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Memories of Senator Paul Wellstone

Kathy Ozer, Executive Director


I woke up this Saturday morning before 6 AM --- stunned and saddened by the death of Paul, Sheila and their daughter, Marcia. I woke up hoping this had been a bad dream but know it's not. I fell asleep hearing newscasts of Paul and his positions knowing that he was being eulogized in his death in a way that he wasn't given that level of respect and air time for his views during his life --- during his fights for justice on a whole range of issues --- from health care, war on Iraq, welfare reform, fair trade and fair farm policy.

I was planning on working today --- to continue to catch up from almost a month on the road --- to pursue our challenge to raise funds and move forward on our campaign for a new farm policy. Instead, I am going to the rally against the war in D.C. to add my feet to the numbers opposing the war. Paul had stood up against issues that he knew could jeopardize his political career --- but his views were deeply held and not to be swayed by political pundits.

There are many farmers who have known Paul since the 1980's when he stood with them on the courthouse steps fighting foreclosure. I first met Paul during the 1990 campaign. NFFC and FLAG were hosting a farm credit training in 1989 in St. Paul and he came by to say a few words. We were working to figure out how to ensure that farmers received their rights from the 1987 Agricultural Credit Act --- the legislation that grew out of the class action lawsuit against USDA filed by FLAG and the grassroots pressure mobilized by groups in Minnesota and around the country. He had the same feisty energy, deep convictions, and a sense that it was important to raise the issues we are all fighting on that day in a St. Paul Ramada Inn as he has had during the past twelve years in Congress.

On the weekend before the election in 1990, I attended a last minute fundraiser for Wellstone in Mt. Pleasant. The party was hosted by Minnesotans (it was one of Mondale's brothers) who were very excited about the prospect of Wellstone winning as the polls showed him closing in on Boschwitz. We viewed the creative ads airing in the campaign and met the green bus. Paul spoke via speaker phone and the sense of excitement was very strong. A few days later he won the Senate race.

Paul has been there, often too lonely a voice, in the fight to make sure that farmers earn a fair price. He understood what it would take to change the situation in the countryside and he knew that politically we were locked into a very uphill battle. His decision to be on the Agriculture Committee during this past session meant that he could help play an inside-outside strategy. It was his persistence that led to some key amendments being debated during the 2002 Farm Bill.

Paul spoke to the outrageous situation of taxpayer subsidies being at the core of our farm policy due to low prices for corporate buyers while at the same time there was increasing hunger. He fought for a competition title in the farm bill and his push at the Committee level helped to ensure that country of origin labeling was in the final farm bill. In the closing debate on the farm bill, he eloquently talked about the work that must continue --- whether through the Agriculture Committee or Judiciary Committee. Paul had made a commitment to work with us to have a real alternative to this current farm bill drafted --- one that could be used to help organize farmers in the countryside. His agenda reflected the real needs of people not corporate agribusiness.

I didn't know his daughter, but had met Sheila many times. At fundraisers, in the halls of Congress, and in the neighborhood. Sheila was his constant companion and in her role on Paul's "staff" expanded her leadership role in the fight against domestic violence.

He has a very committed staff --- both in D.C. and in Minnesota --- they worked for Paul because they believed in what he stood for and they worked hard to make a difference in these fights. During the past week, I spoke to each of the Brian's --- Brian Ahlberg and Brian Baenig --- both cautiously optimistic about the race.

We need to mourn Paul and Sheila and the others who perished in the plane but we need to ensure that the issues Paul cared so deeply about are the ones we continue to fight and organize around. There is no replacement for Paul --- but we need to do what we can to make sure that whomever continues to represent Minnesota in the U.S. Senate supports the causes and issues that Paul and Sheila devoted their lives to.

Bill Christison, President

National Family Farm Coalition


The membership and staff of the National Family Farm Coalition are shocked and deeply saddened with the news of the tragedy which has befallen the Wellstone family, their friends and co-workers.

We extend our most sincere sympathy and condolences to the surviving families and to all who mourn this great loss to the nation.

Senator Wellstone was the conscience, heart and soul of the United States Senate. He always spoke his convictions with commitment and dedication that reflected his ability, expertise and wisdom.

Senator Wellstone was a true representative of the people. He spoke for farmers, workers, and the many who have little or no voice. Sheila was his constant companion and in her role on PaulŪs "staff" expanded her leadership role in the fight against domestic violence.

