Paul David Wellstone (July 21, 1944 – October 25, 2002) was an American academic, author, and politician who represented Minnesota in the United States Senate from 1991 until he was killed in a plane crash in Eveleth, Minnesota, in 2002. A member of the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, Wellstone was a leader of the progressive wing of the national Democratic Party.
Born in Washington D.C., Wellstone attended high school in Arlington, Virginia, graduating from Yorktown High School. Wellstone then graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a B.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science. He was a professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and a community organizer in Rice County prior to entering public office. In 1982, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for State Auditor against Republican Arne Carlson.
Wellstone gained national attention after his upset victory over Republican incumbent Rudy Boschwitz in the 1990 US Senate election. Widely considered an underdog and outspent by a 7-to-1 margin, he was the only challenger in the country to defeat an incumbent senator in the 1990 cycle. In his 1996 reelection campaign, he defeated Boschwitz in a rematch. He won both Senate elections with 50.4% and 50.3% of the popular vote.
In 1999, Wellstone formed an exploratory committee to run for President of the United States in the 2000 election. After campaigning in the early primary states, he announced he would not seek the presidency because of sustained physical limitations from a college wrestling injury. His condition was later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. As Senator, Wellstone authored the Wellstone Amendment for the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. His efforts toward campaign finance reform were posthumously overturned in 2010 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Eleven days before the 2002 U.S. Senate election, Wellstone died in a plane crash in Eveleth, Minnesota. His wife, Sheila, and daughter, Marcia, also died on board. Wellstone's sons, David and Mark, were not on the flight, and until 2018 co-chaired the Wellstone Action nonprofit organization in honor of their parents. The organization was subsequently renamed Re:Power after their departure.
Background and education
Wellstone was born in Washington, D.C., the second son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants Leon and Minnie Wellstone. His father changed the family name from Wexelstein after encountering antisemitism during the 1930s. Raised in Arlington, Virginia, Wellstone attended Wakefield public schools and Yorktown High School, graduating in 1962.
Wellstone attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) on a wrestling scholarship. In college he was an undefeated Atlantic Coast Conference wrestling champion. After his freshman year, he married Sheila Ison Wellstone. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in political science in 1965, and was elected Phi Beta Kappa. In May 1969, Wellstone earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His doctoral dissertation on the roots of black militancy was titled "Black Militants in the Ghetto: Why They Believe in Violence".
Early career and activism
In August 1969, Wellstone accepted a tenure-track position at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he taught political science until his election to the Senate in 1990. During the 1970s and 1980s, he also began community organizing, working with the working poor and other politically disenfranchised communities. He founded the Organization for a Better Rice County, a group consisting mainly of single parents on welfare. The organization advocated for public housing, affordable health care, improved public education, free school lunches, and a publicly funded day care center. In 1978, he published his first book, How the Rural Poor Got Power: Narrative of a Grassroots Organizer, chronicling his work with the organization.
Wellstone was twice arrested during this period for civil disobedience. The Federal Bureau of Investigation began a case file on him after his arrest in May 1970 for protesting against the Vietnam War at the Federal Office Building in Minneapolis. In 1984 Wellstone was arrested again, for trespassing during a foreclosure protest at a bank.
Wellstone extended his activism to the Minnesota labor movement. In the summer of 1985, he walked the picket line with striking P-9ers during a labor dispute at the Hormel Meat Packing plant in Austin, Minnesota. The Minnesota National Guard was called in during the strike to ensure that Hormel could hire permanent replacement workers.
The trustees of Carleton College briefly fired Wellstone in the late 1970s for his activism and lack of academic publications. After his students held a sit-in, the trustees agreed to rehire him and provide him with tenure. Wellstone remains the youngest tenured faculty member in Carleton's history.
Early political career
Wellstone first sought public office in 1982. He received the Democratic nomination for Minnesota State Auditor after an impassioned speech at the state convention. In the general election he garnered 45% of the vote, losing to Republican incumbent, and future Minnesota Governor, Arne Carlson. Wellstone remained active in Democratic politics in the mid-1980s. He served as an elected committeeman for the Democratic National Committee in 1984, and in 1986 began a second campaign for State Auditor before dropping out to tend his mother's failing health. In 1988, Wellstone chaired Jesse Jackson's campaign for the presidency in Minnesota. After the primary, he co-chaired Michael Dukakis's campaign in the state.
