20 years after Paul Wellstone’s death, his legacy may be stronger than ever


Tina Smith, Sen. Tina Smith, recalls exactly the moment she learned that Sen. Paul Wellstone had passed away, on October 25, 2002. It was then that she was a DFL operative, helping Roger Moe with his ill-fated bid for the gubernatorial election. She was also calling Jeff Blodgett (Wellstone’s campaign manager), to coordinate the final stretch. “I called Jeff and he was like, ‘Hey! She says, “Hey!” and immediately hung-up.” “I thought, ‘That’s strange.’ And then I saw the TV reports and realized that I had been talking to him while he was getting the news about the plane’s crash.

It took some time for it to sink in. Wellstone was going to a funeral at the Iron Range. This route was one he had flown many times. Same plane, same pilot. The plane was found in a bog outside Eveleth with Wellstone’s body, his daughter and wife, three campaign staffers and the pilots. There would be many more funerals. There were also investigations. There will be an election in 11 days.

Smith states, “We didn’t have the time to grieve.” Smith assumed control of the campaign after Walter Mondale, former Vice President, agreed to run for Wellstone’s place. It was too late and too early. Mondale said to me years later that Paul was dead. “There was a lot depression and despair. It was difficult to gain momentum.

Smith and her two sons moved upstairs to a room above during the DFL Election Night celebration at the InterContinental St. Paul hotel. It was too late. Archie, her husband, was gone. She relates that she recalled being in a hotel room with a king-size bed and the little boys, and being unable to sleep. In the early hours of the morning, it was called. Mondale had lost slightly more than 2 points. He insisted that all volunteers and activists be on the same stage when Norm Coleman conceded. Smith said that Smith felt they had let him down. He believes their hopes of a political system that works for ordinary people were crushed by his loss.

There has been no other Wellstone in the 20 years that have followed — no politician has spoken like him, walked or wrestled like him. He was a champion college wrestler and was inducted into National Wrestling Hall of Fame 2001. Wellstone Action, a nonprofit that was created to continue his work, renamed itself Re:Power to narrowly focus on racial/gender justice. Wellstone’s sons were removed from the board and his name dropped entirely. It was the green bus that carried his campaigns around the state in fits and starts. Now, it has been pulled from one farm to the next in Northfield by its mercurial motor.

REUTERS/Eric Miller
People who attended the funeral of Senator Paul Wellstone left flowers at the school bus just before the start to the memorial service at Williams Arena on Oct 29, 2002.

There has never been more


in government. Senators Smith, Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan and Attorney General Keith Ellison, as well as U.S. attorney Andy Luger, were all inspired by Wellstone at one time or another. Many Democrats in the statehouse still have a Wellstonian pedigree, despite high turnover. As his executive assistant, State Senator Kari Dziedzic was employed. Frank Hornstein, a state representative, volunteered to help him in 1982 as he ran for the office of state auditor. Ryan Winkler, House Majority Leader, drove Mondale around during the short-lived 2002 campaign.

Smith, who holds Wellstone’s chair, says that Smith’s legacy is his ability to think about how to build power. By organizing and by building power around people that aren’t wealthy or powerful. He did not build power for himself, although he had ambitious goals. But he built power for others. This is how I approach my job. That is the straight line to Senator Wellstone.”

Minnesota is haunted by the ghost of Wellstone. Ellison was profiled by the New Yorker in 2001. He visited the Twin Cities and stated that Wellstone was a key figure of Minnesota’s liberal tradition. Everyone I met invoked him while they were there.

However, everyone knows Wellstone because Wellstone knew everyone. David Wellstone, his elder son, recalls his father running parade routes, “from side to side,” sweating profusely to greet as many people possible. Connie Lewis, Wellstone’s former state director, describes him as “probably the most extrovertible person I’ve ever met.”

Betsy Hodges, former Minneapolis Mayor, says that he was “always there,” and she met him shortly after he returned to Minnesota in 1998. He had so much talent around him that she was amazed: “smart and good-hearted people who were, for most of the time, in it for the right purposes.”

