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?

"Dayton rode these anxieties into the Senate," Strom continues. "In the Nineties, all we cared about were these niggling issues. And they are relatively small in regard to war and peace."

On a cell phone from the Iron Range, where he spent the first days of the new year holding town meetings, Dayton expresses no remorse for voting for the war resolution. It was, he says, "absolutely the necessary thing to do." He was all for going into Afghanistan to fight back; but if the military campaign were to move on to, say, Iraq and Somalia, he explains, he would be against it. "We have to have an enlightened worldview now," he says, one that acknowledges that improved national security hinges upon "building relationships."

Unlike Wellstone, however, Dayton at least has come to express some regret about voting for the Patriot Act. Both he and Wellstone voted against the appointment of John Ashcroft, he notes, and the U.S. attorney general has done little in the months since to earn Dayton's trust. "I was in support of Feingold's amendments [to the Patriot Act], especially the one that limited the ability to wiretap," Dayton complains. "But at a point, you've either got the whole bill or you've got nothing. I don't agree with it 100 percent....And I agree that the bill should have been given longer consideration."

Of course, there are plenty of people who say it wouldn't have meant much if Senator 100 had fought hard against the bill. "Dayton's a freshman senator, and there's an unwritten rule that you don't make waves," suggests Janecek. "I think pretty highly of Mark, but I have to say it's impossible to do anything in the face of this in your first year in office. He had highly polled issues that people cared about. But now everything seems so insignificant."

Dayton, for one, concedes that he's stuck. "I've learned that what's happening in one state is not enough to move Congress," he says with a candor that perhaps many Minnesotans would find refreshing. "I'm trying to get everyone else in Washington to just listen to me."

 

There is an argument to be made that in the wake of such a heinous terrorist act, it is the role of an elected leader to concentrate on keeping the nation united, and that Minnesota's senatorial delegation is simply trying not to rock the boat. But to hear their detractors tell it, the problem with using that logic to excuse Wellstone's and Dayton's performance in recent months is that it lets them off the hook for what critics argue is a failure to fulfill their most basic duty: to serve as a conduit between the people of Minnesota and official Washington.

"What is the senator's job, if not to at least come back and say, 'I've been in Washington, here's what's going on, and I want to know what you think of it?'" asks Strom. "What are they there for?"

Put this question to the senators and their staffers, and they reel off a list of accomplishments that have gotten short shrift: Wellstone authored and passed a law aimed at helping homeless veterans, blocked a Republican bill that would have restricted personal bankruptcies, and brought home money to clean up Superior National Forest. Both men, along with Minnesota DFL Rep. Jim Oberstar, helped secure a desperately needed aid package for laid-off Iron Range workers.

Still, say Rosenbaum, O'Connell, and other critics, either senator could have come back to Minnesota and more directly addressed the new national agenda. "They're just like all the others in the war against terrorism," O'Connell complains. "They are not exactly seeking out the constituency to have a rigorous debate on the Patriot Act, or any other war legislation."

Hillsman, however, cautions against expecting too much from any politician in this day and age. "It's just not easy to get things done anymore, and it's harder to speak out. They keep you in your place in the Senate," he concludes. "Feingold took the path that Paul once hoped to take. Sure, [Feingold] might not do it in five years, but at least for now you can say he stuck to his guns."

Last year Wellstone published a Senate memoir. In chapter eight of The Conscience of a Liberal, titled "U.S. Senators and their World," the former poli-sci professor from Northfield recalls the exhilaration of being one of 100 people whose job is to shape policy in America. "[I was] determined to make an impact," he writes, "but I made some terrible rookie mistakes." His mistakes, he continues, taught him some valuable lessons.

The first and most valuable? "To have power in the Senate, you need to know only two words: I object," Wellstone writes. "If you object, you have power."

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