman and he gained a reputation for knowing the names of the cafeteria workers, policemen, and janitors in the Capitol Building.
Senator Bernie Sanders remembered and praised Wellstone’s political style in a 2007 speech in front of the Senate. He said:
“History will remember Paul Wellstone as one of the great senators of our time, not just because of his accomplishments but because of the great vision that he had. Paul believed very much that we could create a very different kind of world than the one that we are living in right now and he was prepared and did stand up day after day on the floor of this senate taking on virtually every powerful special interest that exploited working people and low-income people and who led us to wars that we should not be fighting. He was a man who believed passionately in a world of peace and a world of economic and social justice, and that vision that he brought forth is a vision that I hope nobody in this Senate, nobody in this country ever forgets. And one of the major characteristics of Paul Wellstone is that he understood that the way we succeed politically in this country, is not simply by going out to the wealthy and the powerful begging for more and more campaign contributions, which is what happens so often in Congress, but he understood that the way you can win elections is by organizing ordinary people at the grassroots level. And perhaps that achievement, from a political perspective, will be what he will be most remembered for.”
Paul Wellstone was a public servant and we need more people like him at all levels of government. We need people who believe in government’s ability to improve people’s lives. We need people who seek legitimacy from their voters instead of people writing large checks. We need people who are willing to speak to those in the political establishment plainly, demanding that they take their position as a political representative of their constituents seriously.
The Wellstone Action website is a great resource for anybody interested in engaging in the political process in a traditional manner and carrying the legacy of Senator Paul Wellstone over into the defunct, decaying American system of governance. Maybe it can be saved.