Wellstone held strong to his convictions and beliefs, colleagues say

Courage, passion, humor helped senator stand out

`He was profoundly committed'

October 26, 2002|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, the Senate has lost perhaps its most liberal voice, a spirited and unrepentant left-of-center Democrat known for his passionate style and deeply held convictions.

As news spread of Wellstone's death in a plane crash over his home state yesterday, stunned and grief-stricken colleagues from around the country and across the political spectrum remembered him as a fierce fighter on social issues who served the vital role of committed dissenter in Congress.

Wellstone, who died at 58, often took positions that put him at odds with the rest of the Senate - most recently, when he voted against authorizing President Bush to use military force against Iraq.

A champion 126-pound wrestler during his days at the University of North Carolina, Wellstone brought the same combative intensity to the causes he cared most about, including improving welfare assistance to the poor and unemployment benefits for the jobless, spending more on education, and increasing the minimum wage.

"Paul truly had the courage of his convictions, and his convictions were based on the principles of hope, compassion, the Good Samaritan helping those left on the roadside of life," said a tearful Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and one of Wellstone's closest friends.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, dubbed Wellstone "the soul of the Senate." When Wellstone was elected in 1990, he was hailed by the ultra-liberal Mother Jones magazine as "the first 60s radical elected to the U.S. Senate."

Wellstone stood out in the Senate not only for his liberal views, but also for his unorthodox background.

In a chamber populated largely by wealthy former businessmen and well-groomed politicians, Wellstone was a rumpled-looking former college professor schooled in grass-roots activism and protest politics. He was known best in Congress for his efforts to help the downtrodden and disadvantaged - from the jobless to the mentally ill.

Wellstone was given to fiery floor speeches that tugged at the heartstrings of some, and caused others to roll their eyes. Although most disagreed with his populist sentiments, few accused him of putting on an act.

Although Wellstone's sudden death raised a host of short-term political questions about the future of the Minnesota contest, many colleagues and political analysts focused instead on the impact his absence would have on the Democratic Party and the nation.

His unconventional style and crusading advocacy for liberal social programs and policies will not soon be seen again, they said.

"He had an appeal to political activists on the left that no other major elected national politician really could duplicate," said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where Wellstone taught for two decades.

That meant Wellstone probably could not have been elected in practically any state other than Minnesota, where voters tend to support nonconformists - the quirkier the better - such as Gov. Jesse Ventura.

It also made him more influential as an advocate for little-discussed issues than as a deal-maker on high-profile legislation.

"He won't be remembered as one of the primary legislators of his time, but he will be remembered as the most aggressive and passionate spokesperson, and a mobilizer, for progressive policies," Schier said.

That progressive streak was born during Wellstone's childhood in Arlington, Va., where friends said his parents, Russian Jewish immigrants, instilled in him a deep respect for his country, education and working people.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, said Wellstone "lived the American dream.

"He was profoundly committed to the democratic political institutions that he had studied in his youth, that he taught to so many students over the years, and that by his own direct engagement he brought to life," Sarbanes said.

Colleagues admired Wellstone's well-earned reputation for bucking the will of the Senate - and often his own party - to vote his conscience.

His much-discussed choice to vote "no" last month on Bush's Iraq resolution fit that long-standing pattern. Although he may have faced serious repercussions Election Day for defying the president and the rest of his party, Wellstone became the only Democrat in a tight re-election contest to oppose the measure.

As with his vote against the Iraq resolution, he took an unpopular and risky stance in 1996 when Congress was debating a welfare overhaul that had the support of a broad coalition, from then-President Bill Clinton to the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill. Wellstone, who was in a tight re-election battle then as well, voted "no" because he thought it would be harmful to poor people.

"He knew it would hurt him," said former Democratic Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois. "He didn't vote to sustain himself; he voted his conscience."

It was that fighting spirit many of his colleagues remembered yesterday.

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