More Wellstone Memories
electrician, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 110-St. Paul
I went to Seattle to the WTO protest, and it was cold and raining. In Seattle, they have a statue, "The Hammering Man," as a tribute to union workers. Paul was right there with us, giving us a rousing speech under "The Hammering Man." He was speaking against corporate takeover of the world and exploiting cheap labor. He was getting all wet, but he warmed us all up, and he told us to keep fighting. And we did it, we shut 'em down. We were nonviolent, of course. I don't know how we're going to replace him. The current administration in Washington wants to get rid of him and that tells me they are anti-worker. We've lost the greatest advocate for working people in Minnesota. It saddens me to the nth degree--all the work he's done and all the volunteers that have worked so hard with him, and it's over. (Anderson)
Dr. Carlos Ren Gonzales,
former Wellstone student, rural family physician with the United States-Mexico Border Health Commission, and trustee of Carleton College
I came in from an inner-city Tucson neighborhood where the only white people I knew were teachers and cops. Most of the teachers didn't give a shit about us; most of the cops were out to bust our asses. So I didn't have a very good impression of white people.
Paul was one of the first white people I ever met who was nice, who was actually open. Who saw injustice as I saw injustice and wanted to do something about it. It opened my eyes to ways of thinking about injustice and how to deal with injustice in an appropriate manner. He opened my eyes to the philosophy of nonviolence, in opposition to discrimination.
He was always a very gentle soul. One of the most important things is that he could relate to oppressed minorities. Other people have postulated that it had to do possibly with his Jewish descent. Back in those days, I didn't know. All I knew is that this was some guy who cared, and could relate. And he knew--I don't know if he knew--but he felt at least, he truly felt, the pain of oppression and discrimination. And that's where I was coming from at that time. I was going into medicine and he knew it, so he encouraged me to take one of his courses. I believe it was the politics of healthcare. He was the first who really started discussing way back then the injustices of our health system and the inequities that existed in our healthcare system. The politics of health insurance. He was way ahead of his time. For me, it helped formulate my future career, because I subsequently ended up working in community health--health for the poor, basically, and for the uninsured. Everything that he talked about was true then and it's true now. (Tortorello)
Folks talk about his passion, but it often truly was the case. One case in particular: Just three weeks ago, we were celebrating the opening of Plaza Latina over on the East Side of St. Paul and he was there. How he got around so much, I don't know. But he spoke to us all in the Latino community. He talked about human rights, equality and justice, and how we as Latinos would be guaranteed that as long as he was around. We all believed him. Personally, we are now committed to follow through for him. It's like, he told us all how to do it, now we have the power to go out and do it. (Anderson)
R. T. Rybak,
mayor of Minneapolis
I got to know him well during Bill Bradley's [2000 presidential] campaign, because I was helping out and Wellstone was the chair. Bradley came to town for a speech and was introduced by Sheila. It was a great introduction, and the next day at a fundraiser I came up to Paul and Sheila and said, "Your wife was incredible last night!" And he kind of looked at her and laughed and said, "Who is this guy?"
When I started running, nobody took me seriously. Nobody in the political establishment took me seriously, so we couldn't find anybody to give me a quote [for campaign literature]. Who would give us a quote? That was our problem. Then I saw him at a DFL event [at the Minneapolis Convention Center] and Wellstone came up and hugged me, and told me how much he appreciated that I was running a grassroots campaign. So we're putting our campaign brochures together, and [Wellstone campaign manager Jeff] Blodgett called me and said he would give me a quote. No endorsement, but something positive. That meant a huge amount for us. We were at that church center on Franklin and LaSalle and he's introducing me on the campaign trail, and he forgot [my wife] Megan's name. And he turns to us and says, "Your name?" And I looked right at him and said "R.T." I didn't think he knew my name. "No, I know your name, I mean your wife!" (Anderson)
DFL state representative, St. Paul (65A)
My favorite memory is when he stood up before the Senate and called a roll call on part of the S&L bailout. They did [the bailout] just before he got there. So they need another like $300 million, and Paul's in his second week. Every single one of them came up and pounded on his desk, you know, and the president of the Senate is saying, "You little twerp." They're calling senators and getting them out of bed. It takes two hours to get the roll-call vote. That senator from New York at the time, what was his name? Moynihan. He said to the Senate president, "There has been a sea change."
