Senate liberal feels he's needed

January 29, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Democrat Paul Wellstone of Minnesota came to the Senate 10 years ago as a kind of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" --a young and starry-eyed citizen politician bent on bringing integrity along with old-fashioned liberal principles to Capitol Hill.

At the time, term limits were in fashion and many candidates were running on a pledge to serve only a specific number of terms. Mr. Wellstone didn't make such a pledge, but upon election he volunteered not to serve more than two six-year Senate terms. Known as a man whose word you could take to the bank, when he was reelected in 1996 it was taken for granted he would be going out the door in another six years.

In his decade in the Senate, Mr. Wellstone has reinforced his reputation for integrity and as a fighter for social justice, with a special focus on the needs of children, the elderly and the poor. It came as a distinct surprise, then, when he announced about a week ago that after much deliberation he was breaking his pledge and would seek a third term in 2002.

His reason, he said, was the presidential election outcome and President George W. Bush's plan to push for the $1.6 trillion tax cut on which he had campaigned. That deep a cut, Mr. Wellstone said, "will make it difficult, if not impossible, to make the necessary investments in health care, child-care, seniors and working men and women."

He also warned of "a major assault on workplace safety and environmental protection, the privatization of Social Security, massive expenditures on an unworkable Star Wars defense system and a clear attack on a woman's right to choose." It was not, he said, "the time for me to walk away from this fight," with the Senate split 50-50 by party and many battles likely hanging on a single vote.

Mr. Wellstone says his decision was made in the wake of Senate Democratic colleagues and many Minnesotans back home urging him to run again. It is, to be sure, what politicians often say when they want to stay in office, and he readily acknowledges he is vulnerable to that view.

Changed cirumstances

Republicans in the state have been quick to attack his broken promise, and they are already casting about for a challenger. The majority leader of the Minnesota House, Tim Pawlenty, being urged to run against Mr. Wellstone in 2002 rather than take on Gov. Jesse Ventura if he seeks a second term.

But Mr. Wellstone says the spectacle of "the Republican control of the whole national government -- I include the Supreme Court" fills him with such dread that he feels he has no choice but to stand with his fellow Senate Democrats against the retrenchment in social policy he sees ahead.

That attitude may well reflect a concern by Mr. Wellstone that Senate Democratic backs will need considerable stiffening against Mr. Bush's agenda, after the announced support of the huge Bush tax cut by Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia at the very start of the debate on it.

Mr. Wellstone says his intention before Mr. Bush's election was to return to Minnesota at the end of 2002 and either run for governor against Mr. Ventura or go back to being the college professor he was before coming to Washington. He also was weighing a second bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. He had abandoned a first exploration early in the 2000 cycle with the worsening of a very severe back condition from an old college wrestling injury.

Now that he will be seeking re-election to the Senate in 2002, Mr. Wellstone says he pledges that if he wins a third term he will not to run for president in 2004. His first try was widely considered quixotic, but in his 10 Senate years he has won identity as his party's most fervently outspoken champion of liberal and progressive causes.

At a time when Democratic post mortems on the failure of Al Gore's populist message in the late campaigns are filling the air, the prospects of a Wellstone presidential candidacy likely would have been greeted with even greater skepticism than before. Another term in the Senate, his previous two-term pledge notwithstanding, is another matter, considering his record in Minnesota as a barn-burner of a campaigner.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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