United They Sit

Minnesota's senators were supposed to be the type to stand up for social programs, the environment, and civil liberties. So why are critics left and right accusing them of lying down on the job?

Ultimately, only Feingold voted against the bill. The House passed a carbon copy the next day. "For me, the most disappointing surprise in the Senate tally was the Paul Wellstone vote," wrote Nat Hentoff, a columnist for the Village Voice and longtime Wellstone admirer. "He is one of the few authentic liberals left in Congress."

Later Wellstone tried to backpedal--albeit just a little. On December 3 the senator drafted a letter to Leahy, raising a number of concerns regarding the nation's civil-rights climate. Wellstone took pains to note his opposition to special wartime military tribunals and to an executive order signed by President Bush in November granting the federal government the power to conduct secret trials of suspected terrorists.

"Your leadership and your committee's oversight will be essential to ensure that this critical balance [of national security and civil rights] can be effectively maintained," Wellstone wrote to Leahy, head of the Senate's powerful Judiciary Committee. "Even--perhaps especially--in wartime, Congress and the courts have a critical role in assuring that balance."

It was too little, too late to appease many. "He screwed up and pissed off his constituents. He has to backpedal and put this stuff out to show that he's still concerned about civil rights," offers Ken Pentel, a coordinator for the Green Party of Minnesota and former gubernatorial candidate. "You can't hold him accountable for the whole Senate. But at least from Senator Wellstone you might expect something to distinguish himself. Instead, there was nothing. Complete silence."

Bill Hillsman, a local advertising executive who is a veteran of Wellstone's and other high-profile political campaigns, offers some explanation. "The Democrats," he says, "don't have an agenda right now."

Some political observers argue that that lack of agenda is an obvious outgrowth of recent circumstances. "In the Wellstone case, he was damned if he did and damned if he didn't," posits Sarah Janecek, co-editor of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota and a self-described conservative. "It is a very tough time to be a liberal, and it's hard for any populist politician. To have done anything about the antiterrorism legislation would have been political suicide for Paul."

But there are also those who argue that a loyal opposition is most needed during times of seeming national unanimity. And on that score, they say, Wellstone and Dayton could have done more. For example, attorney Ron Rosenbaum is one of the many people--progressive and conservative alike--who believe that federal bureaucrats can always come up with reasons why a given event justifies the broadening of their powers. And, he claims, there hasn't been this much power handed to Washington, D.C., since the late 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson's administration was embroiled in the Vietnam War and had taken on poverty and civil-rights issues.

"History has led us to believe that this type of bill is to be used for other means," Rosenbaum says. "Plenty of conservatives have raised concerns about this bill. Like Wellstone or dislike him, at least he had an opinion. You expect him to be in there on something like this. [But] at a time like never before in my lifetime, there's nobody leading from Minnesota."

Pentel is quick to agree. "Anytime there's a war," he says, "it's going to be a ruse to go after civil liberties."

Wellstone shrugs off their concerns. "These people are upset just because they disagree," he says. He was swayed by a clause in the bill that allows yearly review by Congress and calls for an end to the bill's "enhanced surveillance" provisions in four years. "I said that night on the Senate floor: If this isn't sunsetted, I won't go for it--and it was," he says. "It is not open-ended. It specifically refers to the September 11th attack on our country."

Even so, Wellstone notes that he had several worries concerning the bill. "There are some provisions on electronic surveillance that are problematical, that I don't agree with, that I think will be abused," he concedes. And he is concerned that Ashcroft has continued to push for even more power, including the authority to try suspect terrorists in a private tribunal and to detain suspected terrorists without explanation.

Wellstone adds that he thought long and hard before he cast his vote. "I decided to go back to the apartment and be alone," he recalls. "I always try to do that, on every bill I've done, just to make sure what I believe is right."

"Here were things and provisions in this bill that we have to do, and that are important to do, and if we don't, more people could be killed and be murdered," he continues. "And my thought was, 'If that happens, it's not reversible. People lose their lives.'"

"If we do it and there's abuse, then you can start raising Cain about changing it the next year," he says. "If there is abuse, I will be the most outspoken about it."

 

Like any other dark-horse victory, Paul Wellstone's arrival on the Minnesota political scene has become the stuff of legend. A political-science professor from Carleton College with thinning hair and a notable lack of fashion sense, Wellstone waged a homespun, low-budget campaign in 1990. He used a dilapidated school bus to whistlestop around the state giving fiery, passionate speeches about social justice, poverty, education, better energy standards, and campaign-finance reform. An unknown at the start of election season, Wellstone ended up trumping two-term Republican Rudy Boschwitz, who was the only incumbent to lose in that year's Senate races.

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