We both were involved in the Jesse Jackson campaign, and there were a bunch of us one night camping out on a retreat for the campaign--Scott Adams, Chris Black, and others for Jackson. And we're all saying, "You know, Paul, you should run. You should run for Senate." And he's sitting there shrugging, saying, "Aw, come on, you guys." You know, not buying it.
We stayed together in a hotel in Atlanta one night on that Jackson campaign, and it would just drive me nuts: Paul was always up very early in the morning, the whole weekend. He'd be going out jogging right about the time I was just coming in from partying. (Anderson)
retired Carleton College professor of mathematics
We had a very troubled young man come to live with us at age 13 and he lived with us for three or four years. The one thing he liked to do is to wrestle. With all the other things Paul Wellstone had going on, he went over to the junior high school and volunteered his time as a wrestling coach; he had been a wrestler in college himself, and a very good one. And he turned out to be just a huge personal hero of this foster son. And that group of junior high wrestlers he coached went on in high school to become the best wrestling team that Northfield High School ever had.
He was absolutely wonderful. Instead of being firm or tough or hard, he treated the kids with joy. And wrestling was just a joy to them. They just gave everything for him.
I've gone to many wrestling matches with Paul--tournaments when his son was wrestling. It was typical of Paul's exuberance. I remember once, it was during the qualifying for the state tournament and the room was filled with kids wrestling on maybe a dozen mats. And his son was wrestling on a mat all the way on the other side of the room. His son was in something very tough called wrestle-backs, because he had lost his first match. His son was an eighth grader wrestling high school students, because he was very good. His son, by the way, eventually went on to become state champion as a senior. His son was behind in this elimination match, and all of a sudden he took this other guy down with a headlock, threw him on his back, got enough points to win the match. Paul leaps out of the seats, and over this huge room with all kinds of people you could hear this voice ring out, "AND HE'S ONLY AN EIGHTH GRADER!" (Tortorello)
spokesperson for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)
One memory of Paul that keeps running through my mind: We had a mutual friend who was a teacher of mine and a sort of a liberal Democratic Party activist in the Twin Cities. He died of cancer sometime during Senator Wellstone's first term. And when he sort of knew he was going to die, people were coming over to his house. Paul just showed up at his house one day and spent the whole afternoon just talking to him, talking about politics and things they worked on. Just real natural, no big deal. It did not matter that he was a U.S. Senator. On that day, he was just a friend. That's how I'll remember him.
He is probably the only U.S. Senator who came out on an ACORN protest when we took the streets. It was in Phillips in 1998. It was a march to get better street lighting in the neighborhood. He had spoken at ACORN's national convention and a board member went up and told him we were doing this march. And he said, "I'll definitely be there." And then, "Oh wait, wait, wait--don't call my staff, call me at home, because my staff probably won't want to schedule me for that!"
So he gave us his home number, we called him, and he showed up to rouse a crowd of about 200 or 300 people. Then he joined us as we took to the streets on a candlelight march. I mean, think about it, What other U.S. Senator would come out at night for an ACORN neighborhood action for streetlights? (Schimke)
St. Paul resident, baseball agitator, and community/transportation organizer
As for the man being a champion of the little guy, you knew it in D.C. by the way the little guys respected him. One day I was sent to pick him up and was warned that the security guys would be tough about me pulling up and waiting around for him due to security reasons. I pull up and this tough-looking security guy comes up and he's shaking his head and I could hear him saying, "No way, buddy." I roll the window down and tell him who I'm there to pick up and he smiles.
"You're here for Paul? We got a spot for you right over there. We'll wave you over when he comes out." This was at the time when he was in incredible pain from his back. Five minutes later, out he comes, chatting with every guard and office worker on the way, and my new best friend waves me over, opens the door for him and tells me to bring him right back here when we were done. Of course, Paul knows the guy by name.
