Minn. in confusion over filling Wellstone's vacant Senate seat

Gov. Ventura considers naming Democrat to post

October 27, 2002|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ST. PAUL, Minn. - As Minnesotans grieved over the death Friday of Democratic Sen. Paul D. Wellstone in a small plane crash, state and party officials began trying yesterday to untangle the resulting confusion in the contest for the Senate seat to which he had been seeking a third term.

With the election only 10 days away, Gov. Jesse Ventura said he was leaning toward appointing someone to serve until a new senator was elected, leaving Wellstone's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (the Democratic Party is known as the DFL in Minnesota) to nominate a replacement on the ballot.

Ventura met with legal aides yesterday and indicated that he was considering appointing an interim senator from Wellstone's party, but not anyone running for the vacant Senate seat.

"To me, it's only fair," he told the Associated Press. "I don't want it to become political. What if something happens? We have to have a senator. If terrorism hits, and they call a special session, we have to have someone to go out there."

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders were deliberating on their choice to replace Wellstone on the Nov. 5 ballot. Speculation was centering on former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, 74, as the DFL figure regarded as having the best chance to hold Wellstone's seat.

Although secluding himself amid growing party pressure that he come out of political retirement, Mondale did not reject the notion.

The most significant development of the day came from Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, a Republican, who said Wellstone's name could not remain on the ballot. She said state Attorney General Mike Hatch, a Democrat, had ruled there was no provision in state law for the name of a deceased candidate to be placed before the voters.

Many Wellstone activists had hoped to parallel the 2000 Missouri race in which the name of Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, who died in a plane crash days before the U.S. Senate election, was kept on the ballot and he won. The Democratic governor who replaced him appointed Carnahan's widow, Jean, to fill the seat until a special election this year. She is seeking election for the remaining four years of the six-year term.

A clear consensus had already emerged that the outpouring of sentiment over Wellstone's death would almost certainly have made him the winner in what had been a close race with Republican former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.

Kiffmeyer stated flatly that Wellstone's name could not be offered as a write-in candidate, either. She said the DFL would have to produce the name of a new nominee by Thursday afternoon to provide enough time for a supplemental ballot covering the nominees for that office to be printed and distributed to county elections officials.

Unlike Missourians, Minnesotans will be choosing a new senator for a full six-year term, she said.

For a time, Mondale enthusiasts had thought that if the Nov. 5 election were for only a two-year term Mondale might be more likely to agree to run, out of loyalty to the party under whose banner he ran for president in 1984.

Since leaving the Washington scene, Mondale has enjoyed a comfortable life, working in an established law firm and also running a well-regarded series of political seminars at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Politics at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He was among the first political figures to come to the Wellstone campaign headquarters Friday to console a shocked staff.

Other possibilities

Hatch has also been mentioned as a possible replacement for Wellstone on the DFL ticket, but differences he has had with party leaders, some of them say, make it unlikely that the DFL leadership would select him.

The one other well-known party figure considered by many to have the broad public celebrity and popularity to hold the Wellstone seat is state Associate Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, a Pro Football Hall of Fame player who was a tackle on the Minnesota Vikings' feared Purple People Eaters defensive line. Page, who studied law while playing in the NFL, was Minnesota's assistant attorney general from 1987 to 1993, when he joined the state's high court.

Still others mentioned include Wellstone's 37-year-old son, David; former state Attorney General Skip Humphrey; Reps. Martin Sabo, James Oberstar and Betty McCollum, the first woman to serve in the Minnesota congressional delegation; and retiring state Auditor Judi Dutcher.

Bill Harper, campaign manager for Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, the DFL candidate for governor, suggested that if Mondale could not be persuaded to run, the party would be wise to select a woman as a sharp contrast to Coleman.

Sorting out legalities

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