A Tribute to Paul Wellstone

The memorial service for Senator Wellstone, his wife Sheila and daughter Marcia at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, DC on November 13, 2002 was a fitting and diverse tribute from their two sons, Mark and David, Senatorial colleagues, staff and friends.

With each heartfelt expression, the assemblage understood what Senator Tom Daschle meant when he said “so much was lost in that crash.”

Paul and Sheila Wellstone were there always for the poor, the homeless, the sick and the defenseless. They championed justice for millions of people and traveled to their places of distress to see their plight first-hand. Senator Wellstone always wanted to see situations for himself–in Bosnia, Thailand, Columbia, American prisons.

Yesterday the Associated Press called me to ask who would take the place of Paul Wellstone in the U.S. Senate. I had no answer because now there is no one with his sense of consistent, determined energy on so many issues, so many networks, so many strategies.

Anyone who visited him in his Senate offices was greeted so warmly and authentically that it was like coming home. His phrase — “Never separate the lives you live from the words you speak” is one for the book of quotations. it is also a self-description of Paul and Sheila.

In the Senate, Wellstone was identified by his support for raising the frozen minimum wage, for renewable energy and for opposition to corporate lobbyists who demand corporate welfare, tax escapes (to Bermuda tax havens), and lax enforcement of the corporate crime laws. He took on the tobacco companies, the drug companies and the health insurance giants.

But perhaps Paul and Sheila Wellstone’s greatest passion was legislation which would give mental health patients health insurance parity with those suffering from physical illness. At the memorial service, Republican Senator Pete Domenici, tossed aside his prepared remarks to speak about how he met Paul Wellstone at a meeting of mental health advocates. His affection for the Minnesota Senator was apparent when he vowed that the parity bill he and Wellstone have co-authored would be enacted by the Congress next year and would be known as “the Paul Wellstone memorial mental health parity law.”

Senator Wellstone’s desk in the Senate is now shrouded in black. His Senate colleagues unanimously passed legislation to apply $10 million to establish the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center for Community Building in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Wellstones understood to their core the meaning of Jean Monnet’s words — “Without people nothing is possible, but without institutions nothing is lasting.” The essence of community is the banding together of people to do for themselves and posterity what they could not do alone — both in the civic society and in government.

The last bill Paul Wellstone introduced was S.3143, known as the consumer and shareholder protection association. It was legislation that would facilitate through inserts in mailings of large publicly traded corporations, including financial institutions, invitations to their customers to join together voluntarily in non-profit associations that would defend their interests. (for full text see essential.org).

The corporate crime wave and the looting of the pensions and 401ks of millions of Americans losing trillions of dollars worried Wellstone. He wanted to help build institutions of investor and consumer influence to prevent recurrences in the future.

After the fatal airplane crash, commentators were awed by the outpouring of praise for Wellstone by friends and adversaries alike.

What was it about this politician that led his strongest opponents in the Congress to weep when they heard the news? Certainly, it was his friendly personality and his personal interest in their own family tragedies. They all had a Paul Wellstone story dear to their heart. But it was mainly what Senator Daschle called the rarest of traits — “his moral courage.” Something maybe they had wished on themselves long ago.

Garrison Keillor commemorated Wellstone in his nationally syndicated public radio program with these words: “Paul Wellstone identified passionately with people at the bottom, people in trouble, people in the rough. He was an old-fashioned Democrat who felt more at home with the rank and file than with the rich and famous.”

At the short end of some 99 to 1 of 95 to 5 votes in the Senate, Wellstone’s problem was that he did not have enough “old-fashioned Democrats” with him in the Senate. There may come a time when his statement that “politics is not about power; it is about people” will attract many more dedicated adherents throughout the land.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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