One of the last times I had his attention alone was last fall after all the baseball contraction stuff and he had introduced the legislation to take away baseball's anti-trust exemption. He goes, "You know, Julian, I should have listened to you about introducing this thing last year like you told me to. I sort of missed the essence of the issue. These guys were given an exemption from antitrust and have failed to honor their end of the deal. They are not respecting the privilege we gave them. Now we'll kick their butts." (Zellar)
executive director, Somali Advocacy Justice Center, St. Paul
I was invited to a house party in St. Paul three nights ago with him. He and Sheila were there. It was a fundraiser at one of his friends' houses. I took some time and shared with him that things were very tough for the Somali community, and many of my Somali friends were in jail. And for no reason. They're just in jail.
He grabbed me by the hand and dragged me outside and he had his anger voice. That surprised me. I thought he was angry with me. He told me, "Never give up, never give up. This is not the time to give up, Omar." Then he made it clear that he was not angry at me.
Now he's gone. I'm used to this, and I know that when people go, you always have what they taught you. He taught me, he taught lots of people. We all know now. (Anderson)
author, critic, Wellstone campaign contributor
We were in the Dulles airport on our way to Paris when Jenny saw Norm Coleman being interviewed on TV. She asked a man what Coleman was doing on the news; he told her. I saw Jeff Greenfield recall asking Wellstone if, given Minnesota's maverick political tradition, Wellstone thought he could have been elected from any other state. "With my looks," he answered, "I could be elected anywhere." In California, we didn't see much of him in action, either on the floor, giving speeches, or campaigning. I do recall a spot from his first race, which got national attention for its oddity: Wellstone racing around the entire state in a vain attempt to corner Boschwitz into debating him, giving the impression Rudy B. was hiding under a rock and that Wellstone had bottomless energy and a sense of humor about himself, his enemies, and even the job he meant to do. (Perry)
Wellstone student 1974-78, fundraiser in 1990 and 1996 campaigns
Everybody's talking about Paul as an activist and a politician, but he was a phenomenal teacher. He respected his students. He really wanted to know what they thought. He wanted to hear them talk about it, and he helped all of us develop our own ideas. A lot of teachers, it's a transmission belt. They know something that they convey to you. You just never had that sense with him, even though he knew tons.
I saw him give a few speeches in Washington. He spoke in May at a convention of labor leaders in Washington. The convention was [for the] the AFL/CIO's building and construction trades, and it brings together all of the construction unions: electricians, carpenters, plumbers, sheet-metal workers, laborers, and so on. These are the hard hats, the blue-collar guys who by and large would have left high school and gone into an apprentice program and pretty much spent their entire lives working with tools.
It was a pretty politically savvy bunch, because they had every politician under the sun coming and talking to them. I saw Paul speak. I could tell that a lot of the guys in the room were from other states, didn't have any idea who he was, and they were kind of scratching their heads, because he doesn't look the part of a U.S. senator. And he starts off slow and general. He starts talking about what matters to him in the way of policy issues and you could see heads starting to nod. The one line, the climax that he built up to was, "I'm a labor senator and I'm proud of it!" and the whole place went up in arms. Not because he was a star, but because he was saying what they wished all the other politicians would say. (Demko)
retired Hibbing schoolteacher; volunteered on all three Wellstone senate campaigns
The first time I saw him was at an Eighth District convention in Eveleth. He was running for the nomination for auditor. When you have those conventions there's a steady stream of politicians that come in and want to talk to the people. While the speechifying is going on, a lot of people don't pay any attention. Well, a lot of people had gone to get lunch or a pop or something.
While we were out there, all of a sudden there was this big ruckus on the convention floor, people stomping and cheering. And we thought, "What the heck is going on in there?" And there's Paul Wellstone giving his speech. It was the energy, but also the message. It was the regular DFL menu. People hadn't heard that for a long time, since maybe the old days of Hubert Humphrey.
That's when I first got to know him, because I was working on other campaigns and we'd see each other here and there that fall . Then there was a space of about two years where I didn't see him. One spring, my future daughter-in-law was in a track meet at Carleton, so my son and daughter and wife, we all went down to watch. And a person tapped me on the shoulder and he said, "Gabe?" And it was Paul. He remembered me after all that time.
