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.
Ten years after their death, there are at least nine books about Paul and Sheila Wellstone, five films and plays, two schools named for them, 11 awards, one song (“The Ballad of Paul and Sheila” by Mason Jennings), and a handful of conspiracy websites. Wellstone Action, based in St. Paul, continues to run Camp Wellstone, the weekend seminar that has drilled Paul’s winning ways into 500 successful candidates and 50,000 activists in all 50 states—the largest program of its kind. The Wellstones are sainted ghosts now, beatified beacons from an earlier, more equitable era.
Paul had been a senator for just two terms when he died. His signature work, the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act, requiring equal insurance coverage for mental and physical illnesses, had to be posthumously pushed through Congress. And yet, next to Kirby Puckett, he may have been the most charismatic, most beloved Minnesotan of his time. Just five-foot-five (the smallest man in the U.S. Senate), he had an outsized reputation: fast-talking Paul, the irascible wrestler, the principled populist—the only senator up for re-election who voted against going to war in Iraq. It would be his last major vote: two weeks later, he was dead.
The raucous memorial service, broadcast on television and radio across the country, echoed through the nation’s growing political divide. Norm Coleman would beat Paul’s replacement, former vice president Walter Mondale. There would be no more obstacles to war.
Yet in the end this is a love story: Paul in love with Minnesota, where he moved in 1969 to teach at Carleton College; in love with Sheila, whom he married at 19; in love with the little guy, the average Joe. Here, after one decade, two wars, and a global recession, the Wellstones’ family and friends reflect on their love, legacy, and that fateful final year.
“This Burning Feeling”
RICK KAHN (family friend): Paul started teaching at Carleton in the fall of 1969, my freshman year there. By the next year, I was basically a Paul Wellstone major—I took every class he taught. By the end of my third year, we were best friends.
Paul had never talked about running for office then. But the two of us would knock on doors together, organizing low-income people, and there was this one woman who invited us in. She had eight kids and couldn’t have been over 38. Just defeated by life. This is America, the land of opportunity, the land of dreams, and she had none. We both came out of there with this burning feeling, saying, “If we have to spend the rest of our lives doing this work, it’s worth it.”
BEN GOLDFARB (director, Wellstone Action): Plenty of people just want to be right. Paul wanted to be sure that he was actually going to change things. And once he decided he needed to run for office to do that, he was focused on being right and winning. He didn’t just want to be a gadfly.
DAVID WELLSTONE (eldest son): When my dad began campaigning, he would run the parade routes from side to side, sweating profusely. People thought, Geez, if he’s got that kind of energy…. That’s just how he was. I ran cross-country and my dad would run alongside the course—the whole way. I’d be 300 yards from the leader and he’d be there saying, “You can take this guy!” And wouldn’t you know, I’d do it.
SENATOR AL FRANKEN: Have you seen my impression of Paul ordering breakfast? “Ireallywantthattoast! That’sgreattoast! Givemethosescrambledeggs! Ilove’em!” His energy was amazing.
Did I ever wrestle Paul? Let me put it this way: Paul is in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. I’m not. I could stand to lose, oh, maybe five pounds. Paul was incredibly buff, wore those very tight T-shirts.
CONNIE LEWIS (former Wellstone Senate director): Wrestling was really important to him. Every March, during the state wrestling tournament, the calendar would have to be cleared for him to be there. He would watch and talk to people—he was kind of a cheerleader.
On Friday nights, it was often my job to pick up Paul at the airport when he got back from Washington. He’d just be exhausted. I’d go over the weekend schedule and he’d say, “You’re killing me!” But at the end of the weekend, he’d say, “I’ve got to do more of these events, I got to see so many people!” He was probably the most extroverted person I’ve ever known.
DAVID WELLSTONE: Some people didn’t really like him. You could see that along the parade routes, the pockets that were for or against him. My dad didn’t care. He’d cross over and talk to them just the same—he wasn’t fazed. And they seemed to appreciate that. I’d see it time and again. They were like, I don’t agree with you, but I respect you. And they would vote for him.
MARY LOFY (family friend): There were no airs about either Paul or Sheila. Even after Paul was in Washington, my husband and I would see them there and they’d take us out to dinner and it’d be this little restaurant in a strip mall. They liked it because, in today’s terms, it represented the 99-percent, though they would never say that. Another time, in Minneapolis, Paul had been out for a run and wanted to go to breakfast—he showed up in running shorts and a muscle shirt. It had never occurred to him why he shouldn’t.
DAVID WELLSTONE: When he first got to the Senate, my dad didn’t quite understand how to be taken seriously. If you remember, in 1991, he was standing in a reception line for newly elected members of Congress and George H.W. Bush comes along and my dad tells him to spend more time on education and less on the Gulf War—Bush looks around and says, “Who is this chickenshit?”
SENATOR AL FRANKEN: There’s no question that he started out spectacularly bad, and then recovered pretty quickly. He did the right thing, trying to pick issues that aren’t partisan, like veteran’s issues—it’s not a Republican or Democratic issue, it’s just about what we can do to make sure these people are returning and getting proper healthcare.
