A Reminder of the Recent Past From a Member of the DNC

The former mayor of Minneapolis just gave a stirring defense of Hillary Clinton.

Over the last year, whenever the topic of conversation is the Democratic National Committee, the name that comes up is Debbie Wasserman Schultz. She’s been a controversial chair person. But it has surprised me how little we talk about the rest of the leadership at the DNC. I think about that because I happen to know one of the vice-chairs, R.T. Rybak. He is the former mayor of Minneapolis and has just been named as the next president of the Minneapolis Foundation.

Rybak is the first mayor to serve on the DNC executive committee and was probably chosen for that position because he takes a certain amount of delight in suggesting that he is the one who convinced Barack Obama to run for president. Rybak has a history of backing “insurgent” candidates, demonstrated by the fact that he not only started a “Draft Obama” campaign way back in 2007, he was the Minnesota state chair of the Howard Dean campaign. When the controversy broke last fall about the Democratic presidential debates, leading to the resignation of Tulsi Gabbard as vice-chair, Rybak is the one member of the DNC who spoke out.

I provide you with that background because – as a member of the DNC – Rybak has not endorsed a candidate in this 2016 presidential primary. But over the weekend, he was asked to be the speaker at the Vermont Democratic Party’s annual dinner (obviously Sanders territory). He posted the speech he wrote with his son Charlie on Facebook. It struck me as an important message that a lot of people should hear as this primary season comes to an end. Here are some excerpts to give you an idea about his message that night.

I want to talk to you about someone who changed the course of American politics.

He was a United States Senator but he was a little scary to a lot of people. Passionate rhetoric. Wild hair. He made the comfortable very uncomfortable with his tough stands on reform of an economic system that was leaving too many people behind.

The name of that Senator was Paul Wellstone. He was MY senator, a true hero and when he died in a plane crash a little bit of all of us died with him.

We lost Paul Wellstone but his work is very much alive today. After he died loyal followers started Wellstone Action, which has now trained hundreds of activists who hold political offices around the country. They practice his grassroots tactics but, even more important, his core value that “We all do better when we all do better.” Paul Wellsone’s impact is felt across this country every single day.

I want to tell you about another Senator who changed the course of American politics.

He ran for President on an unapologetic progressive agenda and built a young, loyal following. But when he got to the convention he didn’t have enough votes. His supporters were heartbroken and dejected but he didn’t give up. He started a reform movement in the Democratic Party, changed the rules to open the doors to more women, people of color and young, new voters. Four years later a far more democratic Democratic Party held it’s convention and this time the nominee was that progressive reformer, Senator George McGovern. His campaign manager Gary Hart, would later run himself, again challenging the status quo.

I want to tell you about a great political leader who changed the course of American politics.

He came from right here in Vermont and he started out as a long shot running for President. He was quickly dismissed because people said he couldn’t compete with establishment politicians who could raise huge sums from special interests. He proved them wrong by building an astonishing network of small donors. He didn’t need super pacs or special interest money. His donors gave 50 bucks, 25, 10, even five, but it added up to millions, and he reformed the way we think about political fundraising.

That reformer from Vermont was Howard Dean. I was an early and passionate supporter, and when he lost we were crushed. But the Dean campaign’s pioneering grassroots fundraising efforts were the model, only four years later, that helped Barack Obama, improbably, become President of the United States.

Wellstone, McGovern, Hart, Dean: They were true heroes to me and losing those elections, and, in the case of Wellstone, that life, left me devastated. But I’m not talking about them because they are part of our history, or mine. I’m not nominating them for some Mt. Rushmore of Grassroots Politics. I’m talking about them because echoes of their campaigns are very much heard today…

The Wellstone, McGovern, Hart and Dean campaigns reverberated for years but not because they depended on people reading history books and Googling “grassroots politics.” It took passionate supporters who faced a crushing loss turning their disappointment into action…

I want to finish by talking about one more political leader. Her name is Hillary Clinton.

I didn’t start out as a true believer. I was the first Mayor in the country to endorse Barack Obama and I spent a lot of time campaigning against her in 2008. But I gained tremendous respect for Hillary Clinton as she picked herself up after that defeat, embraced her opponent for the good of the country and went on to become a Secretary of State who made this a safer world. I looked back over the course of her career, starting as a college student willing to disrupt the status quo, including decades of work, often not noticed, fighting for the most vulnerable people in our country. I thought about decades working for children and health care. And I saw her, hour after hour after hour, face down hostile Republicans at the Benghazi hearings, just like she has stood up to zealots for decades. She didn’t flinch, she didn’t buckle. No matter what they threw at her she kept moving forward. I thought that if anyone can smash that glass ceiling so my daughter can be seen as a true equal, fully capable to lead anything she wants, including this country, THIS is the woman to do it…

Sanders, Clinton, Wellstone, McGovern, Dean, Obama: Democrats have a lot to be proud of but in the end it is not about the people whose names we know, but those who go unnoticed:

The idealistic young person terrified of their future because of crushing college debt.

The immigrants in the shadows who prays we will be the America of the Statue of Liberty, not the America of Trump’s Wall.

The laid off factory worker who desperately needs our help to get training for a new career.

The gay couple who kept their love secret for years until DEMOCRATS gave them the right to marry—and, who in the wake of Orlando, wonder if they can still hold hands in public. They can, today and tomorrow, because they know they will ALWAYS have Democrats on their side.

That is R.T. Rybak’s take on the recent history of liberalism in this country. Unlike Republicans, Democrats would do well to remember, rather than pretend to forget.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.