Carrying on His Father’s Fight

Posted November 5, 2003 at 6:38pm

David Wellstone has his father’s eyes, his father’s voice and his father’s passion.

Now, a little more than a year after Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) died in a plane crash, David Wellstone has picked up his father’s most important fight.

Wellstone, 38, is in town this week for a whirlwind lobbying campaign on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to win Congressional approval of the mental health legislation named for his late father. He knows he’s trying to pull off the almost impossible: take a bill that’s been written off for the year and breath life into it. And he acknowledges it’s an uphill fight given his barely rudimentary understanding of the arcane process of dealmaking in the 11th hour of a Congressional session. But David Wellstone is bringing the same spirit to the battle that his father did in a 12-year career.

“I’m like a little raindrop hitting the Potomac, I don’t even create a ripple. But I will,” he said.

Wellstone is racing to beat a Congressional clock that is now rapidly ticking away, with leaders bent on meeting a tentative adjournment date of Nov. 21 and a series of critical pieces of legislation and a host of remaining must-pass appropriations at the front of the line. And, he’s up against House and Senate GOP leaders who have decided time has already run out for the year on the Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act of 2003.

“It’s too complicated to get done this year,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the committee with oversight of the matter, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Even the late Senator’s longtime partner in pressing mental health issues, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), has essentially given up hope of passing the bill this year, despite 67 co-sponsors in the Senate and 242 in the House. Domenici, who has been nailed down in a seemingly endless energy debate throughout the fall, said he had originally hoped he could convene a meeting of key players in the House and Senate, hammer out a final deal and attach the bill to one of the must-go legislative matters remaining this session, and fulfilling a tearful pledge he made on CNN the day of the crash, Oct. 25, 2002.

“I don’t think we can get it done ’til next year,” Domenici conceded this week.

Wellstone and Domenici joined forces on the issue in the mid-1990s, with each Senator having a personal stake in the matter: Wellstone’s brother fought severe mental illness, and Domenici’s daughter Clare battled atypical schizophrenia.

David Wellstone said that after the immediate shock and horror resulting from the plane crash — which killed his father, mother Sheila, sister Marcia, three of the Senator’s closest political aides and the two pilots — he and his brother Mark decided they had to take up their father’s cause. “After the crash, it became evident that there was an obligation,” he recalled.

Along with their father’s campaign manager, Jeff Blodgett, they formed Wellstone Action, a nonprofit group now conducting “boot camps” for grassroots organizers in Minnesota and across the country. They also added two other causes to the group, one devoted solely to domestic abuse issues — Sheila Wellstone’s passion — and another to work on one issue a year that was close to their father.

This year’s cause is mental health parity, a measure that would force insurers already providing mental health coverage to charge the same co-payments and deductibles and offer the same access currently offered for physical maladies.

This week’s visit marks his third trip to Washington to lobby on his father’s bill, and Wellstone is clearly exasperated at his lack of progress, expressing his frustrations much in the manner his father did, and in a remarkably similar voice and tone.

“I’m feeling pressed for time,” he said. “I feel the time is now.” Having spent almost his entire life in Minnesota — working in everything from organic farming to his current paying job of developing affordable housing in the Twin Cities — Wellstone isn’t comfortable taking the long view a typical lobbyist might embrace. He doesn’t see this year’s progress as something to build on for next year, despite the fact that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and the White House have spoken in favor of the bill. (When a former Wellstone Senate staffer started calling early this week to set up meetings for David Wellstone, White House aides were the first to call back and agreed to a Wednesday meeting.)

Gregg hasn’t completely ruled out the bill, calling Domenici’s bill a “good package. We’ll try to get it done early next year.”

“I don’t want to think about next year,” David Wellstone countered. “I don’t like this thought of baby steps.”

But the lobbying effort hasn’t been just about pushing a bill for his father’s legacy; in the process, David Wellstone, in more than a dozen face-to-face meetings with Senators, has gotten a chance to meet with and talk to the men and women who worked side by side with his father, learning things he never knew.

One such meeting occurred in the summer, when he met Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), whom David Wellstone at first didn’t consider a close friend of his father’s. Warner, the Armed Services chairman, brought the younger Wellstone into his personal office and walked him through his veritable museum of military paraphernalia, stopping at a picture taken of Warner and Wellstone.

Warner told a personal story about the late Senator, struggling to compose himself. “He had tears in his eyes and so did I,” Wellstone said this week.

Wellstone’s biggest concern, outside of his insurance industry opponents, is that the energy behind the legislation will begin to fade with time, that his father’s memory will still be cherished by his former colleagues but the personal passion for his biggest issue will wane.

“As time goes by I personally feel that part of the momentum does pass,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who met with Wellstone on Wednesday, said he hasn’t given up the cause of his late colleague, saying other bills in honor of fallen Senators have sailed through the Senate. “We’re going to step up the effort and increase the volume,” he said, vowing to try to attach the measure to one of the bills going through the Senate before adjournment.

Fighting for their father and mother’s legacy has taken a personal toll on the Wellstone brothers. Mark Wellstone has taken a leave from his position teaching the ninth grade in St. Paul, where, following in his father’s footsteps, he’s also a wrestling coach. The brothers serve as the unpaid chairmen of the Wellstone Action nonprofit, with their primary focus on raising money for the fledgling group and lobbying on the issues critical to their parents.

“My business definitely took a hit,” David Wellstone said, estimating he splits his time 50-50 between his own financial well-being and Wellstone Action.

The rest of his time is devoted to his two children, a 9-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.

With his father’s optimism, David Wellstone believes his personal story will win over enough converts to get the mental health parity bill signed into law by year’s end. “This is my father’s work,” he said. “Hopefully they can see it.”

As of late Wednesday afternoon, he was still hopeful of meeting today with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Hastert has proven a stumbling block on the issue, having been upset with Domenici’s efforts earlier this year to get the White House to lean on the Speaker to push the bill.

Wellstone said he wants a meeting with Hastert “even if it’s just to talk about wrestling.” (Before coming to Congress, Hastert was a legendary high school wrestling coach in Illinois.)

Despite the trials presented in trying to learn the ropes of the Washington lobbying process, Wellstone said his spirits have been buoyed by the outpouring of support he’s seen in the first months of the nonprofit’s existence. At the organizing boot camps, where attendees are trained in how to become campaign aides, candidates for local office or community activists, the majority of participants just want to make a difference, he said.

The camps have even included people in their 60s and 70s “who have a lot of free time and want to do good stuff,” he said.

When Wellstone Action officially opened its doors in St. Paul earlier this year, three blocks from the old Senate campaign headquarters, more than 3,000 people showed up for an open house.

He answers the question of running for office himself someday with a “never say never” shrug of his shoulders, but David Wellstone said his prime focus is turning the nonprofit into the long-term brand-name for organizing across the country.

“I’d like us to become a force,” he said.