Over the years, farmer members of the National Family Farm Coalition have been blessed by his presence and his representation of our needs and goals in the U.S. Senate. The loss of Paul's voice and action at this critical juncture is particularly devastating as we face the issues of terrorism, probable war, and bad economic times fueled by an unjust trade and agricultural policy.

The Senator's position will soon be filled. The Senate will be made whole, but the Senate will be forever changed, in fact in a larger sense, the void created by the absence of Senator Wellstone may never be filled.

We, as a people, must remember and use what Senator Paul Wellstone has taught us. We must come together and move forward in the fight for social and economic justice.

John Hansen, President

Nebraska Farmers Union


The loss of our good friend Paul Wellstone is a national tragedy, because while Paul was elected to represent Minnesota in the U.S. Senate, he adopted everyone in the world in need of social and economic justice. He loved us, and we loved him. He was our guy in the Senate. We knew that he deeply and passionately cared about us and our well being.

Paul not only fought many good fights on our behalf, he fought them in a good way. In a world of confusion and compromise, Paul was a man of clarity and principle. Always the educator, Paul not only articulated our problems and pain, he put them into historical, political, and moral context. Through the power of his intellect, heart, soul, passion, example, and courage he taught us to do more than beg for mercy, he taught us to stand up for ourselves and demand remedy and justice.

He taught us that self esteem is the building block of political empowerment. He implored us to believe in ourselves, hang on to our dreams, trust our core values, and to never ever quit until we succeeded.

Paul Wellstone taught us to see the big picture and think structurally. He reminded us that in our political system there are two kinds of power: money and people. He reminded us that the way people get power is to get educated on the issues of the day, harness the power of organization, build broad based coalitions with like minded people, educate every single person we can, focus on concrete objectives, and participate in our political system and make it work for us. Long before Paul was our political leader, he was our educator and organizer.

I mourn the loss of my good friend Paul Wellstone, Sheila, his best friend and wife, their daughter Marcia, the other victims and their families. But I also cry tears of loss for our nation. We have lost one of our very best. People of Paul Wellstone's stature cannot be replaced. But, we can begin to fill the holes in our hearts and our souls with our own commiments to pick up the sword of our fallen leader and carry on his mission to make the world a better place. Thank you Paul and Sheila for your lifetime of good work. We are a better world for your efforts.

John Nichols,

The Nation


For grassroots economic and social justice activists, there was never any doubt about the identity of their representative in Washington. No matter what state they lived in, the senator they counted on was the same man: Paul Wellstone.

But for the family-farm activists with whom Wellstone marched and rallied across the 1980s and 1990s and into the twenty-first century, the Minnesota Democrat was more than a representative. He was their champion. And the news of his death Friday in a Minnesota plane crash struck with all the force of a death in the family.

I know, because I had to deliver that news. Family farm activists from across the upper Midwest had gathered Friday morning for the annual rural life conference of the Churches' Center for Land and People, in Sinsinawa, Wisconsin. I had just finished delivering the keynote speech --- ironically, about the need for activists to go into politics --- when a colleague called with the "you'd better be sitting down." news. Sister Miriam Brown, O.P., the organizer of the conference and one of the most tireless crusaders for economic justice in rural America, and I talked for a few minutes about how to tell the crowd.

We knew the 150 people in the room well enough to understand that this news would change the tenor of the day. But we did not know just how much until I announced from the podium that Wellstone, his wife of thirty-nine years, Sheila, their daughter Marcia, and several campaign aides had been killed two hours earlier.

Cries of "No!" and "My God! My God!" filled the room, as grown men felt for tables to keep their balance, husbands and wives hugged one another and everyone began an unsuccessful struggle to choke back tears. The group gathered in a large circle. People wept in silence until, finally, a woman began to recite the Lord's Prayer for the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who had touched the lives and the hearts of solid Midwestern Catholic and Lutheran farmers who do not think of themselves as having many friends in Congress.

"He was our flagbearer," said Cathy Statz, education director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union. "There are plenty of people in Congress who vote right, but Paul did everything right. We didn't have to ask him, we didn't have to lobby him, he understood. It was like having one of us in Congress."

That was how Wellstone wanted it. "People have to believe you are on their side, that someone in the Senate is listening," the senator once told me. "If there is someone in Congress, maybe just one person, it gives them a sense that change is possible."

