|from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
Dane Smith and Patricia Lopez
Published Oct. 26, 2002
Over and over in his improbable first campaign for the
U.S. Senate in 1990, the 5-foot, 5-inch liberal
professor Paul Wellstone would bounce up and down on
the balls of his feet, jab the air repeatedly with his
finger and shout that he would be a senator for the
"little fellers, not the Rockefellers."
His politics, he repeatedly said, were about "improving
people's lives" and "the fact that too few people have
too much power and say and too many people don't have
Wellstone often was derided as an anachronistic 1960s-
style radical and a polarizer.
But his friends and foes on Friday invariably agreed
that his affinity and passion for the poor and every
manner of downtrodden people was his defining legacy.
And he improved thousands of lives in countless ways,
they said, through personal connections and help he
offered, and through his political achievements.
"There have been few people in our history who so
naturally represented the concerns of people who have
no voice in American life," said Pat Forciea, his 1990
campaign manager. "He had no political peers. He didn't
view any issue as risky or insurmountable."
Wellstone enjoyed the company of people who were not so
successful. They were not props for his politics. He
was famous for talking not just to the customers of the
coffee shops he loved to frequent, but for going into
the kitchen, talking up the dishwashers and fry cooks,
urging them not only to vote for him but also to demand
more for themselves.
He befriended U.S. Capitol security guards and brought
them home to dinner. But he remembered names and family
members of Minnesotans at all levels, as people who
waited to shake his hand every year at the State Fair
Wellstone was the son of immigrant Russian Jews and
grew up in a modest red brick house on a cul-de-sac in
Arlington, Va., not far from the Capitol dome.
His father was Leon Wexelstein, a frustrated playwright
who ended up working for the U.S. Information Agency
under Edward R. Murrow. His mother, Minnie Danishevsky,
grew up in New York City and was the daughter of a
garment factory worker and union activist. The family
name was later Anglicized because of anti-Semitic bias,
Late-night discussions over sponge cake and tea at the
kitchen table with his father, who was sympathetic to
Socialist economics but a foe of Bolshevism, informed
his world view.
His upbringing was middle-class and comfortable enough
but was deeply affected by a great trauma, his older
brother Stephen's descent into mental illness, a form
of severe depression that put him into an institution
and plunged the family into debt.
The bills for treatment forced his mother to take a job
as a public school cafeteria worker, and Wellstone
later said he was ridiculed by classmates who
considered him "white trash."
Wellstone's passion for underdogs and life's most
helpless people was shaped by visits to his brother in
a mental hospital that he once described as a
"snakepit." He became one of the Senate's leading
advocates for expanding federal health-care benefits
for mental problems and chemical dependency.
He was a full-fledged juvenile delinquent during a
rough period in the late 1950s, a time he described as
his "rebel without a cause" phase. He confessed to
vandalism with a rowdy crowd and stealing cars for
joyrides. But he turned his life around and discovered
discipline in high-school wrestling, and his passion
for the sport earned him a scholarship to the
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
While still in high school, he met and began dating
Sheila Ison, a Southern Baptist with Kentucky roots.
They went to different colleges at first, could not
bear the separation and were married in 1963, when both
were 19. Their first child, Paul David, was born in
1965. Sheila, whose name he always pronounced "Shilla,"
worked in the university library as Wellstone went on
to graduate school in political science.
Wellstone plunged into his studies and wrestling in
classic fashion, winning a regional championship and
earning his undergraduate degree in three years.
Wellstone was hired to teach political science at
Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., in 1969, and his
new responsibilities did not end his confrontative
protest politics. He was arrested at a Vietnam War
protest at the federal building in Minneapolis in 1970.
He organized Rice County welfare recipients. He was
arrested again at a Paynesville bank at a protest
related to spreading farm bankruptcies.
Wellstone was so militant and so controversial that
Carleton officials tried to fire him in 1974. But with
the vocal and organized support of students he had
taught, he fought back and eventually won tenure.
Steve Schier, a Carleton professor, said Wellstone was
"less of an academic, more of a grass-roots political
activist. He viewed it as part of his mission to get
students active in politics."
As Wellstone himself got involved in politics, his
high-volume speeches, delivered in cadences he admitted
that he copied from black gospel preachers in the
South, made him a favorite speaker at DFL functions. In
1982, as something of a sacrificial lamb against a
popular moderate, Republican Arne Carlson, Wellstone
ran for state auditor.
During the campaign Wellstone admitted that he had a
learning disability that gave him trouble with numbers
and statistics, an odd handicap for a state auditor.
He was soundly defeated, but Carlson said Friday that
he had become good friends with Wellstone in the last
couple of years, partly because Wellstone sought his
advice about what people would think of the senator's
revelation that he had multiple sclerosis.
