A Tribute to Paul Wellstone

by Larry McDonough

I had known Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone for 20 years.

We met through our involvement with MPIRG, a Ralph Nader-organized and student-directed public interest group. When I started work at a rural legal aid office representing low-income farmers, Paul was working to organize farmers to push for a minimum price like the minimum wage. My roommate at the time was Jeff Blodgett, a farm organizer and former Wellstone student, who would later become Paul’s manager for all three campaigns.

Paul was a champion of my community of legal aid workers for the poor, and the many communities of low-income people we serve. Many people talk in churches, schools, or social settings about lending a hand to the poor, disenfranchised, and oppressed. They wonder why there isn’t someone there for the little guy. They think about it while watching “A Christmas Carol,” waiting for Scrooge to become the better person he is capable of being.

Not nearly enough work towards this principle on a daily basis, let alone consider it in the voting booth. Others even reject it. Paul and Sheila Wellstone worked on it with every moment of their time and with every ounce of their energy. In doing so they were not unique among citizens. There are many who have devoted their lives to the public interest. But they were unique among national leaders not only in their desire to serve those all but forgotten, but to make it a priority.

He was for many things, but was not afraid to oppose what would harm the most defenseless, whether they were here, around the country, or around the world. He got so much done, but often for those who are invisible to many: the poor, disabled, victims of violence, immigrants, religious, racial and social minority groups, small business owners, and small farmers. I knew that when my youngest daughter Rosie was born with physical and mental disabilities, Paul would be there for her. He received support from around the country because so many people do not have a voice in their representatives. Paul was the voice for Minnesota and the world we live in.

Paul and Sheila also had a unique marriage and partnership. His causes were hers, and her causes were his. Even among politicians whom I liked, I often liked their spouses more. I think of Eleanor Roosevelt. With Paul and Sheila, I loved them both.

When Paul first ran for the senate, I thought his chances of winning were slim. He was taking on a popular and folksy two term incumbent Republican. But if I did not work on his campaign, how could I ever complain about the lack of assistance to and empathy for the poor? When he won, I thought that it was a fluke, but he would make the best of his time. I was wrong about the former, but not the latter.

I volunteered on each of his campaigns, and played jazz piano for many of his fund-raisers. I visited whenever I could. We would talk about the concerns of the low income tenants I represent at Legal Aid, the issues of the day, and our families. He always made time for me.

Having said all of this, you might think that I was one of their best friends. I was not, but Paul and Sheila made me feel like I was. They both remembered so much about my family in between our meetings, and they took such pride in our accomplishments. When my daughter Shannon invited Paul to a band concert, he wrote back. Paul even called from an airport when he saw I was the focus of a newspaper article. These last few days I learned that so many other people had similar experiences. Perhaps everyone they touched were among their best friends.

In 1968, at age 12, I was old enough to be aware of the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, but not old or aware enough to fully comprehend how their deaths touched so many people. While I came to understand it over time, I did not “feel” it until now.

My 16-year-old daughter Kelsey also feels it. Working on her first campaign, she will not be able to work on another for him. When she was four years old, she thought Paul owned the color green. She called me from school when she heard of the plane crash, and we cried together on the phone. She has never known a time when Paul was not her senator, and he is the standard against which she and her friends measure politicians. That alone is a great legacy, leaving me with a sense of optimism in the midst of dark times.

So how do we remember Paul and Sheila, their daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson, campaign workers Mary McEvoy, Tom Lapic, and William McLaughlin, and pilots Richard Conroy and Michael Guess? Lend a hand to someone in need, give time and money to organizations who do the same, and work and vote for candidates who want the same.