Then there's another space of time, and I was in St. Paul with Norma Schleppegrell. Paul had gotten a job then with Rudy Perpich. He saw us in the hall and invited us down to the cafeteria and bought us some lunch. I confided with him that I was really getting burned out on my teaching career and I was thinking about looking for another job. Three days later, after I got home, I got a three-page handwritten letter from Paul urging me to stay in teaching, saying how important teaching was. It kind of influenced me to stay in teaching. (Demko)
writer and history adjunct at St. Olaf College
I was a student at St. Olaf and I took courses from him here. He helped us out over there, figuring out how to divest from companies that were doing business in South Africa. It was in the late 1970s, and we knew we wanted to do work on this issue. He helped guide us through it. He was always there as a consultant in the nuts and bolts of organizing--helping us to realize why we were doing it and why it was important.
He was a great orator. People talk about a voice for the voiceless--I mean, he really was someone who spoke for them and spoke so well, for people who didn't have the power or position to have their voices always heard. In his early days of speaking, we would go to various farm foreclosure rallies or other kinds of meetings with family farmers. This was in the midst of the 1980s during the farm crisis. And he would sit in the back of the car with this yellow notepad, and he would say, "I don't have anything to say. I can't think of anything to say." And he'd go on like that forever--he was an incessant worrier about that. He'd scribble down a few notes but it didn't look like he had a lot there.
Then he'd get up on the podium, or he'd get up on the podium to speak. And he always had a wonderful and strong, strong speech. One that really hit people. What was wonderful was that sort of insecurity, and that humility, too--even though he was one of the best speakers in the state. (Tortorello)
Carleton College professor of music, dean for planning and budget
We had a group of faculty from all different departments who went running together in the arb[oretum]. Even with all his wrestling injuries, he always loved to run. He wasn't what you'd call a natural runner. But he was determined; he was passionate.
Both of us are short guys, and we both talked about how tall he told people he is, and how tall he really is. I heard him talking to a farmer's group the other day, and he said that even though he was only five-five, they made him feel ten feet tall. And I think that was the first time I ever heard him say in public he was five-five. (Tortorello)
farmer, Carver, Minnesota
I have known Paul for 20 years. I got to know him during the early days of the farm crisis, back in the early 1980s. Paul was a professor at Northfield and he would come out and spend a great number of evenings meeting with the farmers at various parts of the state, trying to give them encouragement. "Hey, the road's not over yet; let's keep working and striving to try and get over this crisis," he said.
That was my first encounter with him and we met later on several different occasions. During those early days, most of the meetings were around kitchen tables and Paul would be there. There were groups in southeastern and southwestern Minnesota that had formed and they would come to the farms and get to know their situation and they would also go to the farm credit offices and argue on behalf of the farmers. Paul was part of that.
He was like a minister, always trying to give encouragement. I just remember him saying, "Don't give up; don't ever give up." That was my impression of his way of looking at things on just about everything. It didn't matter what race you were from or your economic situation; he looked at everybody alike. Generally he was positive. I always looked to him as a person who took life in stride and wanted everybody else to look at it the same way. (Robson)
veteran DFL strategist, worker on the '90 and '96 Wellstone campaigns, and Jackson's '88 campaign
In 1987, they moved the caucus states up, so Minnesota became prominent in the '88 presidential race. I was with the [Jesse] Jackson folks. A group of us had this idea that Paul Wellstone would be great as the co-chair for the Jackson campaign in Minnesota. It was my job to call Paul and ask him to be the co-chair of Jackson '88. The first thing he said was, "Ed, you're crazy! I'm Jewish. How can I be with Jesse Jackson?"
We met at the New Riverside Caf. And the whole discussion changed when we started to talk about the fact that every time Jesse Jackson speaks, he risks his life. He risks his life. He gets death threats all the time, but he is still doing this. That was the thing that turned Paul. And so Paul agreed to meet Jesse and they got along and Paul came on board. That was huge. That was the beginning. The first time we as progressives in Minnesota ever showed any strength was Jackson '88 with Paul as a leader.