MARCIA AVNER (former Wellstone communications director): We wanted to use Paul’s time as purposefully as possible, so we did a fair amount of work with Sheila, too. Paul and Sheila were high-school sweethearts. She showed me once where they went to high school in Virginia and Lover’s Lane where they would sit in the car. They didn’t always agree but they had fun sorting it out.
Sheila had her own people she worked with, even in other senators’ offices, particularly on domestic violence. And Joe Biden [who introduced the Violence Against Women Act in the Senate] was so happy to have her doing it. He said that Sheila had done more on this issue than any member of the Senate and that in getting Paul he’d gotten a two-for-one.
That came in handy sometimes. Do you remember the Barbara Carlson Show on KSTP-AM, where she would interview guests in her hot tub? Now put yourself in the shoes of a press director—Paul’s not getting in the hot tub with Barbara. But I asked Sheila if she’d do it and she agreed. So I made up this long list of notes for the producer: can’t talk about their personal life, etc. I was worried. To my surprise, Barbara goes on the air and announces that she has been both a victim and a perpetrator of violence, saying, “This is the most important issue we face.” I wish I had a tape of that.
MARY LOFY: They held hands all the time—they were bound together. Any stories you hear about that sort of thing, it’s not exaggerated, it was real.
DAVID WELLSTONE: They were married for 39 years. And there were moments in the middle when times were tough. But at the very end, they were as much in love as I’d ever seen them. They loved doing what they were doing. They’d found their groove.
“THE PLANE IS NOT HERE”
MARY LOFY: Paul had said early on that he wouldn’t run a third time. Of course, it was not a wise thing to say—it’s the kind of thing a non-elected official says. But he really agonized over running again.
RICK KAHN: When he did announce a third campaign, he was resolute but it wasn’t a happy moment. It was just like, “The work isn’t finished.”
CONNIE LEWIS: This was after 9/11 and there was a lot of focus on defense and national security—things that were not the heart and soul of Paul’s work, which was education, healthcare, jobs. It was kind of a new environment for him.
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.
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.
RICK KAHN: Tim Walz, running for office in 2006, asked if we could sit down and talk. We did, and we became very close friends.
I’ll tell you a story: the day before the second anniversary of the crash, in 2004, I went with Marcia’s husband to the site where the plane went down. He had told me that he’d retrieved small pieces of the plane that were still there. So we drove up together. The site where the plane went down is pretty inaccessible. It’s in a bog—you take a step and you’re up to your knees in mud. The government did a very thorough review of the circumstances and had removed the debris, but they didn’t scour the site. And sure enough, there were still some pieces there. I collected some, Marcia’s husband collected some more. So I had these pieces.
Fast forward to 2006. It’s four months before the election and I’m at an event with Tim Walz. We’re standing outside, just the two of us, and I hand him a small piece of the plane. I say to him, “This comes with a mandate: somehow, some way, you make this a part of something that flies again.” He used it as a good-luck charm for the balance of the campaign and he was carrying it in his pocket when he was sworn into Congress.
TIM WALZ: I hear Wellstone’s name all the time now in Washington. And almost exclusively it’s in reference to the potential of working together—how [the late Senator] Strom Thurmond and Paul Wellstone could be polar opposites ideologically but still came together for the good of the country; that this division ripping the country apart doesn’t have to be that way. And the example they often use is Paul Wellstone.
RICK KAHN: When that day comes, as it inevitably will, when people ask, “Who’s the Wellstone in Wellstone Action?” I won’t be sad. It’s not important that everyone understands that history. What’s important is that you’re learning something that’s going to help you change the world.
My favorite moment from Paul’s last campaign was, I believe, Paul’s as well. It was July. Paul was in the headquarters, sitting at the end of this big conference-room table surrounded by this huge group of young volunteers. He went around the room and asked everyone, “Why are you doing this? Why does this matter to you?” And he had such a big smile on his face, like, these people are the future; they will carry on and do amazing things. He had this look, and I knew what he was thinking without him having to say the words: What a great world we live in.
The Son Also Rises
David Wellstone comes home
When it was all over—the memorial service, the investigation, the eventual settlement with the charter-plane service ($25 million for the wrongful deaths of the six passengers)—the Wellstone sons, Mark and David, fled the spotlight.
Mark, the younger, who had shouted, “We will win! We will win!” at the memorial, moved to Colorado. David moved to northern California, built a retreat in the redwoods not far from the Pacific Ocean, and began working with Rep. Jim Ramstad among others to pass his father’s mental-health parity bill. This fall, having acquired a duplex in the Dale-Grand neighborhood of St. Paul, he’s back.
“It’s perfect timing,” David says. “My son’s at Sonoma State University, I’m an empty-nester.” He’s also written a book, out this month: Becoming Wellstone: Healing From Tragedy and Carrying on My Father’s Legacy (Hazelden, $15). It’s the first family memoir, an intimate reflection on his father’s advice to “Think for yourself, don’t just go around with the crowd.”
It might seem like the first step toward running for office, but David says only that he’ll keep advocating for mental-health issues and working with Wellstone Action, on University Avenue, now just a few memory-soaked miles from home.