Don't Count Him Out
The scene last Tuesday morning at the Lake Harriet Bandshell must have looked curious to passersby out for a morning walk. There, in the middle of the stage, stood DFL Senate candidate Paul Wellstone, flanked by representatives of the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, and Clean Water Action who had gathered to endorse him in his race against Rudy Boschwitz. A pack of reporters and camera crews lined the front of the stage in a half-circle; through the viewfinders it had the appearance of a real public gathering, but the audience consisted of one curious bicyclist who stuck around just long enough to realize that none of the microphones on the podium was connected to a loudspeaker. With five weeks to go in a race against an incumbent who's raised ten times as much money, Wellstone was looking to generate some media presence with his stand on the environment.
Not everybody caught the spirit of the enterprise. Ginny Yingling of the Sierra Club compared the 46-year-old Carleton College professor and long-time activist to "an efficient economy car," adding that "Rudy Boschwitz is not fuel-efficient"--an apt metaphor, maybe, but not the stuff colorful soundbites are made of. After the endorsements had been proffered, Wellstone was introduced. The environment is a children's issue, he said, "and we have to have enough faith in the future that we're willing to invest resources in the present. Rudy Boschwitz promotes himself as a champion of the Clean Air Bill, but he voted for the Nickles/Heflin amendment that would have gutted its enforceability." He concluded with a litany of rhetorical questions tailored for excerpting in the 10 or 15 seconds of airtime he was hoping to nab: Where's Rudy been in getting aid for farmers to get them off the chemical treadmill? Where's Rudy been in the efforts to reduce greenhouse gases? Where's Rudy been?
Wellstone didn't see the fruit of his efforts on the 6:00 news; by that time he was 100 miles south making his sixth stop of the day, this one in front of a group of Mower County DFLers at their headquarters in an Austin shopping mall. When he finally pulled into his Northfield driveway at 8:30 that night, he had put in a 14-hour day that included visits to an Albert Lea vo-tech, a Mower County sheep farm, a meeting of child care providers in Austin, and a senior citizens' dance, along with innumerable five-minute interviews with reporters and TV crews from area media. His fabled campaign bus--a retooled 1968 school bus that was fresh out of the shop, where it had gotten a new engine--had broken down twice; for the remainder of the week he'd travel by car. Over a late supper in a local pub, he called it a typical campaign day.
"Maybe there was a little more media today than usual," he said, "and maybe some of the crowds were a little smaller. But the issues you heard me talking about are the issues I always talk about." Wellstone's stump speeches revolve around a handful of key themes: a national health care plan; priority funding for education and child care; strict environmental enforcement; a farm policy that raises market rates and removes incentives for overproduction; and an approach to the federal budget that would pay for it all by striving to cut the defense budget and raise the income tax rates of the top 1 percent of the population. Wellstone never misses a chance to cast Rudy Boschwitz as the handmaiden of corporate America (or "the Senator from Exxon," as he's often labeled him), but frontal attacks on Boschwitz are rare; day in and day out, he's running one of the most issues-intensive campaigns for a major office in years.
The unabashedly idealistic tenor of the campaign is privately a source of bemusement for some reporters who've covered it, most of whom came of age post-Watergate. They all seem to like him, but they can't figure out his unadorned populism, or his apparent textbook faith in the potential--if not the 1990s reality--of the American political system. Wellstone, for his own part, credits much of his political sensibility to the civil rights movement of the '60s, and Martin Luther King in particular. "What I heard in King time and again," he said, "was his grounding the struggle in an attempt to get people to call on their best selves. He called on us to be the best country we could be. And that impressed me, particularly in contrast to those elements on the Left who made their appeals based on hate."
But if months of chasing the specter of Rudy Boschwitz around the Minnesota countryside have taught Wellstone anything, it's that high-minded stump speeches in front of modest crowds can only take you so far. Name recognition is still an issue--polls show almost a quarter of Minnesotans still don't know who he is--and so is the media's attention to what he believes are the key issues in the campaign. At 5:00 last Wednesday morning, the day after his press conference, Wellstone was storming around his Northfield home with the StarTribune's Marketplace section in his fist.