Wellstone's deep connection with progressive activists across the country was something that his colleagues noted again and again as they recalled the rare senator who was, himself, as much an activist as a politician. "He was the pied piper of modern politics --- so many people heard him and wanted to follow him in his fight," recalled Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is considering a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, just as Wellstone considered a similar run in 2000.

Mourning in St. Paul, where he had come to campaign for Wellstone's re-election, Senator Edward Kennedy hailed his fellow liberal. "Today, the nation lost its most passionate advocate for fairness and justice for all," Kennedy said of Wellstone, who was the No. 1 political target of the Bush Administration this year but had secured a lead in the polls after voting against authorizing the President to attack Iraq. "He had an intense passion and enormous ability to reach out, touch and improve the lives of the people he served so brilliantly."

For Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, the loss was doubly difficult. Wellstone and he were the truest mavericks in the current Senate, lonely dissenters not just from George W. Bush's conservative Republicanism but from the centrist compromises of their own Democratic Party. Yet, Wellstone was something more: an inspiration. Recalling that the Minnesotan won his seat in 1990 with a grassroots campaign that relied more on humor than money, Feingold, who was elected with a similar campaign two years later, said, "He showed me that it was possible for someone with very little money to get elected to the Senate."

Before his election to the Senate, Wellstone was a professor at Carlton College, in Northfield, Minnesota. Officially, he taught political science. Unofficially, he was referred to as "the professor of political activism." He created a course titled "Social Movements and Grassroots Organizing," and he taught by example. In the 1980s, Wellstone organized Minnesota campaign events for the Rev. Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns, marched with striking Hormel workers in Austin, Minnesota, and was arrested while protesting at a bank that was foreclosing on farms.

That was when Denise O'Brien, an Atlantic, Iowa, farm activist, first heard of Wellstone. "I remember hearing about this professor in Minnesota who cared so much about what was happening to farmers that he was willing to get arrested with us," O'Brien said Friday. "That had a big impact on me. I always remembered that he had stood with us." O'Brien, who went on to become president of the National Family Farm Coalition, recalled how amazed she was when Wellstone was elected to the Senate.

"But, you know what, he never changed. He was always that guy I first heard about, the one who was willing to stand up for the farmers," she remembered. "When the black farmers from down South were marching to protest their treatment by the Department of Agriculture, he would march with them. When no one was paying attention to this current farm crisis, he organized the Rally for Rural America."

At that March 2000, rally, Wellstone delivered one of his trademark speeches, a fiery outburst of anger at agribusiness conglomerates mixed with faith that organizing and political activism could yet save family farmers. "When Wellstone got going, he was so passionate. He was like the old populists, the way he would tear into the corporations," recalled John Kinsman, the president of the Family Farm Defenders.

At the children's camp run by the National Farmers Union, Cathy Statz says, "We use the video of his speech to the Rally for Rural America to teach the boys and girls that there are people in politics you can really look up to, that there are people who speak for us."

Then Statz stopped herself. Tears formed in her eyes. "I can't believe he's dead," she said. "I can't imagine the Senate without him."

The emotions ran deep after the announcement of the senator's death. But the people gathered at Sinsinawa were activists in the Wellstone tradition. So after they had wiped away their tears, they gathered to hear a panel of farm activists discuss running for local office. Greg David, of rural Jefferson County, Wisconsin, got up to tell the story of how, after two losses, he was finally elected to the county board of supervisors.

His voice catching as he spoke, David concluded, "I think if Senator Wellstone was here today, if he could speak to us, he would say: Don't be afraid. Go out and run for public office. Put yourself in the contest. Running for office, serving in office, that's a part of building our movement. Maybe we didn't know before that it could be a form of activism, but we know that now. Senator Wellstone showed us that."

Helen Waller, Montana Farmer

National Farm Action Campaign


Senator Paul Wellstone was a man of and for the people. He was a bundle of contagious energy, driven by an uncompromising determination to do what was right and just for the common folks.›In his work as a Senator, he voted his conscience and drew deeply from the values of a caring and gentle man.

Scores of the late Senator's colleagues from both sides of the aisle have risen to praise him as a man of principle --- and that he was.›One described Paul as the "Soul of the Senate"› He fashioned his political actions around his well defined populist principles --- never sacrificing principle to do the politically expedient!

Those in Congress who will miss his presence, will bring honor to his memory by cultivating for themselves the very attributes that they found so worthy of praise.›Then, once again we Americans would be able to boast of a government "of the people, by the people and for the people."