U.S. Senate campaigns (1990–2002)
In 1990, Wellstone ran for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Rudy Boschwitz, beginning the race as a serious underdog. He narrowly won the election despite being outspent by a 7-to-1 margin. Wellstone played off his underdog image with quirky, humorous ads created by political consultant Bill Hillsman, including "Fast Paul" and "Looking for Rudy", a pastiche of the 1989 Michael Moore documentary Roger & Me. Boschwitz was also hurt by a letter his supporters wrote, on campaign stationery, to members of the Minnesota Jewish community days before the election, accusing Wellstone of being a "bad Jew" for marrying a Gentile and not raising his children in the Jewish faith. (Boschwitz, like Wellstone, is Jewish.) Wellstone's reply, widely broadcast on Minnesota television, was "He has a problem with Christians, then." Boschwitz was the only incumbent U.S. senator not to be re-elected that year.
Wellstone defeated Boschwitz again in 1996. During that campaign, Boschwitz ran ads accusing Wellstone of being "embarrassingly liberal" and calling him "Senator Welfare". Boschwitz accused Wellstone of supporting flag burning, a move some believe backfired. Before that accusation, the race was closely contested, but Wellstone went on to beat Boschwitz by a nine-point margin despite again being significantly outspent. Reform Party candidate Dean Barkley received 7% of the vote.
Wellstone's upset victory in 1990 and reelection in 1996 were also credited to a grassroots campaign which inspired college students, poor people, and minorities to get involved in politics, many for the first time. In 1990, the number of young people involved in the campaign was so notable that shortly after the election, Walter Mondale told Wellstone that "the kids won it for you". Wellstone also spent much of his Senate career working with the Hmong community in Minnesota, which had not previously been much involved in American politics, and with the veterans community—serving on the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, successfully campaigning for atomic veterans to receive compensation from the federal government, and for increased spending on health care for veterans.
In 2002, Wellstone campaigned for reelection to a third term despite an earlier campaign pledge to serve only two. His Republican opponent was Norm Coleman, a two-term mayor of St. Paul and former Democrat, who had supported Wellstone in his 1996 campaign. Earlier that year Wellstone announced he had a mild form of multiple sclerosis, causing the limp he had believed was an old wrestling injury.
Wellstone was in a line of center-left senators from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL). The first three, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and Walter Mondale, were all prominent in the national Democratic Party. Shortly after joining the Senate, South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings approached Wellstone and told him, "You remind me of Hubert Humphrey. You talk too much."
Wellstone was known for his work for peace, the environment, labor, and health care; he also joined his wife Sheila to support the rights of victims of domestic violence. He made the issue of mental illness a central focus in his career. He was a supporter of immigration to the U.S. He opposed the first Gulf War in 1991 and, in the months before his death, spoke out against the government's threats to go to war with Iraq again. He was strongly supported by groups such as Americans for Democratic Action, the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, the American Civil Liberties Union, and People for the American Way.
In 1996, he voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act. He later asked his supporters to educate him on the issue and by 2001, when he wrote his autobiography, Conscience of a Liberal, Wellstone admitted that he had made a mistake.
Wellstone was one of only eight members of the Senate to vote against the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999.
After voting against the congressional authorization for the war in Iraq on October 11, 2002, in the midst of a tight election, Wellstone is said to have told his wife, "I just cost myself the election."
In the 2002 campaign, the Green Party ran a candidate against Wellstone, a move which some Greens opposed. The party's 2000 Vice-Presidential nominee, Winona LaDuke, described Wellstone as "a champion of the vast majority of our issues". The Green Party's decision to oppose Wellstone was criticized by some liberals.
