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?

Wellstone has shown great unease with fundraising in the past--something that seems to be changing. As early as 1996, Hillsman claims, Wellstone started canvassing the country for money. Hillsman recalls working on Wellstone's 1996 reelection campaign with dread, fighting tooth-and-nail against a bevy of Washington insiders who wanted a campaign run by what he refers to as "Election Industry, Inc." "Even then I was nervous the Republicans would find out," he quips, "and see Paul come out of a fundraiser on the West Coast with trench coat pulled over his head like he was on America's Most Wanted." (Hillsman and others point out that it was during the 1996 campaign that Wellstone baffled gays and lesbians and other constituents by voting for the Defense of Marriage Act.)

Confronted with political and financial realities like these, other observers argue, there's no way to remain an outsider in Washington for so long. "After 12 years, he's a U.S. senator and wants to stay a U.S. senator," says David Strom, director of the nonpartisan Taxpayers League of Minnesota. "He's not the populist he once was, and that's dangerous. It's the same thing that happened to Boschwitz."

Wellstone, however, dismisses the idea that Washington has changed him. He says he has accomplished several things domestically since September 11; it's just that with war and terrorism dominating the headlines, his work hasn't garnered much attention. He fought, to no avail, on a mental-health bill, likewise on the farm bill, and he has tried to direct national attention to the failing economy in the Iron Range. He notes that he also has been a strong proponent of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. "There are other issues that are important in people's lives," he says. "There's a million things to do as a senator.

Shawn Barber

"I'm almost smiling at this particular criticism," Wellstone continues, exasperated. To believe that his recent actions have been influenced by his upcoming campaign, he concludes, one "would have to be a real cynic."


If there is disappointment with today's Paul Wellstone, Mark Dayton's yearlong senatorial tenure has been somewhat tragicomic. Before he arrived in Washington, Dayton learned that he would, in fact, be ranked dead last in seniority--Senator 100, as Ron Rosenbaum puts it. Dayton didn't have an office until March, and he didn't get his seat on the Senate floor for a month after that. For a department-store heir who spent $11 million of his own money to become a senator, it was, to say the least, an inauspicious beginning. Though not by design, he is perhaps even more of an outsider than Wellstone once was.

In defeating Republican Sen. Rod Grams, whose conservative diatribes and personal problems proved unsavory to Minnesotans, Dayton was elected virtually by default. It was, some insiders joked, a "hold your nose and pull the lever" kind of vote. Still, Dayton was hailed by some as the most liberal senator, next to Wellstone.

His progressive résumé includes being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, a speechwriter for then-Sen. Walter Mondale, and teaching school in New York City, as well as stints as the state's commissioner of economic development in the late Seventies and commissioner of energy and economic development in the mid-Eighties. In 1982 he spent $7 million of his own money to run for U.S. Senate, only to be defeated by Dave Durenberger. He was elected state auditor in 1989, and he ran in and lost the governor's race in 1998.

During his most recent campaign, Dayton promised to take a salary of only a dollar, and he said he would make cheaper prescription medication for seniors his highest priority. Out of the gate, he reneged on his salary promise, only to be embarrassed into keeping it. The demise of the medication issue, however, is slightly more complicated.

Before the attacks, conventional wisdom dictated that Dayton's prescription-drug agenda, and the similar patients'-rights bill--which, among other things, ensures that Americans would be guaranteed access to ambulance rides and emergency rooms--wouldn't be too hard to sell during a Bush administration. The idea was that both issues, while "liberal" agenda items, were benign enough that conservatives would concede them. Now, the drug issue is completely off the table, Dayton says, and it's likely it won't be visited for some time. (A watered-down version of the Patients' Bill of Rights was passed in by the House but failed to clear the Senate.) In response, Dayton has turned his attention to Minnesota's post-attack economy, trying to get federal help for the Iron Range, which, Dayton claims, has suffered because of the Bush administration's relaxed policies on steel trade.

"September 11th derailed everything I wanted to do. I figured there'd be a huge learning curve, but now it's exponential," he admits. "I'm hugely frustrated with the pace of legislation in Washington."

In part, Dayton may be the victim of bad timing. The fixation of the Nineties on domestic issues was bound to come to an end, says conservative Strom. "For the last decade, there has been the 'Clintonization' or domestication of politics," he notes, adding that more cops and teachers, and better health care were, quite literally, "home issues." "America was allowed to retreat back into their homes and people were free to worry about good streets to drive their minivans to good schools to pick up their kids. None of these issues were truly political on a national level, but about maintaining a lifestyle.

« Previous Page
Next Page »