Five years after his death, Wellstone still inspiresby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
Five years ago today a plane carrying DFL Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife Sheila, their daughter, and five other people crashed into the woods in northeastern Minnesota. All eight were killed, and Minnesota politics was thrown into chaos just days before the election.
Since Wellstone's death he's been remembered in big and small ways. Supporters say rather than fading, Wellstone's legacy is growing stronger. And some DFLers say they can hardly wait for next year's election, and the chance to win back what they consider Wellstone's seat from Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.
St. Paul, Minn. — Even five years later, it's evident many people still grieve the loss of Paul Wellstone. The green and white lawn signs are gone, but the t-shirts and bumper stickers are still around.
So too is a small, wooden bench alongside Ashland Ave. in St. Paul, outside the home of Steve Heitzig and Gwen Pappas. There's a card on the seat of the worn bench, with a picture of Wellstone smiling and a Wellstone quote about social justice.
"I walk by here maybe five to six times a week," said Mary Oberg, who lives just down the street.
Oberg quietly admits she was not a fan of Wellstone's politics. Still, she says she's happy to see the bench.
"It's just part of Ashland Avenue," Oberg said. "I think it's a nice way of paying tribute to Paul Wellstone. It shows respect, and that's what's lacking in the world today is a lot of respect for others."
Since the Wellstones died, communities have named schools in their honor. Awards have been given in their name. People have written books and music and documentaries about them.
But some of those closest to Wellstone say, more than anything, his legacy lives on in Wellstone Action. That's the nonprofit group formed by his political allies less than a year after the plane crash.
"I think, to some extent, we were at the right place at the right time," said Jeff Blodgett, who ran all three of Wellstone's Senate campaigns. He is now the executive director of Wellstone Action.
"Even though our organization grew out of a tragedy, it was also a time when a lot of people were looking for a way for people to get involved in politics, and start being active running for office working on their issues," Blodgett said. "So there's been a resurgence in activism, I think, and we've been a place where people can go to get the skills to be effective."
The flagship program of Wellstone Action is called "Camp Wellstone." It's an intensive political organizing seminar that trains aspiring politicians and activists.
Participants can focus on organizing around an issue, they can learn how to be strong candidates, or they can zero in on behind-the-scenes campaign techniques. The seminars have been held in 38 states.
"The grassroots education and training that they put us through in two and a half days was incredible," said Arizona State Sen. Paula Aboud, a Democrat.
Aboud is one of more than 7,000 Camp Wellstone graduates. After being appointed to the state Senate in Arizona, Aboud knew she would face a tough re-election campaign. She said that's why she and her campaign manager enrolled in a Camp Wellstone. She's certain that without the training she would not be in the Senate.
"All across the country, people that did not know Paul Wellstone personally lived by a code and an ethics of our own, and Paul represented that code and ethics for us," she said. "He became the standard bearer, whether he wanted to or not. Now we're carrying that banner, not for Paul, but really for the good of our country and the well-being of our communities."
Minnesota State Rep. Patti Fritz, DFL-Faribault, is another Camp Wellstone graduate. Fritz knew Paul Wellstone long before his Senate days. More than 30 years ago, Wellstone helped her and some others raise awareness about poverty in southern Minnesota.
Fritz says the skills she learned at Camp Wellstone reminded her of Wellstone's approach during that anti-poverty campaign in Rice County.
"He wanted that to grow -- the movement to grow -- but he wanted the people to do it," Fritz said. "He did not want to lead it and he didn't want to be the guru of it all. He handed it over."
Like many Democrats, Fritz said five years later she still grieves the loss of the Wellstones. And she predicted a groundswell of DFL activism going into the November 2008 election to win back the Senate seat now occupied by Republican Norm Coleman.
"It's like the fire's been burning in us, and now it's just glowing and growing in us," said Fritz. "We can't wait to fight for that seat."
Coleman said he expects a tough re-election campaign. But he said in a split state like Minnesota, neither Republicans nor Democrats can take anything for granted.
Coleman predicts the 2008 race will be a high-profile battle, just as the 2002 campaign was. But Coleman said he doubts most voters will be motivated by anger.
"If people look for leadership and look for the ability to get things done, then I've got a pretty good chance to keep doing what I'm doing," Coleman said "As I've said before, I consider myself blessed to be representing Minnesota in the United States Senate, and I'd like to get doing it, and the voters ultimately -- they'll have their say."
University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs said Democrats may not need much extra motivation next year, given their anger with the Bush administration over the war and other issues. He said if DFLers choose to play up the Wellstone angle, it could easily backfire on them.
"The Wellstone legacy could very well alienate the independent and swing voter who might see this homage to Paul Wellstone as kind of stuck in the past," Jacobs said. "So it could end up hurting the DFL candidate, particularly in the general election campaign, when the candidate tries to broaden their message and appeal to those swing voters."
But Jacobs said if DFL activists are able to draw energy from their goal to win back Wellstone's seat without making the late senator a centerpiece of the campaign, their grassroots work could significantly help the DFL candidate.
- Morning Edition, 10/25/2007, 7:20 a.m.