On the eve of today’s 10th anniversary of the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), family, friends, former Congressional colleagues and average Americans who were touched by Wellstone’s work gathered on a conference call to share their memories of one of the icons of the progressive movement, vowing to continue to champion the causes he fought so hard for.
Wellstone was killed on Oct. 25, 2002, when the plane he was traveling on en route to a funeral service crashed in northern Minnesota, killing him and the seven other people on board: his wife, his daughter, two campaign staffers, his driver and the plane’s two pilots.
The Senator and former college professor was known for championing progressive values during his two terms and for the catchphrases he used — “We all do better when we all do better,” and, “Never separate the life you live from the words you speak” — that came to be known as Wellstone-isms.
The beaten up, green campaign bus he drove that constantly broke down and required the help of those he met on the campaign trail to help fix or fill the tank with gas became an image synonymous with his special brand of retail politics. It captivated the people he met and earned him two terms in the Senate when people doubted he could even win one.
Those on the Wednesday conference call — including Wellstone’s son, David, and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) — mourned Wellstone’s untimely death and praised his courage to cast lonely and potentially politically damning votes in the Senate for those he felt were underserved and underappreciated.
“This is a person who understood his moral compass,” Progressive Change Campaign Committee Co-Founder Adam Green said on the call. “And even when he was an isolated voice in an out of touch Senate, he voted his conscience and was very much the tip of a spear of an entire movement across this country.”
Wellstone’s former colleagues also celebrated his skills as a retail politician known for making average Americans feel valued.
Marcia Avner, a former staffer in Wellstone’s office and a current member of the board of Wellstone Action, a nonprofit group created after the Senator’s death dedicated to progressive values, said Wellstone had a way of igniting passion in people who never thought they could have an impact on politics.
“He did retail politics in the most extraordinary way,” Avner said. “He would walk into a restaurant and go first into the kitchen, breaking all sorts of health codes to shake the hands of the workers. He was an exciting, inspiring presence. People couldn’t wait to hear him or meet him.”
Ellison, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Wellstone was one of his heroes and inspired him to become a public servant.
“I can tell you what I loved about him most was his optimism and his confidence in this country and in progressives,” Ellison said. “He was patient and he cared, and he had real heart.”
Kari Moe, Wellstone’s former student and Senate chief of staff, told a story about how Wellstone would try and avoid the “Senators Only” elevators in the Capitol, but if it was the first to arrive, he would always grab staffers to ride with him, part of his motto of “I’m not for the Rockefellers, I’m for the little fellers.”
“It didn’t matter where you were from, if you were standing there with him, he would order you to get on that ‘Senators Only’ elevator. ... He even showed his populism on the elevators,” said Moe, who currently serves as Ellison’s chief of staff.
Avner told the story of a time when Wellstone was invited to release an American Bald Eagle into the sky.
“When you release an eagle, you reach down and you give it an uplift and give it a push so it can get into the air and catch the thermals,” Aver said. “And I looked at him [as he released the eagle] and he was crying and he said it meant too much to feel the freedom. He never forgot what an honor it was to represent the people and to be accountable to people, and all of us back here in the state understood that.”
This article has been updated to clarify Adam Green’s comment during the conference call.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.