MPSHome Alumni Calendar Contact MyMPS
Who was Paul Wellstone?
requested_02.jpg
Paul Wellstone
04/21/2004

Paul David Wellstone was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, born in 1944 and raised in Arlington, Virginia. His mother was a cafeteria worker and his father was a writer and federal employee. His father left Russia shortly before the 1917 Stalinist purges took the lives of Paul’s grandparents. Both parents instilled in their son a commitment to justice and civic activism.

At an early age, Wellstone displayed the intensity and passion that would come to define his career. A head shorter than most of the other kids, he channeled his energies into the sport of wrestling and into his studies. By the end of high school, he had become a star wrestler, accomplished cross-country runner, and top student.

He had also fallen in love. At sixteen, Paul met Sheila Ison at a beach on the Maryland shore. They dated during their final year of high school and went on to attend different colleges. He was accepted to the University of North Carolina, where he joined the wrestling team, and she enrolled at the University of Kentucky. But by the end of their first year of college, they no longer wanted to live apart. They were married in summer of 1963, and Sheila moved to North Carolina.

That fall, Paul and Sheila Wellstone settled into a 39-year marriage. Paul took on a rigorous schedule of academics and athletics. In his second and final wrestling season, he went undefeated for the second year in a row, and won the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) championship. The following year, he graduated from North Carolina (after only three years), and Sheila gave birth to the first of their three children. Paul had become a champion wrestler, husband, father, and college graduate. He was twenty years old.

Wellstone went on to complete his PhD in political science from North Carolina and, at age 24, accepted a teaching position at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. As a professor, Wellstone focused on questions of economic justice and poverty, and began engaging in local community organizing projects in rural areas. “It was clear,” wrote one of his friends and former colleagues, “that he was less concerned about academic political science than about political science directly serving people’s needs.”

At Carleton, Wellstone immersed himself in campus activism by organizing protests, criticizing the school’s administration for its ties to corporate interests, and speaking out on issues affecting the community. He created controversy within the faculty and administration for his unorthodox style, but is remembered as a passionate professor with an uncommon ability to relate to students. His students became deeply involved in his organizing efforts, and many went on to careers in political and organizing work, including several who served as his top campaign and Senate aides.

Throughout his career, Wellstone led various campaigns for causes he supported – on behalf of farmers, laborers, the rural poor, and the environment. In the process, he gained a reputation as a persuasive and powerful speaker who was not afraid to stand up for his beliefs. In time, he began to consider ways to contest for power by running for office.

In 1982, Wellstone ran for state auditor, an office for which he was admittedly ill-suited, since he had little interest in state budgetary matters. Despite attracting media attention for his charisma and powerful speaking ability, he lost the race to his incumbent opponent by nine percentage points.

Despite the setback, Wellstone would have another opportunity to run for statewide office seven years later, when he announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate. Virtually unknown to Minnesota voters, but with a loyal following built up during his years as an organizer, he knew that the only way he could win was to apply his organizing skills to the campaign. That meant going directly to voters, by doorknocking, making phone calls, traveling across the state and meeting with people. Although he had virtually no money, a mostly volunteer staff, and little name recognition, his well-organized campaign captured the Democratic Party nomination.

Wellstone then went on to face a popular incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz, in the general election. He ran on a bold agenda – universal health care, economic security, environmental protection, and campaign finance reform – and was unafraid to stand up for his beliefs. Written off by political pundits and even members of his own party, he was given virtually no chance to win.

But Wellstone was undaunted. Campaigning across Minnesota on the rickety green bus that became the symbol of his low-budget, grassroots campaign, he took his message directly to voters. He caught people’s attention with a series of humorous, low-budget television advertisements and a campaign message focused on kitchen table economic issues. The strategy worked. Outspent seven to one, Wellstone stunned political observers by defeating Boschwitz in the fall election, becoming the only challenger to defeat an incumbent in 1990. He went on to soundly defeat Boschwitz again in a rematch in 1996.

As senator, Wellstone was an outspoken advocate for his priorities. He was a constant presence on the floor of the Senate, engaging in debate, pushing for or blocking legislation, and forging alliances with senators of both parties. During his first term, he wrote and passed sweeping reform legislation to ban gifts from lobbyists to senators and limit the influence of special interests. In his second term, he won important victories in the areas of health care reform, economic security, environmental protection, and children’s issues. He developed a national reputation for his work with veterans and mental health advocates, and was recognized as one of the most effective members of Congress.

Despite his unapologetic advocacy of a progressive agenda, Wellstone was popular with his colleagues. Engaging and funny, he was described by one journalist as “one of the capital’s most beloved politicians.” Recalling his disarming demeanor, one of his colleagues said, “It was impossible not to like Paul Wellstone,” and even the Senate’s most fervent conservatives, Senator Jesse Helms, called Wellstone a friend.

In 2002, Wellstone sought a third term to the Senate, and was targeted by the White House’s political operation as a top target for defeat. Despite taking a politically unpopular vote against the impending war in Iraq, polls showed him with a solid lead going into the final two weeks of the campaign. Then on October 25, 2002, Paul and Sheila, their daughter Marcia and three campaign staffers – Tom Lapic, Will McLaughlin, and Mary McEvoy – were traveling to campaign events in northern Minnesota when their plane crashed near the Eveleth airport. There were no survivors. Paul and Sheila Wellstone are survived by their two sons, Mark and David.