Dan McGuire, Policy Chairman

American Corn Growers Association


As a Statesman, Senator Paul Wellstone was an honorable giant among leaders. As a politician, Paul was a man of character, displaying honesty and integrity when those traits seem in short supply. As a Democrat, Paul proudly displayed the true soul of the party as a reminder to the world. As a warrior for the people of Minnesota, for farmers and for all Americans Paul stood toe-to-toe against corporate giants, willing to make the federal government assume its proper role, as a referee to regulate the marketplace and reign in corporate power. As a good friend, Paul will be deeply missed. America and the World have lost one of the greatest leaders and heros of our time.

Missouri Rural Crisis Center


Family farmers in Minnesota and throughout the nation today lost a champion of economic justice in rural America when Senator Paul Wellstone was killed in a tragic airplane crash. Paul's wife Sheila died with him and six others in the crash.

Paul Wellstone gladly waded into the fight for justice because he knew it was right. Unlike nearly any other member of Congress, Wellstone understood and lent support to grassroots organizing, the only way that ordinary Americans have to impact the major decisions that affect their lives. Paul found the issues he championed the old-fashioned way --- democratically. He listened to the people.

Wellstone's leadership was of both the heart and the mind, and no voice was more effective, more genuine, and more enduring. Paul Wellstone stood with us on courthouse steps and Capitol steps in the 1980's, fighting against the foreclosures of family farms by the Farm Credit System, major insurance companies, and the banks --- and fighting for fair prices and fair treatment for family farms.

He stood with us in the past year, introducing the ban on corporate meatpacker ownership of livestock in the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee, and fighting hard and winning its passage on the Senate floor over the intense lobbying of corporate agribusiness and proponents of factory farms. He stood firm for the environment as well, becoming a champion of the Conservation Security Program in the 2002 Farm Bill and working to stop huge subsidies for factory farms.

Paul Wellstone was never afraid to speak truth to power. Most importantly, he was never afraid to help ordinary people build real political and economic power against the entrenched moneyed power of corporate America. Wellstone even shared this with family farmers and working people --- he did his work despite constant physical pain and long, long hours.

Paul Wellstone is gone, tragically and too soon. What remains is the commitment to the cause --- economic justice, environmental stewardship, long-term social change for the good of our communities and our nation. We will continue the good work in the spirit of Paul Wellstone. >From the bottom of our hearts we thank him and thank Sheila Wellstone for their years of leadership and service.

We call on public officials in Minnesota to respond to this tragedy by assuring that Paul's work is carried forward by whomever replaces him on the ballot or by appointment.

Food First


Today, the dream of America mourns.

Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash, together with his wife Sheila, and his daughter Marcia. We feel the stab of this loss, because Paul was always one of us; walking beside us in protests, leading us through his words and campaigns, teaching us of the world, and how it might be different.

Although Paul had been a senator for only twelve years, he was an inspiration all his life. His work as a teacher, at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, inflamed generations of students and teachers to fight for justice in America. When he ran for office in 1990, he was the only senator to unseat an incumbent. He did this not through vast campaign contributions, but through the seemingly forgotten art of grassroots organizing and mobilizing. By talking to us, by listening to us, by acting for us. Not for him the choleric negative television campaigns or the big ticket endorsement. Instead, he ran his campaign from the back of a schoolbus; "If you want to vote for me, give a dollar."

When in the Senate, he fought for the marginalized in U.S. society, for pensioner's rights, for healthcare for the poor, for the prosecution of trafficking in women, for a farm bill to protect small farmers from the predations of agribusiness, for schools in Minnesota, for the protection of the Arctic from Big Oil. He was the conscience of an increasingly unconscionable senate. When the conscience of the Senate resides in only one man, something is wrong with our society. Paul knew this --- "America has disappeared," he once said. And Paul spent his life trying to get it back. He lived the very best of lives, fighting the bravest of fights, putting into action Langston Hughes' words:

"Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain-- All, all the stretch of these great green states-- And make America again!"

Our world won't be the same without him. In memoriam, Paul, our grief is a cry for justice. Sometimes, the weight of the day is too much for prose to bear.



Senator Paul Wellstone stood up for the little guy, but he never had small thoughts. He was tireless and unapologetic for championing the rights of working men and women --- even when he stood alone, and he often did.