Wellstone’s Legacy, 1 Year After

Group Sons Founded Trains New Activists

Posted October 27, 2003 at 6:22pm

As family, friends and supporters of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) mark the one-year anniversary of the plane crash that killed the outspoken liberal lawmaker, their grief is tempered somewhat by their success in carrying on his legacy through training the next generation of political activists.

In April, Wellstone’s sons, David and Mark, helped form Wellstone Action, an organization to honor and continue the work of their parents that focuses primarily on grassroots political organizing and training.

The organization, which has 17,000 members nationwide and a $600,000 annual budget, also does some issue advocacy, focusing primarily on mental health disparity and ending domestic violence.

Wellstone Action’s signature project is the Camp Wellstone political training program, a three-day political boot camp that moves from city to city teaching progressive grassroots activism and other tactics employed by Wellstone, who was in the midst of a hard-fought re-election campaign when his plane went down near Eveleth, Minn., on the morning of Oct. 25, 2002. Also killed in the crash were Wellstone’s wife, Sheila, daughter Marcia, three campaign aides and two pilots.

The group has held five camps so far this year — two in Minnesota, two in Ohio and one in Pennsylvania — and four more are scheduled before the end of the year.

Jeff Blodgett, who managed all of Wellstone’s Senate campaign and now serves as executive director of Wellstone Action, said more than 100 people have attended each training session.

“It’s been very successful and people are excited by the camps,” Blodgett said. “The programs are in huge demand.”

Blodgett said about half of the organization’s 17,000 members are in Minnesota, “which is a sign that Paul did have a national following and a national base.”

The Wellstone Action camp scheduled for next weekend will be held in Cincinnati and is open only to Ohio residents. The Partnership for America’s Families, the labor-backed 527 fundraising group founded by former AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Rosenthal, is co-sponsoring the camp.

Blodgett said it was a natural fit for the organization to team with other progressive groups, which have found that the camps can be a fertile hiring ground.

“We want to make sure these camps are useful to other like-minded organizations who want to promote a progressive agenda,” he said.

Other groups that Wellstone Action is working with include the United Steel Workers union, the Sierra Club and ACORN, a community activist group that focuses on housing issues.

Wellstone Action has to this point relied on fundraising from its members and a network of other supporters. As a 501(c)(4), the group is prohibited from engaging in political activity in any way, or donating money to candidates.

To focus on raising money for the educational aspects of the Wellstone Action mission, the group has set up a sister 501(c)(3) organization, the Wellstone Action Fund.

The fund’s first fundraiser will benefit the Sheila Wellstone Institute, which focuses on generating public policy solutions to the problem of domestic violence. The upcoming Twin Cities event will feature actor Josh Hartnett and actress Jessica Lange, both of whom have Minnesota roots.

On the legislative end, the group is specifically targeting the two leading issues championed by the Wellstones, domestic violence and mental health parity.

Wellstone Action has made passing the Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act its sole legislative priority for this year. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) pushed for passage of the bill, currently stuck in the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, during a tribute to the late Senator Friday.

“Words alone are just not a fitting tribute to Paul Wellstone,” Daschle said in a floor speech. “It is the action that counts.”

The Wellstone Action advisory committee includes current Democratic Sens. Mark Dayton (Minn.), Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Russ Feingold (Wis.) and former Sens. Bill Bradley (N.J.), Howard Metzenbaum (Ohio), Paul Simon (Ill.) and Walter Mondale (Minn.).

Mondale, a former vice president, replaced Wellstone on the ballot last year and eventually lost to now-Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).

Blodgett said soon after the tragedy and Mondale’s loss the family at first talked about starting a foundation to continue the Wellstone legacy.

“But it became clear that that was just too passive for something with the Wellstone name on it,” he explained.