"Unbelievable," he said. "This is absolutely disgraceful. You hold a major press conference on the environment with five weeks to go in the U.S. Senate race, and it shows up on the back page of the Marketplace section. I want to say that I think the working press is writing fair stories. But the editors--how many people read the back page of the Marketplace section? They say people aren't interested. They make people uninterested." Wellstone rarely loses his cool, privately or publicly, but missed opportunities like this one--or having to miss a 10-minute handshake stop somewhere for scheduling reasons--can drive him near distraction. Thin as he's stretched, they all loom as lost chances to gain on Boschwitz's 55-40 percent lead in the StarTribune's last Minnesota Poll.
Over the course of the day, Wellstone was only slightly mollified to learn that the environment story played on page 3 of the Metro section in the Cities. But it wasn't a lost day in terms of media. That afternoon, while campaigning in Duluth, he got word that the Twin Cities press had been given copies of his new TV spot, an audacious two-minute slice of Roger & Me guerrilla video in which Wellstone goes to Boschwitz's offices in the Cities and to Plywood Minnesota, trying to find Rudy to challenge him to a series of debates. The spot captures Wellstone's energy and affability; he looks dynamic and purposeful compared to the slow, stolid Boschwitz staffers he encounters. The commercial artfully underlines the grassroots tone of his campaign: "Is this your pen? Do you mind if I keep it?" he asks one Boschwitz secretary after scribbling a message for Rudy. "I don't have a lot of money." Strolling briskly through the parking lot outside, he passes a Mercedes. "Nice car," he coos.
The Rudy & Me commercial was the latest and boldest in a series of striking personality spots conceived with the help of a former Wellstone student, Bill Hillsman. The only strategic problem with the spot was that at two minutes, Wellstone could afford just three initial airings in the Twin Cities metro, Wednesday night on the 'CCO and KARE news, and Thursday night in Cheers's 10:30 slot. But Boschwitz press secretary Jay Novak helped stretch the Wellstone campaign dollar by turning apoplectic in front of reporters, sputtering that Wellstone was a "leftist hustler" and a "little fake."
The ad flap produced a page one Metro section story in Thursday's StarTribune. Reading it over coffee at a supporter's home in Hibbing that morning, Wellstone had mixed emotions. "One fair criticism of me," he said later en route to a radio interview, "is that my ads so far don't deal with many issues for an issues person. But my response to that is, if there's not going to be any coverage on issues, I've got to find a way to let people know who I am. My big headline story this week is about the ad, and the reaction to the ad. The same reporter, Dane Smith, wrote a good story about the environment yesterday, and look where it ran."
Beyond his ad campaign, Wellstone has been accused of reversing himself on the question of PAC money. He's hammered at Boschwitz for taking money from corporate PACs all over the country, and some critics sounded off when Wellstone began to accept some PAC contributions. In response he's said that he only accepts money from Minnesota organizations or their national affiliates, and he's compared a refusal to accept any PAC money to "unilateral disarmament" in the face of Boschwitz's huge war chest.
"The money thing is obscene," he said. "I think Boschwitz epitomizes the '80s. You abandon children, waste a decade on the environment, spend excessively on the Pentagon, and facilitate a massive transfer of income, all up toward the top. And then the people who benefit from that and get all the money turn around and give it to the people in government who helped them get there, right? He gets his campaign going on $7 million, then devotes a huge portion of that money to TV ads that turn the truth on its head with respect to kids, farmers, the environment--ads that literally have nothing to do with his voting record. It's just profoundly cynical. Besides my staff and the people I meet around the state, that's the other thing that keeps the fire in my belly right now. I just really want to take that on."
Wellstone has been an underdog every step of the way since his campaign began, almost two years ago. He wasn't supposed to be able to win the DFL endorsement because of his low name recognition and his history of emphasizing grassroots activism over electoral politicking (his only direct campaign experience came in a losing race for state auditor in 1982, and as Minnesota co-chair of the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign). Once he secured the endorsement, he wasn't given much of a chance in the primary; a StarTribune article on the day of the primaries said he was at best in a dead heat with agriculture commissioner Jim Nichols. He won by a 60-35 percent margin. "Polls don't measure who turns out," he's become fond of saying. "Polls never measure who turns out."
Last week, with five weeks left in the race he wasn't supposed to be running, Wellstone and his staff were enthusiastic about their chances. On the way to Duluth Wednesday morning, a woman having breakfast at the next table over from Wellstone's at Key's Grill in St. Paul pulled out her checkbook and wrote him a $50 check; later, in a stopover to use the phone at Tobie's in Hinckley, another supporter wrote him a $100 check. The day before, Wellstone's office had received over $19,000 in campaign contributions--mostly in small amounts, 486 checks in all. To date his campaign has pulled over $610,000 in contributions, from 11,000 contributors. "It's like a brushfire," he grinned in the car outside Key's Grill. "Things like this keep you going."
If Jay Novak's rattled response later that day to the Rudy & Me ad was any indication, the Boschwitz campaign is feeling the heat. Wellstone's charge is partly a matter of capturing the public imagination by saying things few Democrats have dared to say in the '80s. "What became clear to me by last fall," he reflected, "is that people are tired of sit-on-the-fence politics. We can only win with conviction; people have to believe that we believe what we're saying. I'm gonna talk like a Democrat, and if people say I'm too liberal or progressive, I'm happy to rattle off the things I stand for and say that's exactly who I am. And we're gonna win on the basis of those politics."
Organizationally, Wellstone's roots run deep for a candidate with so little electoral experience. Partly it's a function of how he's combined teaching and activism throughout his years at Carleton. Former students comprise about half of his paid staff of 20 or so. Around the state, much of his support stems from his public speaking and grassroots activism on behalf of causes from the farm crisis to labor disputes. John Filipovich of Duluth, a retired state employee, became a Wellstone fan over the years because of his stands on national health care and labor issues. In April 1989, he hosted one of the campaign's first strategy sessions.
Personal aide John Heegard, who at 33 claims to be the oldest person on staff, is the son of an Austin P-9er who put in 38 years at Hormel before the axe fell; he met Wellstone in the days when Wellstone was traveling around the state with union officials Jim Guyette and Pete Winkels to muster support for the strikers. Heegard is the guy who takes the heat when a campaign stop is aborted, or when the schedule doesn't leave enough time for Wellstone's daily three-mile run. His devotion to his boss is unflagging, and that seems to be the rule throughout the campaign, with staff and beyond. Wellstone has built personal relationships with his key supporters, asking their advice and lodging in their homes along the campaign trail. Last Wednesday night he sat up late in the kitchen of one of his earliest allies, Hibbing schoolteacher and DFL mover Gabe Brisbois, talking about issues of regional concern and placing calls to backers in the area. In a political age dominated by professional consultants and imagemakers, Wellstone seems genuinely committed to seeking counsel from his supporters and potential constituents--not just because he can't afford the consultants, but because he believes that's how you do politics.
In practical terms, the Wellstone coalition has a hue unlike anything seen in Minnesota politics in recent times, uniting traditional blue-collar support with a spectrum of green/progressive groups like environmentalists, gays, Central America activists, and the peace & justice crowd--many of which have been largely uninvolved in electoral politics until now. Truth be told, entrenched DFL forces aren't uniformly thrilled with Wellstone's blue/green coalition. Many of them purportedly fear that the newcomers in the bunch won't remain in the party, and only stand to alienate moderates. Wellstone admits the mixture is volatile, but he maintains that whether they stay in the party is largely up to the party itself as it carves out its turf for the '90s. For now, anyway, it gives him a rare strength in the metro area and on the Iron Range, two regions that seldom see eye to eye. Both areas are vital to Wellstone strategists' upset scenario; to win, they say, he has to carry the Range and the Cities by healthy margins and get at least 50 percent of the vote in the 6th District. He's not expected to do as well in rural southern Minnesota or in the northwest part of the state.
"I'll tell you something," Wellstone said as he nursed a glass of cranberry juice in his living room last Tuesday night. It was around midnight, 18 hours into the present campaign day and about five hours from the start of the next one; the words were coming more slowly than usual. "When I first went to Washington, the basic argument was we were off the map, we didn't exist. Give us a break--a college professor running? And then they said I was too liberal. Now I went back last week, and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee has our race right up there on the short list of the top four or five races in the country, not too far below the Harvey Gantt/Jesse Helms race in North Carolina. They're very excited."