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Sen. Tina Smith, on Paul Wellstone: “His Legacy is Thinking about How to Build Power.”

Tom Berg, a former U.S. Attorney and state legislator, was able to watch Wellstone build support over the years. He says, “We would sit at the back of DFL conventions and it was clear for some time that Paul intended to run for office.” It was then that the convention system and caucus were important. You couldn’t run if you didn’t seek the nomination of your party — Wellstone understood this.

Berg recalls Wellstone bringing a grogger along to a convention to draw attention to his excellent rhetorical skills. He was a great performer, and he also knew a lot about politics.

Ellison met Ellison in North Minneapolis where he was visiting a park that had seen a demolition of a housing complex (now Heritage Park). Ellison said that he was just out of law school when he asked Ellison a difficult question. “Still, it was kind of like Mr. Senator Man, I want to see if he can answer this. You know what? He was so kind, patient, and took me seriously. He looked at me straight in my eyes and gave me an honest answer. Then he asked me who I was and what was I up to. “This guy, this man is special.”

Ellison sees politics in some ways as Before and After Paul. He says that “Look, there were always people who stood for values of inclusion, and the environment,” but they often lost. They didn’t make it practical. Paul made sure that his message was understood by those who would be most benefitted. It’s good and moral politics, but also winning politics. He proved it.”

Ellison won his very first race for office in 2002. He joined the Minnesota House and has won every race since. He says that Wellstone was the blueprint for his political career. We do it as he did. It’s the Wellstone method.

Camp Wellstone was an intensive weekend workshop that Wellstone Action organized in January 2004. Tens of thousands of potential candidates and activists would be trained in the Wellstone Way over the next ten years at various camps all across the country. This one took place at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, just a little over a year after Wellstone’s passing. It was still raw. It was explained to me that I should mark my nametag with “PRESS” so others could ignore me if they chose: “Some people get uncomfortable.”

A PowerPoint slide suggested that you could learn how to create a campaign ad, write a press release, or ask for a phone bank, door knocker, or any other service. A PowerPoint slide stated, “Remember: Body posture, eye contact and smile!” (Full Disclosure: The student I interviewed had volunteered for Wellstone’s 1996 campaign in high school. He was apparently not bothered by my badge and would eventually become my wife. Ellison gave a talk. Flanagan was a seminar leader after he had participated in Wellstone’s 2002 campaign as a student at the University of Minnesota.

Walz, Luger, and Mark Ritchie were among the candidates in the camp’s next year’s class. Walz said that he came out of the camp thinking that this was a noble profession. “Politics does not need to be a demeaning . Two years later Ritchie was Minnesota’s secretary-of-state and Walz was Minnesota’s 1st District Congressman.

MinnPost photo taken by Walker Orenstein
The memorial to Paul and Sheila Wellstone, near Eveleth, September 24, 2022

Flanagan was Walz’s Camp Wellstone student. Flanagan stated that “walking past the Wellstone for Senate office in my senior year of college changed my entire life trajectory.” Without Senator Paul Wellstone and his vision of Minnesota, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” Walz states that it was Wellstone’s passion that motivated him to run for Congress in Southern Minnesota. Senator Wellstone has never lost sight of his convictions and his determination to improve the lives of workers.

Hodges had also never run for any office when Scott Dibble, then-State Rep., suggested that she run for Minneapolis City Council. She demurred. Wellstone passed away two weeks later. She then changed her tune. She says, “Paul had done so many things for so many of our,” “I thought it was important to consider if someone I respect believes some of that work should be transferred on my shoulders now.

Hodges, who lives in Washington, D.C., now consults with civic and corporate groups on racial equality. As human beings, we have a need for this. We don’t honor or recognize it enough.

It makes me wonder if Wellstone is like Obi-Wan Kenneobi, whose ending marks the beginning of something greater. Hodges states, “You know what, I am so thankful for all the goodness that has come after Paul’s passing.” However, I cannot honestly say that I would trade any of this for Paul’s death.

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