"He grew in the job, and to me that's always the test
of an individual's worth," Carlson said Friday. "He
always used his public service as an opportunity to
express his principles, his fight for the underdog."
Wellstone's next campaign was for the U.S. Senate. He
declared his candidacy in April of 1989 at a community
center in a low-income Minneapolis neighborhood. It
drew scant media attention, and the DFL establishment
gave him little chance of defeating a popular and
entrenched incumbent Republican, Rudy Boschwitz.
But Wellstone worked tirelessly to persuade DFL
activists, concentrating on the urban core, distressed
agricultural regions, and above all the blue-collar
enclaves of the Iron Range.
His debate coach that year, whom Wellstone later
nominated as a U.S. attorney, David Lillehaug, recalled
that "he was about the only person who really believed
he'd win. . . . The DFL establishment thought I was
crazy to want to help him but I loved his heart. He
always said he wouldn't be the senator for big oil, for
the drug companies. It was straight populism, 180
Wellstone caught the beginning of a populist reaction
against 1980s Republicanism under President Ronald
Reagan. He presented himself as the enemy of corporate
privilege and wealth. He called for a single-payer
national health-care system and sweeping campaign
finance reforms, and managed to put together what has
been called a "blue-green" coalition, composed of labor
union members in hard hats and liberal and
environmental activists in pony tails.
Luck played a big part in his 1990 upset. Three weeks
before Election Day, the Republican ticket was swept up
in allegations of sexual improprieties by gubernatorial
candidate Jon Grunseth.
And Boschwitz, also Jewish, stumbled badly with a late
campaign letter in which he accused Wellstone of
raising his children as Christians. It infuriated many
in the Jewish community and earned broad public
Wellstone, who often talked about politics being a game
of "winds and tides," eked out a narrow victory, 50.5
percent to 47.9 percent. The day after his election, he
surprisingly announced that he would serve no more than
two terms, a promise he broke in 2001 when he announced
that he would seek a third term after all.
Riding his well-known green bus all the way to
Washington for his swearing-in, Wellstone started
stomping on toes immediately and got off to a bad start
in the Senate. He held a showy press conference at the
Vietnam Veterans Memorial, greatly offending veterans
and many of his new constituents.
In his first trip to the White House, he buttonholed
President George Bush for a harangue on the
inadvisability of war, and Bush reportedly said, "Who
is this chickenshit?"
He was one of a few senators who voted against
authorizing war in Iraq, and by midsummer of 1991, his
approval ratings had fallen to an all-time low for a
Minnesota U.S. senator.
In the late 1990s, with Vice President Al Gore the
obvious favorite to succeed President Bill Clinton as
the Democratic nominee, Wellstone began angling for a
He eventually dropped out of the race, citing health
problems, specifically chronic back problems. Two years
later, as he was opening up his third Senate campaign,
Wellstone revealed that he had a form of multiple
sclerosis, a degenerative disease of the nervous
Along the way and especially during his early days in
the Senate, Wellstone managed to irritate and anger
many who came in contact with him. Aides and Capitol
observers discovered that he could be thin-skinned and
harsh. His flaws were functions of his virtues, some
said. His passion and drive came off as self-
righteousness to some.
But among those praising him Friday was former U.S.
Sen. Rod Grams, a conservative Republican who served
with him for six years and often described as his polar
opposite, on both issues and disposition.
"We got to know each other a little better in recent
years," said Grams, who worked with Wellstone on
establishing a center in Minnesota for international
"The fellow had a set of beliefs and fought for those
very hard. He did what he believed, you always knew
where he stood, he had deep convictions."
From the moment he arrived in the Senate in January
1991, Wellstone was a crusader for the poor, the
disadvantaged, workers, struggling family farmers, the
environment and human rights causes.
He soon began what would become a yearslong effort to
derail efforts to drill oil in the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge. Wellstone's was the voice of the true
In 1995, after Republicans seized control of both the
House and Senate, Wellstone became more vocal. Using
parliamentary maneuvers, he obstructed GOP efforts to
roll back environmental regulations and to cut social
But despite taking positions on the fringes, Wellstone
made friends and forged bipartisan alliances. In what
may be his proudest legacy, he and Sen. Pete Domenici,
R-N.M., joined ranks to author legislation to require
health insurance plans to provide "parity" coverage for
mental illnesses. While their bill was scaled back,
President Bush recently endorsed the concept, and it is
seen as a pioneering step toward helping a huge segment
of sick, but often ignored, Americans.
Wellstone is survived by his sons, Paul David and Mark,
and his grandchildren, Cari, Keith, Joshua, Matt,
Acacia and Sidney.
-- Dane Smith is at firstname.lastname@example.org.-- Patricia
Lopez is at email@example.com.