Two hours after last Tuesday's press conference on the environment, Wellstone was sitting in the cafeteria at an Albert Lea vo-tech, talking to workers thrown out of their jobs by the closing of the Farmstead food-processing plant earlier this year. Table by table he asked them how long they'd worked there, what sorts of retraining courses they were taking, and which issues they'd want to address if they were in his shoes. Some of the workers were receptive, some hostile; Larry Eaton, a 50-year-old former packing plant worker studying to be a computer accounting technician, listened politely to Wellstone, but after the candidate moved outside to catch students milling between classes, he turned to one of the reporters who still lingered nearby. "Hey," he said, "now he's running for the national Senate, is he?"
Outside Wellstone buttonholed a group of three students, men ranging from their 20s to their 40s. When he began to talk about national health care, the biggest of the three interrupted him.
"It's not just that. It's more than that. You try working for minimum wage 40 hours a week and going to school too. You can't do it and live," he said. His bright, bloodshot eyes bore through Wellstone. "I appreciate your concern, but I have to tell you, I'm pretty cynical about anything getting done. Look around here--you don't see kids out of high school or college. The average age is probably 35. We need to do something here. This is probably our last chance."
Wellstone was discomfited. He promised to work for national health care and for jobs programs that would yield a livable wage. He thanked the guy.
"I've heard thanks for your input before," the man said evenly. "The trouble is, our problems aren't just June to November. They're all year-round, and I don't see anybody doing anything about it." He shook Wellstone's hand and walked off.
"Did you see that guy?" Wellstone asked later on the bus. "That was powerful stuff, that he had the nerve to say that to me. I don't know what to say to that. I've always felt that's the big issue in this campaign--the no-shows. People say I'm too liberal, but I'm not worried about that. What worries me is how to get to people who feel so alienated and so disaffected. I bop in and bop out, and I don't know if I reach them.
"I run into that everywhere. Everywhere. From cafes to plant gates, I meet a lot of people who won't shake my hand. Their attitude is, Mr. Politician, get out of my face. When I visit community colleges and technical colleges--I spoke at Pine Technical College, and there were a lot of women there, single parents. And what they had to say was, nobody cares about us, and we don't expect anything. And then there's the high school students. When I visit schools I ask them to write down the first three or four words they associate with politics. It's always 'fake, lies, phony, cheats.' I tell 'em I think they're right, but that it doesn't have to be that way.
"I think we anticipated a lot of things correctly in this campaign, but what has surprised me is the amount of anger I've found. People are angrier about politics than I ever realized. And I don't think it's really stratified by income. It's pretty much across the board. People are very disengaged from politics; they see how dominated by big money it is.
"That's the bad news. The good news is, I think there is also this sense out there that we can do better. I think there's a yearning for community out there, and a yearning to do better as a people. You know, homelessness is wrong. People know that. Soup kitchens and shelters should not be a permanent feature of American life. We ought not be moving toward a record number of billionaires and half-billionaires and at the same time toward dire poverty. People know this. It eats away at them."
After last Tuesday's visit to the Barry Rink farm outside Byron, during which a crew of 19 aides and journalists surrounded the two men while they discussed issues like commodity prices, Wellstone went over to thank Rink for agreeing to the visit. This time it was just the two of them, and a handful of journalists packing up their gear nearby. "Say," said Rink, "there's one other thing I wanted to ask you." He looked concerned. "I've heard a lot of people saying that eventually, down the road a few years, there is gonna be a riot or revolution in this country, and that's the only way we're gonna turn things around. What do you think about that?" Wellstone ran his foot through the dirt, and for the third or fourth time that day offered the assurance that he wanted to start changing things now. Then he got in his car, and the whole caravan drove off.
In his bid to convince people he's not just another politician, Wellstone is perched at the crest of a tricky wave. The anti-incumbency sentiment he's hoping to ride partway to victory could just as easily express itself in people staying away from the voting booths altogether; if early projections are any indication, that's more likely. The wrestler in Wellstone fights that kind of reasoning. "It's the cutting edge of powerlessness to believe there's nothing you can say or do," he said. "My frustration with a lot of Democrats is that they say the political climate is too conservative for a candidacy like this. I say the political climate is partly a function of what we say and do. What people are lacking right now is a framework for putting into words what's wrong, and what can take its place."
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