20,000 gather in Minn. to honor Wellstone at memorial service

Clintons, Gore among those attending event for senator killed in crash

October 30, 2002|By Richard Simon and Ronald Brownstein | Richard Simon and Ronald Brownstein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MINNEAPOLIS - From the political elite to the working class, more than 20,000 people gathered here last night to remember Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota as a father, a coach, a teacher and a crusader for the liberal causes he believed in.

The memorial service for Wellstone, who was running for a third term, came as state Democratic leaders prepared today to name former Vice President Walter F. Mondale to replace him as the party's nominee on Tuesday's ballot.

Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa was the only politician who spoke, wrapping up the service with a speech that combined fond memories of his "best friend in the Senate" with rousing political remarks that had the audience on their feet, pumping their fists and cheering loudly.

"I believe that Paul was the soul of the Senate," Harkin said. "Sometimes he cast votes that even some of his friends disagreed with, on war or on welfare. But when he did, he was the mirror in which we, his colleagues, looked at ourselves and searched our own hearts."

At the service, which at times took on the aspects of a revival meeting, a rock concert and a political rally, people from every walk of life crowded into the University of Minnesota's Williams Arena. Mourners began lining up three hours before the service. To accommodate the overflow crowds, the service was broadcast in an adjoining building and large video screens were set up outside.

Former President Bill Clinton was there, as were former Vice Presidents Al Gore and Mondale and more than half of the Senate - Wellstone's liberal allies as well as his conservative foes. Cheers rang out when Mondale, accompanied by his wife, Joan, entered the hall, and again at the end of the service when he waved to the crowd.

The White House offered to send Vice President Dick Cheney. But Wellstone's family declined, saying they were concerned about the security that would be required. Instead, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson represented the Bush administration.

Wellstone, along with his wife, his daughter, three staff members and two pilots, died in the crash of a small plane near Eveleth, Minn., on Friday. He is survived by two sons, both of whom spoke at the service.

At the White House, Bush paused during a bill signing to observe a moment of silence for a "devoted public servant."

"Paul Wellstone was a deeply principled and good-hearted man," Bush said. "He'll be missed by all who knew him."

The crowd reflected Wellstone's standing as one of the Senate's leading liberal voices. The most emotional tributes came from the ordinary folks - farmers, steelworkers from the state's Iron Range and members of Minnesota's Hmong community. Wellstone sponsored legislation easing U.S. citizenship requirements for Hmong immigrants who fought in the CIA's secret war in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of the Hmong community now live in Minnesota.

Parked outside was the rickety old green bus that he used during his first Senate campaign in 1990 and that he brought out of mothballs to use again this year.

Wellstone's family members said they were establishing a Wellstone Foundation to further his "social justice legacy."

Wellstone's death so close to the election cast a new measure of political drama and uncertainty over the national battle for control of the Senate. Democrats now hold a one-seat majority, and the outcome of the Minnesota race - one of a handful of tight contests around the county - could tip the Senate to the Republicans.

In a sign of Minnesota's importance, President Bush had been expected to campaign there Sunday for the Republican Senate nominee, Norm Coleman.

He still may, although White House spokesman Ari Fleischer declined yesterday to confirm the president's travel schedule or talk about the Minnesota race before the memorial service for Wellstone.

"There will be a time for politics, and there will be a time again as the people of Minnesota focus on the fact that there is still an Election Day scheduled," Fleischer said. "Today is not the day. Today is a day to remember Senator Wellstone."

Richard Simon and Ronald Brownstein are reporters for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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