Paul Wellstone

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Paul Wellstone

Paul David Wellstone (July 21, 1944October 25, 2002) was an American politician and two-term U.S. Senator from Minnesota. He was a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and was a professor of political science before being elected to the Senate in 1990. He served in the Senate until his death in a plane crash on 25 October 2002. Wellstone was a liberal and a leading spokesperson for the progressive wing of the national Democratic Party.


Early life

Wellstone was born in Washington D.C. to Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants, Leon and Minnie Wellstone, and raised in Arlington, Virginia. He attended Yorktown High School in Arlington. He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a wrestling scholarship, graduating with a degree in political science in three years. He was an Atlantic Coast Conference champion.

In 1965 he earned his B.A., and four years later was awarded a Ph.D. in Political Science. Wellstone's 1969 doctoral dissertation at UNC was "Black Militants in the Ghetto: Why They Believe in Violence".

He went on to become a professor of political science at Minnesota's Carleton College where he taught for 21 years until 1990. In 1984, he helped run the 1984 presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson in Minnesota. That same year, he ran for state auditor, but lost to Arne Carlson, who later became governor.

He first ran for the Senate in 1990, running a unique, low-budget campaign. With a strong grassroots operation, an old green school bus, and humorous TV commercials, Wellstone upset incumbent Rudy Boschwitz with 50.4% of the votes. He defeated Boschwitz again for re-election in 1996. During that campaign, Boschwitz ran ads accusing Wellstone of being "embarrassingly liberal" and renaming him "Senator Welfare". After an attack by Boschwitz, in which he was accused of flag burning, backfired, Wellstone, who had run dead even with his opponent in polls throughout the election, beat Boschwitz by a nine-point margin.


In 1999, Wellstone seriously considered running for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2000. He formed an exploratory committee for that purpose, but he eventually decided not to seek the nomination. During the primary campaign, he endorsed the (unsuccessful) candidacy of former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley.

Although he had promised to step down after two terms, in 2002 Wellstone campaigned for re-election to a third term against Republican Norm Coleman. Earlier that year he announced he had a mild form of multiple sclerosis, causing the limp he had believed was an old wrestling injury.

Senator Wellstone was known for his work for peace, the environment, labor, and health care; he also joined his wife Sheila to support the rights of victims of domestic violence. He opposed the first Gulf War in 1991 and the second in 2002. He was strongly supported by groups such as Americans for Democratic Action, the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and People for the American Way.

After voting against the war in Iraq in the midst of a tight election, Wellstone is said to have told his wife, "I just cost myself the election." It was this attitude that earned Wellstone the moniker of "the conscience of the Senate."

Wellstone was in a line of left-of-center or progressive Senators of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL). The first three, Hubert H. Humphrey, Eugene J. McCarthy, and Walter F. Mondale, were all prominent in the national Democratic Party.


At about 10:22am, October 25, 2002, Wellstone was killed at the age of 58 with seven others in a plane crash in northern Minnesota. The other victims were his wife, Sheila, one of his three children, Marcia, the two pilots, and campaign staffers Will McLaughlin, Tom Lapic, and Mary McEvoy. The plane was en route to Eveleth where Wellstone was to attend the funeral of Martin Rukavina, a steelworker whose son Tom Rukavina was in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Wellstone decided to go to the funeral instead of a rally and fundraiser in Minneapolis attended by Mondale and fellow Senator Ted Kennedy. He was to debate Norm Coleman in Duluth that night.

The Beechcraft King Air A100 plane crashed in dense forest about two miles from the Eveleth airport while operating under instrument flight rules as required for weather conditions of freezing rain and snow. Investigators were dismayed to learn that unlike many larger commercial planes, the charter plane Wellstone was traveling in had no flight data recorders. Both pilots tested negative for drug or alcohol use. Icing was considered and rejected as a significant factor in the crash.

The NTSB later determined that the likely cause of the accident was the failure of both the pilot and copilot to maintain a safe minimum airspeed, leading to a stall from which they could not recover. Fatigue could have affected this, as the day before the crash the pilot had flown an unexpected trip from 3 - 9:30 am and then worked a nursing shift from 6 - 10 pm. Wellstone's flight departed St. Paul at about 9:37 the following morning. However, both pilots would have had to fail in their task of monitoring the airplane's instrumentation and in-flight behavior which would have given ample warning of an impending stall. Therefore, fatigue is likely not the only factor.

The pilot was characterized in the report as being "below average" in proficiency, and significant discrepancies were found in his flight logs in the course of the post-accident investigation. He also had a well-known tendency to allow copilots to take over all functions of the aircraft as if they were the sole pilot during flights. The copilot was cited by coworkers as having to be consistently reminded to keep his hand on the throttle and maintain airspeed during approaches. The final two radar readings detected the airplane traveling at or just below its predicted stall speed given conditions at the time of the accident.

His opposition to war with Iraq and the balance of the US Senate which was given to the Republicans after his seat was lost to Norm Colman have fueled theories of a possible assassination polt.


Wellstone's death came just 11 days before his potential re-election in a crucial race to maintain Democratic control of the Senate. Campaigning was halted by all sides. Wellstone followed Governor Mel Carnahan and Congressman Jerry Litton in dying in plane crashes during Senate campaigns (in 2000 and 1976 respectively). Additionally, Richard "Dick" Obenshain of Virginia died in a plane crash in 1978 shortly after receiving the GOP Nomination.

Minnesota law required that his name be struck from the ballot, to be replaced by a candidate chosen by the party. This replacement candidate was former Vice President Walter Mondale, who accepted the nomination and later lost the election to Norm Coleman.

The memorial service for Wellstone and the other victims of the crash was held in Williams Arena of the University of Minnesota and was broadcast live on TV. Such high profile politicians that showed up for the memorial were Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Trent Lott, and Rod Grams. After Rick Kahn began urging that the crowd should win the election for Wellstone and that Republicans should stop their opposition to the senate seat, Governor Ventura stormed out of the service in disgust, and Lott left before the service was over.

Republicans later claimed that the event was partisan, and that the Democrats had essentially received free election campaign airtime. Governor Jesse Ventura, who had the option to pick a replacement senator to serve out Wellstone's term which lasted until January 2003, went so far as to declare he would solicit resumés for the senatorial position but refuse Democrats. On the other hand, the pre-election outrage swirling around Wellstone's memorial was condemned by Democrats like radio personality Al Franken who claimed that the outrage was overblown in order to damage the Democrat running as Wellstone's replacement.

On November 4th, the day before Election Day, Ventura appointed state planning commissioner Dean Barkley of the Independence Party to complete Wellstone's Senate term.

Wellstone is survived by his sons David and Mark and six grandchildren. The AFL-CIO, has created the AFL-CIO Senator Paul Wellstone Award for supporters of the rights of labor. Presidential candidate Howard Dean and California state senator John Burton both received the first award in January 2003. In 2004, the University of North Carolina dedicated the Paul and Shelia Wellstone Memorial Garden as a tribute to the couple, both alumni of the university.

External links and references


Further reading

  • Fetzer, Jim and Jacobs, Don Trent, American Assassination: the Strange Death of Senator Paul Wellstone, Vox Pop, 2004.
  • McGrath, Dennis J. and Smith, Dane, Professor Wellstone Goes to Washington: The Inside Story of a Grassroots U.S. Senate Campaign, University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
  • Wellstone, Paul, The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda, University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

Preceded by:
Rudy Boschwitz
United States Senator from Minnesota
1991 – 2002
Succeeded by:
Dean Barkley

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