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 4 of 5)
MARCIA AVNER: To me, that night at the capitol was the genuine memorial service, people just spontaneously coming to that place. I hate that people go back to the formal memorial at the U, which was misinterpreted. Yes, it could have gone better. People who are grieving should not be in charge of these things. But Tom Lapic, who typically vetted all speeches on Paul’s behalf, was dead.
MARY LOFY: People had been waiting at Williams Arena for a long time, lines around the block. And when things finally got started, all that pent-up grief finally came out—they’d been waiting so long. “Stand up, keep fighting” just rose up out of that, a way for people to handle their grief.
SENATOR AL FRANKEN: I said at the time that reasonable people of goodwill could have been offended by the memorial service. But the idea that 20,000 people booed—that was repeated over and over again, but simply wasn’t the case.
RICK KAHN: You know, I’m not going to talk about it—the crash, the memorial, the immediate aftermath. And I’ll tell you why: you can dwell in your grief or you can find a path out of it and make some good happen.
I will tell you this: in the years right before the crash, Paul and I would meet at the gym and then go have breakfast. He was a devoted weightlifter, you know, because if it’s you against the world—if the other side is saying they’re going to destroy you—you need some stamina and strength. So he had taught me a weightlifting routine, and that’s what I did after his death: I went into the gym and started doing his routine. And when I really pushed myself to new levels, I knew I was feeling what he felt.
“A FUNDAMENTAL SHIFT”
VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: When Paul lost that election—when I lost that election—Bush was able to gain control of the Senate, so then he had the House, the Senate, the White House, and was even able to build a new kind of Supreme Court. So I think the loss of Paul was not just one senator—it became a kind of fundamental shift of government power, away from the things that Paul believed in.
To make government work, people have to believe that this is a government for the people of the people, as Lincoln said. That idea remains at the heart of freedom, of democracy. So if you can carpet-bomb these elections now with unlimited money, do we still have the system that our founders intended or do we have something else?
MARCIA AVNER: In that last campaign, Paul felt that the people he represented most keenly were losing ground, that they really needed someone fighting for them.
All of us who care about these issues of fairness and justice wish for his voice every day in the Senate.
CONNIE LEWIS: He was worried about money dominating things in Washington and he was dead-on right: now it’s just more and more and more. That would be terribly discouraging for him to see.
I have occasionally thought that if Paul were to come back, he’d look at us like, For Christ’s sake, how could you have let this happen?
RICK KAHN: Whenever I find myself thinking, If only Paul were here, I say to myself, Doesn’t that just mean that it’s up to us to carry on? Because he isn’t here.
I used to mark the anniversaries of the crash with my own assessment: is the world closer to or further away from what Paul and Sheila spent their lives working for? But I’ve changed my perspective on that over time. I no longer think that where we are right now is important. But if we have a sense of what’s possible and we believe in making it happen—someday—then that’s the great legacy of Paul and Sheila.
“MY DAD LEFT A BRAND”
MARY LOFY: Jeff Blodgett said early on, “We have to do something to carry on.” And Wellstone Action came out of that. It was started not quite a year later, in 2003.
JEFF BLODGETT: We picked up where Paul left off. In the camps, we talk a little bit about Paul, but it’s not a memorial organization, it’s about his approach. And frankly, his model of conviction politics is now everywhere: the first Obama campaign took a lot of stuff that Paul did and reproduced it on steroids.
DAVID WELLSTONE: My dad left a brand for sure. You take people who have really firm convictions, teach them the nuts and bolts of asking for money or organizing, and it’s just going to go on and on.
BEN GOLDFARB: The word “Wellstone” is an idea now that has a life of its own, even among people who never knew him. In D.C., you hear people say it all the time: “Wellstone,” “Wellstone,” “Wellstone.” It’s in the progressive-movement bloodstream.
SENATOR AL FRANKEN: After we lost and our party wasn’t holding the seat anymore, I started to think: I wonder who’s going to be the best person to fill this seat? I didn’t have any political ambitions before then.
It’s true that I was sworn in with my hand on the Wellstone family Bible. But I’m not Paul. I gotta be me. It’s the people of Minnesota’s Senate seat. Unless things come up like mental-health parity or the Violence Against Women Act, I don’t really bring that legacy up.
That said, there isn’t anyone I talk to in the Senate who doesn’t have really strong and fond memories of Paul; sometimes really personal, like the time that Paul was in the cloakroom and his back completely went out. They wanted to get him to the hospital and he just wanted Sheila. He said that Sheila would know how to take care of him. You remember that—they were a real love story.
CONGRESSMAN TIM WALZ (Camp Wellstone alum): Once I decided to run for Congress, I went to Camp Wellstone in January of 2005 to learn how to do it. I had no idea. I’d never given a stump speech before.
That was a big year for Camp Wellstone. Five of us in the candidate track went on to be elected. The guy sitting next to me looked like Keith Richards and was running for secretary of state—it was Mark Ritchie. I came out of it thinking, This is a noble profession. Politics doesn’t need to be a pejorative. I was the first federal candidate from Camp Wellstone to win office.