Politics is like the circus. It's not always pretty, and it is hard, hard work. You give up a lot of personal life and you give up a lot of family, and a lot of people can't do it. The 1990 campaign, so much of that was Paul. It was Paul, not giving up. His strength was bringing people together. I always look at things as political, as strategic, because that's what I do. But Paul brought people together. And he brought people together for the first time--he built a new coalition. Women and labor and environmental and people of color and seniors. For a while we actually thought this new Democratic coalition could be spread across the country, because the old one had fallen apart. (Robson)
executive director of Minnesotans for an Energy Efficient Economy
One memory I have was in his office last year. We were talking about Yucca Mountain, and nuclear waste issues, and it was George Crocker and Marie Zellar and me. He said did you hear about Mike Casper? Mike was Paul's closest friend down in Northfield. He said he's got some kind of neurological ailment, like Alzheimer's, and the prognosis is similar. There were tears in his eyes. He said why don't we do an event for him to celebrate his accomplishments? He said Mike was such a giant on the issues he worked on, nuclear freeze issues, sustainable healthcare. He said he wasn't just an organizer, he was a giant on all these issues, and now he can't do the work. So it's important we do the event for him soon, because two years from now maybe it won't be something he'll be able to appreciate. So we put the event together, and Paul came and kind of held court. We laughed and laughed. Everybody had a wonderful time.
He represented a kind of politics that few people embody anymore: idealism and inclusiveness. When I think about his first campaign, he has all these constituencies he worked with in deep ways. He worked with Jesse Jackson's rainbow coalition, with steelworkers, with farmers, with environmentalists, he taught students about organizing. He had all these kinds of deep work he had done. From my perspective, he wasn't a politician, he was an organizer. When you think about the future of progressive politics, you have to ask yourself, who's going to do that type of shoulder-to-shoulder work? It's pretty hard to think who's going to fill those shoes.
A lot of people are focusing on the family and the man. In the back of our minds is the future of our country, and the special voice of dissent that could rally people in a serious way and a fun way. Today, I just sat with my staff, took e-mails from family and around the country, and had a good cry. Left work and came home. My kids were worried about how I was doing. I just thought it was important to be with my family. (Mosedale)
Twin Cities native living with HIV/AIDS
I didn't know Wellstone personally, but I was there with my old lover when he launched his first campaign for the Senate. I remember he came to a party at the home of Bill Dorn and Norm Vork, who were DFL activists, and he got up on the stairs and gave a speech that really lit up the crowd. Back then I considered myself a liberal Democrat, and he really made an impression on me. I've cooled on my support of him over the years; I guess I'd have to say that personal circumstances and events of the last decade have caused me to move more toward the conservative center. I was very saddened by his vote on the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996--I think most of us in the gay community were disappointed by that vote--and I think he later admitted that he himself came to regret that decision. I'm also the son of Polish immigrants, and I was angered when he voted to block Poland's acceptance into NATO.
That said, I am a longtime survivor of HIV/AIDS, and he was a vocal and consistent supporter of issues that are important to me in that respect. I also have to give him credit for his support and leadership on the Americans with Disabilities Act. I now realize that you have to be willing to look at things at the end of the day, and I suppose I would have voted for him this time around, because however he may have personally disappointed me, the alternative really isn't very appealing, is it?
Voting against Bushie on the war with Iraq was a very dangerous thing for him to do, and I have to admit that when I heard the news today my gut feeling was that this was the payback for that. The first thing I thought was that the jig was up, you know? I'm definitely of the feeling that I want to see this thing investigated to death.
I guess I went through the whole gamut of emotions that you experience when someone dies. You know, I love my country, I love this state, and I love my people. I decided to go down to the capitol for the memorial service today because I was feeling angry, depressed, and alone, and I really thought I would feel a sense of comfort being there. As I listened to the speakers I realized that in the back of my head I kept expecting that Paul was going to step up to the microphone at any minute and give one of those trademark speeches of his, that this was all just a warm-up. And then of course I had a reality check. I realized this wasn't pretend. Wellstone's dead, he's gone, it's really over. When I got on the bus to go back to Minneapolis afterwards, this Somali guy got on at the same time as me and he sat down by himself and just started to cry. (Zellar)
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter