On October 25, 2002, a plane carrying Senator Paul Wellstone; his wife, Sheila; their daughter, Marcia; and five others went down near Eveleth, killing everyone on board. Minnesota, indeed the country, would never be the same.
(page 3 of 5)
VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Karl Rove had told Republicans to run on the war; “Make the war the test of your opponents’ Americanism,” or something like that. That was used all over the country. Democrats were not ready for it.
JEFF BLODGETT (former Wellstone campaign director): When the resolution on Iraq was coming to a vote, there was a lot of anxiety among the political types around Paul—I’m talking about myself, among others. It was a very close election; we were getting attacked, Norm Coleman was running ads on Paul’s defense votes. The conventional wisdom was to give the president the vote and get back to other things.
RICK KAHN: Paul had told me, “If I lose the election over this vote, I’m prepared to do it.” Because this actually was life and death. People were going to die because of a political gambit.
After that vote, people seemed to be reminded one more time that this is what this guy gives us: the only senator up for reelection to stick to his principles. Think about that. He built a clear lead in the polls that didn’t diminish until the day he died. It gave him some breathing room to focus on other things.
JOSH SYRJAMAKI (former Wellstone aide): Paul was not a fan of flying. He had anxiety about it. Yet he wanted to be everywhere, connecting with folks, and still come home for dinner with Sheila. So we would fly to two, three, four places in a day. But he didn’t enjoy it.
I’d made that flight to Eveleth with him before—with that pilot, into that airport—many, many times. On the evening of October 25, he was supposed to have a debate in Duluth and then go do a big rally in St. Paul with Josh Hartnett. Semisonic was going to play. But he wanted to go to this funeral on the Range [for the father of former state representative Tom Rukavina]. It was just something he felt compelled to do.
RICK KAHN: The way Paul talked about the Iron Range, he said it was like a religious experience. He didn’t mean that in a smart-aleck way. He felt such a bond with those people. So it was just like, “Can we fit this into the schedule?”
JOSH SYRJAMAKI: I was in the headquarters with Jeff Blodgett when Lisa Pattni, our staffer in northern Minnesota, called from the Eveleth airport and said, “The plane is not here.” The plane was missing.
MARCIA AVNER: I was working by then at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, right across the street from Paul’s headquarters, and a colleague yelled that MPR had announced that a plane leased by the Wellstone campaign was in trouble. That was the word they used: trouble. I went across the street and told Jeff Blodgett, “Get priests and rabbis.”
DAVID WELLSTONE: I was having breakfast that morning in St. Paul, close to the campaign office, when I got word. I went over to the office and then I actually headed up to the crash site. I could see the smoke on the horizon. I was there through the early evening.
I think my brother would agree with me on this: having our parents die together was the way it should have been. I don’t know how one would have gone on without the other. They were lovebirds to the end.
“SOME WAY TO HONOR HIM”
CONNIE LEWIS: The things that people left by the headquarters—letters, flowers, poems—they went all the way down the block. Little things by all kinds of people. To me it was just like, This is the people’s senator. They came to find some way to honor him.
MARCIA AVNER: By the time that wall of flowers went up, Jeff Blodgett turned to me and said, “We have to give people a place to go.” The capitol was the logical place. I’d guess there were 7,000, maybe 10,000 people there that night. No political speakers, only clergy. Paul’s driver brought the green bus around. People started to sing. There were veterans in full regalia. They covered the green bus in candles.
VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: A couple days later, Jeff Blodgett and the two Wellstone sons came over to see me. They asked me to run in order to keep Paul’s voice being heard in Washington.
I agreed to do it and here’s why: there was basically a week left. And while a lot of good people could have built up a name and made a race out of it if this had happened sooner in the campaign, there simply wasn’t time. I already had the name.
For three or four days, I didn’t feel right about campaigning. This was a time to mourn. Paul was gone. There was a lot of depression and despair. It was hard to get momentum.
DAVID WELLSTONE: I asked Walter to run. My brother and I were in shock, but it just seemed like the thing to do.
I don’t know why people turned away from the campaign. There was just a general letdown, you know? People wanted to vote for Paul Wellstone and Wellstone wasn’t on the ticket. I don’t think it had anything to do with the memorial service.