I miss Paul Wellstone.
Besides being a down-to-earth heckuva nice guy, he was exactly the kind of legislator we so need more of in these dismally divisive days.
Wellstone fought for labor rights, a healthy environment, affordable health care for all, campaign-finance reform, women’s rights and orderly, legal immigration. He was, of course, a good progressive liberal. Even those who did not agree with him couldn’t help but like him for his manic energy, his passionate caring about people, his dogged determination and his heartfelt sincerity in trying to better the lives of “ordinary” Americans.
I remember vividly the first time I met Wellstone and his wife. It was back in the early 1980s, and the three of us enjoyed a dinner at the Holiday Inn in Alexandria. Paul and Sheila were touring Minnesota, meeting with reporters and others to discuss issues. We three had a lively talk about the high unemployment rate in those days, the shame of a lopsided health-care system and the need to protect the environment.
Years later, I spoke with Wellstone many times more when he made campaign stops in Alexandria. As a U.S. senatorial candidate, he was clearly the underdog to incumbent Rudy Boschwitz.
One day, at a stop at a park picnic, Wellstone grabbed my right hand and gripped it so vice-like, I blurted “Ouch!” I told him, “Look, Paul, I know you used to be a wrestler, but quit showing off your strength. You keep shaking hands like that, you’re gonna cripple your voters.”
His face lit up with that wide elfin grin, and he erupted with wild laughter.
At first I thought Wellstone didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell to win the 1990 election. He was whipping up a lot of attention, though, with his impassioned speeches as he criss-crossed the state in an old green repurposed school bus that looked like a hippie jalopy from the Summer of Love.
Many people began warming up to Wellstone, viewing him as an aw-shucks-just-folks sort of fellow bursting with enthusiasm.
One fall afternoon, I experienced a kind of political revelation. Boschwitz arrived in town for a campaign appearance at the local mall’s parking lot. There was the “plywood millionaire” (as he was sometimes dubbed) standing on a farm wagon by straw bales and wearing his red-plaid shirt, sleeves rolled up as if ready for some heavy-duty hay-baling. It was an almost comical attempt to project the image of the farmer’s friend, a man of the people like his opponent. Suddenly, I glimpsed a desperation in Boschwitz, an insecurity about his chances. Wellstone just might pull off a miracle, after all.
And lo and behold, he did. He won. Six years later, he was re-elected. While pondering a presidential run, he discovered his usually manic energy was lagging. Then came the diagnosis: the onset of multiple sclerosis. Never a quitter, he decided to file again for re-election.
One morning in late October 2002, I walked into the St. Joseph/Sartell Newsleader office. Fellow employee Kate Wallace asked if I’d heard the horrible news. She told me Wellstone, wife Sheila, daughter Marcia and several others all died in a small-airplane crash near Eveleth while on their way to a funeral.
It was devastating news, so hard to fathom. Wellstone, only 58, was a loving family man who didn’t have to crow about “family values” like some manipulative politicians do. He was the real McCoy. He was honest; he was kind; he was caring. He possessed personal and moral integrity while working hard with one thing uppermost in mind – his constituents, especially the economically disenfranchised ones who are often ignored or ground down by big-money interests and their paid minions in Congress. Unlike so many bought-and-paid-for legislators these days, Wellstone was a genuine public servant.
That is why I miss Paul Wellstone, and that is why we need more of him.