Capitol Commentary: A decade after Wellstone’s death

Paul Wellstone

Rep. Denise Dittrich remembers hearing the news of the plane crash while handing out stickers at a Halloween parade in Anoka.

“It was like a JFK moment — you knew exactly where you were,” she said.

On the morning of Oct. 25, 2002, Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, wife Sheila, daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson, and three campaign staffers boarded a Beechcraft King Air in St. Paul to fly to Eveleth to attend the funeral of a steelworker.

Wellstone, seeking a third term in the Senate, was in a tight race against former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.

The election was less than two weeks away.

As the Beechcraft approached the Eveleth airport on that Friday, passengers might have gazed at the muted tones of late autumn below.

But the pilots let the Beechcraft’s airspeed fatally dip, crash investigators later determined.

The plane stalled and dove into a wooded area.

All aboard were killed.

Outside the Wellstone campaign office on University Avenue in St. Paul the sidewalk soon filled with flowers, flickering candles, notes of loss and love.

National media soon gathered in the street.

Some 20,000 attended a memorial service at the University of Minnesota.

The loss was painful.

Paul David Wellstone Jr., in his book Becoming Wellstone, recalls receiving a package at home some time after the crash.

Opening it, the senator’s son discovered personal items culled from the plane wreckage.

Among these was a partially melted wedding ring and a burnt Wellstone campaign button reeking of jet fuel.

Shocked, Wellstone crumpled to the floor.

Paul Wellstone was born and grew up in Arlington, Va.

In 1963, Wellstone married Sheila Ison and Wellstone recalled being one of the few university students pushing a baby carriage around campus.

Rick Kahn of Minnetonka, a close friend of the Wellstone family, said the couple were deeply committed to each other — a team.

“They always wanted to be together. They were in all of this together,” he said.

“That was always the case. A remarkable, even an inspirational thing,” Kahn said.

It was at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, that Wellstone distinguished himself as a championship wrestler.

Physicality was part of Wellstone, man and politician.

Wellstone intensely exercised six days a week.

He once delighted an Anoka County parent who told Wellstone their son was a wrestler by immediately breaking into a wrestler’s stance as if ready to grapple with the boy.

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, in an email said it was Wellstone’s love of wrestling that stood out in his mind.

“I always thought of Paul Wellstone as a fighting liberal — a great happy warrior in the tradition of Hubert Humphrey. But he was also just great at connecting with people because of his enthusiasm for life,” Winkler wrote.

Wellstone thought a lingering ache in a leg was the result of an old sports injury.

But in February of 2002 he announced that he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system.

He downplayed the disability.

“I’ve been very, very lucky,” said Wellstone, speaking two months before his death.

“Because one thing all the MDs said is that people (with multiple sclerosis) get tired quickly — I don’t,” Wellstone said.

Dittrich recalled a small fundraiser for Wellstone at a private home and watching the senator getting to his feet.

It was obvious his legs were causing him pain, she said.

Kahn deemed MS to Wellstone a hindrance, not a life changer.

Yes, walking and climbing were more difficult, he explained.

“(But) Paul to the last day of his life was the strongest, most energetic person,” he said.

While colorful, Wellstone was divisive.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty called him “Potomac Paul,” the fiery outsider who went to Washington and became an insider.

He had become the kind of the establishment figure the 1990 Paul Wellstone would have relished going after, Republicans argued.

Wellstone never got used to negative campaign advertising  — “I hate it! Always!” he said once, smiling — and was perplexed by the rancor a perceived minority of voters felt toward him.

Sometimes during parades, noticing a cold stare from the curb, Wellstone would turn to his wife and express mystification.

“It’s surprising to me, actually,” Wellstone said of seeing flashes of anger.

The use of broad-stroke words like “liberal” and “populist” tended to turn politicians into caricatures — cartoons, Wellstone believed.

Speaking in August of 2002, Wellstone acknowledged that in meeting new people, learning new things, he had changed over time.

But not his deeper values.

“In terms of your soul, the fire that burns inside you and what you have passion for and what you hope for — the love of your people, family, state — no, I don’t think so,” Wellstone said.

“It’s the same, old rock-the-boat approach,” Wellstone said.

Wellstone had the ability to laugh at himself.

Appearing on the Charlie Rose Show in the summer of 2001, Wellstone added “foolish” to the list of personal traits he brought to the Senate as a newly elected senator.

He told of a Senate colleague saying he enjoyed his speeches but  did not understand the workings of the Senate — an omission Wellstone set out to correct.

But Wellstone, who voted against the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars, while laughing at his own brashness also said the public was thirsting for a politics of inclusion.

“You can’t be so tippy-toe,” Wellstone said of a perceived mushiness among Democrats at the time.

Carleton College Political Science Professor Steven Schier views Wellstone as definitely leaving a legacy in Minnesota politics.

For one thing, Wellstone remains a “hallowed figure” within the Minnesota DFL Party, which is one of the most liberal in the United States, he said.

While Wellstone’s war votes and mental health legislation stand out, Wellstone was also known for his oratory, Schier said.

“I think he had considerable national ambition,” said Schier, suggesting Wellstone may have been weighing a presidential run at the time of his death.

Area lawmakers have different memories of Wellstone.

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, remembers Wellstone attending an event at Anoka Technical College when the school was facing possible closure.

The matter was really out of Wellstone’s hands, but Wellstone was extremely encouraging, Abeler said in an email.

“I still recall him saying goodbye to me in the parking lot, by name, as he limped off to his car after the event,” Abeler said.

“(I) never forgot that,” he wrote.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, met his wife Suzanne on Wellstone’s 1990 campaign.

Dittrich recalled visiting the Wellstone memorial outside of Eveleth with Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington.

They were in the vicinity on legislative business.

“It was a very somber moment — a sacred moment,” Dittrich said of standing amidst the pines.

Wellstone would have turned 68 in July.

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