Senator Paul Wellstone
Senator Paul Wellstone speaking at WTO Week People's Gala in 1999. Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

I get pretty emotional on this day every year. That’s because it is the 15th anniversary of the day Paul and Sheila Wellstone were killed in a plane crash. It’s one of those events so seared in your consciousness that you will forever remember where you were and what you were doing when the news broke. I was eating lunch in the break-room at work and had to retire to my office because I was so overwhelmed with grief.

After that horrible day, a bumper sticker started showing up on cars around Minnesota. It read: “What Would Wellstone Do?” That might sound a bit like hagiography, but it was a constant reminder to check ourselves, because the one word that would forever be associated with Paul and Sheila Wellstone was “integrity.”

Given our current political climate, I thought that one way to honor their memory would be to ask that question today. I’m not going to pretend to be able to divine what Paul and Sheila would do specifically. But perhaps it would be instructive to offer a few reminders of what they did do with their lives.

I first came in contact with Paul Wellstone when I did some volunteering for the Jessie Jackson presidential campaign. Did you know that he was the Minnesota chair for Jackson ’88? He not only stood behind the first viable African American presidential candidate, he made a name for himself by critiquing the way the Democratic Party was growing increasingly dependent on big donors. Even so, I remember that he got in a bit of trouble with the Minnesota pearl clutchers for dancing a jig on stage at the Democratic gathering when it was announced that Bill Clinton won the 1992 election. They thought it was unseemly for a sitting Senator to dance a jig on stage. Go figure.

In 1990, Wellstone decided to run for the Senate against a wealthy business owner and Republican incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz. It was an uphill race all the way and Wellstone didn’t have access to the kind of big donors backing his opponent. Instead, he put together a grassroots campaign that brought in farmers, laborers, people of color, and immigrants. If anyone ever wanted a template about how to speak to the issues that galvanize both white working class voters and people of color, you need look no further than the campaigns of Paul Wellstone. When people say that the system is rigged I always think, “no, we just need more candidates like Wellstone.”

When he got to the Senate, Wellstone showed that he could work across the aisle. He and the late Sen. Pete Dominici (R-NM) worked together for years on legislation that would provide parity in the treatment of mental illness and chemical dependency. The final version of those efforts was passed after his death in 2008, and is named the “Paul Wellstone and Pete Dominici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act.”

Sheila Wellstone was the introvert behind the extrovert. But she had a passion. It was demonstrated by her tireless commitment to passing the Violence Against Women Act. Perhaps some of you will remember that Al Franken (who has dedicated his Senate career to continuing the work of the Wellstones) got emotional on the Senate floor when talking about Sheila’s work.

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Paul Wellstone wasn’t perfect. In 1996 he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, something he regretted later. He wrote about that in his book, The Conscience of a Liberal.

I might have rationalized my vote by making myself believe that my honest position was opposition. This vote was an obvious trap for a senator like me, who was up for re-election. Did I convince myself that I could gleefully deny Republicans this opportunity?…

When Sheila and I attended a Minnesota memorial service for Matthew Shepard, I thought to myself, “Have I taken a position that contributed to a climate of hatred?…if you deny people who are in a stable, loving relationship the right to marry, do you deny them their humanity?

In 2002, Wellstone was once again in the position to vote on something that could have affected his chance of being re-elected. He took a stand that time and voted against the Authorization For the Use of Military Force Against Iraq. He was one of only 23 senators to do so. Nine days later he was killed in that plane crash. So we’ll never know whether or not he would have paid a price for that vote.

That is just a bit of the history of Paul and Sheila Wellstone. We can’t, however, forget that it was all undergirded with a unique combination of both passion and joy. Anyone who ever met them is aware of how much they loved interacting with people and never assumed airs that somehow they were above it all.

Does that give you any clues to answer the question, “What would Wellstone do?” In case it doesn’t, this should:

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Based on what we all know about Paul Wellstone, he would be telling us to “organize, mobilize, get your power back!”

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