Wellstone was the author of the "Wellstone Amendment" added to the McCain-Feingold Bill for campaign finance reform, in what came to be known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. The law, including the Wellstone Amendment, was called unconstitutional by groups and individuals of various political perspectives, including the California Democratic Party, the National Rifle Association, and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), the Senate Majority Whip. On December 10, 2003, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling upholding the key provisions of McCain-Feingold, including the Wellstone Amendment. Wellstone called McCain-Feingold's protection of "advocacy" groups a "loophole" allowing "special interests" to run last-minute election ads. Wellstone pushed an amendment to extend McCain-Feingold's ban on last-minute ads to nonprofits like "the NRA, the Sierra Club, the Christian Coalition, and others." Under the Wellstone Amendment, these organizations could advertise using only money raised under strict "hard money" limits — no more than $5,000 per individual.
In January 2010, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the McCain-Feingold Act and removed restrictions on the NRA and others' ability to campaign at election time.
Shortly after his reelection to the Senate in 1996, Wellstone began contemplating a run for his party's nomination for President of the United States in 2000. In May 1997 he embarked on a cross-country speaking and listening tour dubbed "The Children's Tour." It took him through rural areas of Mississippi and Appalachia and the inner cities of Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Baltimore. He intended to retrace the steps Robert F. Kennedy took during a similar tour in 1966, and to highlight the fact that conditions had improved slightly for African-Americans since the Civil Right movement, but not much for poor whites despite their dependency on food stamps, government jobs (military) and the massive Federal Government's investment in their regions, especially Appalachia.
In 1998, Wellstone formed an exploratory committee and a leadership PAC, the Progressive Politics Network, that paid for his travels to Iowa and New Hampshire, two early primary states in the nomination process. He spoke before organized labor and local Democrats, using the slogan, "I represent the democratic wing of the Democratic Party". Vermont governor Howard Dean later incorporated that phrase into his stump speech in the 2004 US presidential election.
On January 9, 1999, Wellstone called a press conference at the Minnesota State Capitol. Despite expectations that he would announce his candidacy, he stated he could not muster the stamina necessary for a national campaign, citing chronic back problems he ascribed to an old wrestling injury. His pain was later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. He thereafter endorsed the candidacy of former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, the only Democratic candidate to challenge Vice President Al Gore.
Wellstone voted against authorizing the use of force before the Persian Gulf War on January 12, 1991 (the vote was 52–47 in favor). He also voted against the use of force before the Iraq War on October 11, 2002 (the vote was 77–23 in favor). Wellstone was one of 11 senators to vote against both the 1991 and 2002 resolutions. The others were also all Democratic senators: Daniel Akaka of Hawaii; Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico; Robert Byrd of West Virginia; Kent Conrad of North Dakota; Daniel Inouye of Hawaii; Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts; Patrick Leahy of Vermont; Carl Levin of Michigan; Barbara Mikulski of Maryland; and Paul Sarbanes of Maryland.
Other key military action votes
Wellstone supported requests for military action by President Bill Clinton, including Operation Restore Hope in Somalia (1992), Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti (1994), Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1995), Operation Desert Fox in Iraq (1998), and Operation Allied Force in Yugoslavia (1999). On July 1, 1994, during the 100-day Rwandan genocide from April 6 to mid-July 1994, Wellstone authored an amendment to the 1995 defense appropriations bill.
On October 25, 2002, Wellstone, along with seven others, died in an airplane crash in northern Minnesota, at 10:22 a.m. He was 58 years old. The other victims were his wife, Sheila; one of his three children, Marcia; the two pilots, and campaign staffers Mary McEvoy, Tom Lapic and Will McLaughlin. The airplane was en route to Eveleth, where Wellstone was to attend the funeral of Martin Rukavina, a steelworker whose son Tom Rukavina served in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Wellstone decided to go to the funeral instead of a rally and fundraiser in Minneapolis attended by Mondale and fellow Senator Ted Kennedy. He was to debate Norm Coleman in Duluth, Minnesota, that same night.
The Beechcraft King Air A100 airplane crashed into dense forest about two miles from the Eveleth airport, while operating under instrument flight rules. It had no flight data recorders. Autopsy toxicology results on both pilots were negative for drug or alcohol use. Icing, though widely reported on in following days, was considered and eventually rejected as a significant factor in the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) judged that while cloud cover might have prevented the flight crew from seeing the airport, icing did not affect the airplane's performance during the descent.
The FBI, which initially sent agents to help recover debris, investigated possible foul play in the crash. After a few days, the Bureau determined that the crash was accidental, but only after following several criminal leads involving death threats. Wellstone had been receiving death threats since he took office; the FBI tapped his phone to locate the callers. Documents about the FBI's involvement in investigating Wellstone's death were not publicly released until October 2010. Government documents also indicated that the FBI had been following Wellstone before he became a senator, and included records dating as far back as his arrest at a 1970 antiwar protest.
The NTSB later determined that the likely cause of the accident was "the flight crew's failure to maintain adequate airspeed, which led to an aerodynamic stall from which they did not recover." The final two radar readings detected the airplane traveling at or just below its predicted stall speed given conditions at the time of the accident. Aviation experts speculated the pilots might have lost situational awareness because they were lost and looking for the airport. They had been off course for several minutes and "clicked on" the runway lights, something not usually done in good visibility. There was a problem with the airport's VHF omnidirectional range (VOR) navigational beacon. According to Minnesota Public Radio:
Other pilots at the charter company told NTSB that pilot Richard Conry and first officer (co-pilot) Michael Guess had both displayed below-average flying skills. Conry had a well-known tendency to allow copilots to take over all aircraft functions as if they were the sole pilot during flights. After the crash, 3 copilots told of occasions on which they had to take control of the aircraft away from Conry. After one of those incidents, only 3 days before the crash, the copilot (not Guess) had urged Conry to retire. In a post-accident interview, Conry's longtime friend and fellow aviator Timothy Cooney said that he had last spoken to Conry in June 2001 and had expressed concerns about difficulties he had flying King Airs as late as April of that year, 18 months before the accident. Significant discrepancies were also found in the captain's flight logs in the course of the post-accident investigation, indicating he had probably greatly exaggerated his flying experience, most of which had been accrued before a 9–10 year hiatus from flying due to a fraud conviction and poor eyesight. He underwent Lasik surgery, but it had improved his vision to only 20/50 or 20/30 and he was required by FAA regulations to wear corrective lenses, but the pilot's wife and Cooney said Conry did not wear lenses after the surgery. The coroner who examined his body was unable to determine whether Conry was wearing contact lenses at the time of the crash.
Coworkers described Guess as having had to be consistently reminded to keep his hand on the throttle and maintain airspeed during approaches. He had two previous piloting jobs, one with Skydive Hutchinson as a pilot (1988–1989), and another with Northwest Airlines as a trainee instructor (1999), and was dismissed from both for lack of ability. Conry's widow told the NTSB that her husband told her "the other pilots thought Guess was not a good pilot."
Don Hazen, executive editor of Alternet, wrote of the death, "Progressives across the land are in shock as the person many think of as the conscience of the Senate is gone." Wellstone died just 11 days before his potential re-election in a crucial race to maintain Democratic control of the Senate. Campaigning was halted by all sides. Minnesota law required that his name be stricken from the ballot, to be replaced by a candidate chosen by the party. The DFL selected former Vice President Walter Mondale to compete with Norm Coleman in the general election.
The memorial service for Wellstone and the other victims of the crash was held in Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota and was broadcast live on national TV. The lengthy service was dotted with political speeches, open advocacy on political issues, and a giant beach ball batted around the crowd in the style of a beach party. Many high-profile politicians attended the memorial, including former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, and more than half of the U.S. Senate. The White House offered to send Vice President Dick Cheney to the service, but the Wellstone family declined.
Some criticized the service for having an inappropriate tone and resembling a "pep rally" or "partisan foot-stomp". Wellstone campaign manager Jeff Blodgett noted after the event that it had not been scripted and apologized to people who were offended or surprised. In his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Al Franken wrote that "reasonable people of good will were genuinely offended" but argued that conservative media figures had exploited outrage at the event for political gain. At the time of writing Franken was a comedian and liberal commentator. In 2008, Franken would be elected to the Senate seat once held by Wellstone.
Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, who had stated his preference to appoint a Democrat to serve out the remainder of Wellstone's term through January 2003, was "disgusted" by the event, walking out and later threatening to appoint "an ordinary citizen" instead. On November 4, the day before the election, Ventura appointed state planning commissioner Dean Barkley, founder and chair of Ventura's Independence Party of Minnesota, to complete the remaining two months of Wellstone's term; he had run against Wellstone in 1996. Coleman received 49.5 percent of the vote to defeat Mondale and win Wellstone's seat. In 2008, he was narrowly defeated (by 312 votes) in his bid for reelection by Franken, in a three-way race that included Barkley.
The AFL-CIO has created the AFL-CIO Senator Paul Wellstone Award for supporters of the rights of labor unions. Presidential candidate Howard Dean and California state senator John Burton both received the first award in January 2003. In 2004, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill dedicated the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Memorial Garden as a tribute to the couple, both graduates of the university. Also in 2004, Mason Jennings released "The Ballad of Paul and Sheila," a song memorializing the Wellstones, on his album Use Your Voice.
Near the site of his plane crash, a memorial to the Wellstones was dedicated on September 25, 2005. His distinctive green bus was present, as well as hundreds of supporters and loved ones. The Senator and his wife were buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, the same cemetery in which Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey is interred. A memorial sculpture near Bde Maka Ska marks their gravesites. Visitors sometimes follow the Jewish custom of placing small stones on the boulder marking the family plot or on the individual markers. His legacy continues as Wellstone Action, a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization that trains citizens and potential candidates with a progressive agenda.
In 2007, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter joined with David Wellstone to push Congress to pass legislation regarding mental health insurance. Wellstone and Carter worked to pass the "Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008" which requires equal coverage of mental and physical illnesses when policies include both types of coverage; both testified before a House subcommittee regarding the bill in July 2007. David said of his father, "Although he was passionate on many issues, there was not another issue that surpassed this in terms of his passion." Because Paul Wellstone's brother had suffered from mental illness, Wellstone had fought for changes in mental health and insurance laws when he reached the Senate.
On March 5, 2008, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1424, the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2007, by a vote of 268-148. It was sponsored by Representatives Patrick Kennedy (D-Rhode Island) and Representative Jim Ramstad, (R-Minnesota), both of whom are recovering alcoholics. The narrower Senate bill S. 558, passed earlier, was introduced by Kennedy's father, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), Pete Domenici, (R-New Mexico), and Mike Enzi, (R-Wyoming).
- Human Performance 14 — Factual Report of Human Performance Specialist
- Interview Summaries
- List of Jewish members of the United States Congress
- Blodgett, Jeff, Winning Your Election the Wellstone Way, University of Minnesota Press, 2008. https://web.archive.org/web/20081228001400/http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/B/blodgett_winning.html
- Casper, Barry (Mike), Lost in Washington: Finding the Way Back to Democracy in America, University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.
- Donald "Four Arrows" Trent Jacobs and Dr. James H. Fetzer, American Assassination: the Strange Death of Senator Paul Wellstone, Vox Pop, 2004.
- Hightower, Jim. "Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can go With the Flow". Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, Inc, 2008.
- Bill Hillsman, Run The Other Way: Fixing the Two-Party System, One Campaign at a Time
- Lofy, Bill, Paul Wellstone: The Life of a Passionate Progressive, University of Michigan Press, 2005
- Lofy, Bill, Politics the Wellstone Way: How to Elect Progressive Candidates and Win on Issues, University of Minnesota Press, 2005. http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/W/wellstone_politics.html
- McGrath, Dennis J. and Smith, Dane, Professor Wellstone Goes to Washington: The Inside Story of a Grassroots U.S. Senate Campaign, University of Minnesota Press, 1995. http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/M/mcgrath_prof.html
- Wellstone, Paul, The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda, University of Minnesota Press, 2002. http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/W/wellstone_conscience.html
- Wellstone, Paul, How the Rural Poor Got Power: Narrative of a Grass-Roots Organizer, University of Minnesota Press, 2003. http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/W/wellstone_how.html
- Wellstone, Paul, and Barry Casper, Powerline: The First Battle of America's Energy War, University of Minnesota Press, 2003. http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/W/wellstone_powerline.html
- Albert Scott Crossfield
- Brook Berringer
- Jessica Dubroff
- John F. Kennedy, Jr. Piper Saratoga crash
- John T. Walton