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Mother and Country

Tony Nelson

American-made cars fill the parking lot along Main Street and the agony and ecstasy of bingo can be heard on the ground floor of Anoka's American Legion building. It's a warm evening in early October-election season in America. Downstairs in a small, windowless basement with ersatz paneling and patriotic credos on the walls, Patty Wetterling sits on a table in front of the room like the junior high math teacher she was in the blissfully anonymous phase of her life. Arrayed before her are about 20 members (and two supportive wives) from Chapter 430 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Like Wetterling, these middle-aged men have been shaped by trauma, to the point where post-traumatic stress syndrome is casually referred to by its acronymic shorthand, "PTSS."

Even in her prim, modest sweater and slacks, Wetterling may be the best-dressed person among them. There's no ceremony to what's going on here. The vets have turned out tonight to figure out whether they need to change their perception of Patty Wetterling.

The vets and Wetterling have enjoyed a special relationship. Like just about every single thing in Wetterling's life, it revolves around the events of October 22, 1989. That day, Patty's son Jacob, then 11, was riding his bike home from renting a movie with his younger brother and a friend. They were accosted in the street by a masked gunman. The man asked each of the boys how old they were, and then told two of them to run into the woods and not look back. Jacob remained with the man. None of his friends or family ever saw him again.

Two months later, to call attention to the kidnapping, members of Chapter 430 staged an 11-mile Walk for Awareness from Elk River to Anoka. The walk became a ritual that has been repeated every December since then-going on 16 years now.

But there is a shifting dynamic at play between them tonight. For one thing, both sides have decided to discontinue the Walk for Awareness after this December. For another, Wetterling has come to them, with me and an Associated Press reporter in tow, as the DFL-endorsed candidate for a seat in the U.S. House from Minnesota's Sixth District. Less than a month before the election, Wetterling is not here to coordinate a walk, but to "be an ear" and "gain some perspective" on how the vets want to be represented in Washington.

For more than an hour, members of Chapter 430 oblige her with blunt, occasionally caustic opinions. There's plenty of frustration about the red tape and disrespectful treatment they receive from the federal Veteran's Administration, a healthy intramural debate about the political wisdom and public attitude regarding the current war in Iraq, and even a bit of unsolicited advice for the candidate.

"Now that you're in politics, don't let the big machines grind you up, Patty," says one man.

Toward the end of the evening, a vet seated in the front row takes advantage of a rare lull in the conversation. "I have been trying to think of how to say this so it doesn't sound like a lecture," he says. Despite the conciliatory words, something in his tone and body language makes it imperative that Wetterling look him directly in the eyes.

"That's okay," she says. "Please say what you want. I'm here to learn tonight."

"You have chosen a party that mostly loathes the military," the vet begins. For the next six or seven minutes, he launches into a barely controlled screed against the media and politicians of both parties over the way he and his family members in the service have been treated, ending with, "'I support the troops but not the war' is not something that as a veteran I want to hear."

Through it all, Wetterling is rapt, alternately nodding with empathy and jotting down notes on a legal pad in her lap. It's the same behavior she exhibited during another hour-plus meeting earlier that day with a handful of younger vets at Sparky's Café in downtown Anoka. Whether the subject is the mishandling and ill-preparedness of the occupation phase of the Iraqi war, the refusal of the VA Hospital to cover someone's cancer treatments, or the dastardly Democrats and the liberal media, she is at once nonresistant and thoroughly engaged. Put simply, she seems genuinely more interested in absorbing someone else's words than in formulating her response.

There is an almost painful lack of dazzle and a willingness to court naiveté in Wetterling's emphasis on listening. But then there are startling moments when she speaks from the heart and you suddenly understand why she must be regarded as a formidable candidate. After thanking the Chapter 430 vets for their annual walks, she says, "I remember when you released all those black balloons, and then there was a white balloon for Jacob. And you told me that's because he was missing in action. And I thought, 'Wow. These guys get it. They really do know what I've been going through.'"

 

Hearing those words, you realize that all the people Wetterling has been listening to so intently-the fearful soldier in chaotic Iraq, the guy whose buddy can't get cancer-treatment coverage, the vet who feels loathed by a major political party-belong, one way or another, to the ranks of the aggrieved.

To borrow a Clintonian cliché, Patty Wetterling feels their pain.

 

Six months ago, there was every reason for Republican Mark Kennedy to believe that his reelection campaign would be a cakewalk this year. In his first bid for Congress in 2000, the then-43-year-old former accountant from Watertown shocked the pundits by upsetting long-term incumbent David Minge by a mere 150 votes in their Second District race.

Two years later, Kennedy took advantage of the post-census redistricting that occurs every decade, opting to run for his first reelection in the redrawn Sixth District. While the new boundaries of the Sixth included only 15 percent of his former Second District constituents, it contains a bastion of social conservatism in the area west of St. Cloud. Its far-flung geography encompasses rural towns with bucolic names like Bald Eagle and Big Lake, and burgeoning exurban communities such as Woodbury, where upwardly mobile, fiscally conservative young professionals have flocked in recent years. Although the DFL put up a pro-gun, anti-abortion candidate in Janet Robert, who spent $2 million on the campaign, Kennedy emerged from their nasty, negative race with a resounding 22-point victory.

By the end of March, another Kennedy coronation this November seemed inevitable. He was an incumbent in a nation where congressional incumbents lost just four races in 2002, ensconced in a district regarded to be mostly in sync with his conservative positions. For insurance, he had already amassed more than $600,000 in his campaign war chest. Indeed, most of the speculation this spring centered on whether Kennedy might use some of that largesse to challenge Mark Dayton in the 2006 Senate race and join Norm Coleman and Tim Pawlenty to complete a sweep of major statewide offices by young Republican men.

After Wetterling announced her candidacy in mid-May, however, everybody stopped looking past November 2. As the victim of a notorious family tragedy, Wetterling is a widely renowned, enormously sympathetic public figure. She has worked tirelessly and successfully to pass a wealth of state and federal legislation, including the national Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sex Offender Registration Act. Her name recognition in the Sixth District is higher than Kennedy's (91 to 86 percent). And although it was never measured, her pre-candidacy approval rating probably would have ranked somewhere between Gandhi and apple pie.

What nobody knew then, and what pundits and voters alike still don't know, is what happens when someone with such an unimpeachable background gets involved in the nasty business of electoral politics. Patty Wetterling never really decided to become one of the nation's leading child-safety advocates, a martyr among mothers. Yet as unsettlingly raw and unguarded as she may be on the hustings, Wetterling has unmistakably chosen to be a candidate-without yet becoming a politician.

Stubborn skeptics of Wetterling's political viability must have been sobered to see her match Kennedy's fundraising pace dollar for dollar in the first three and a half months after she entered the race. Although the stash Kennedy had previously amassed still afforded him a substantial monetary advantage, his Republican colleagues in the House certainly took notice of the challenge his opponent from St. Joseph represented. In late June, National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Reynolds of New York belatedly added Kennedy to a list of 25 incumbent candidates who would receive largesse from a collection of 10 corporate PACs known as the "Million Dollar Club."

The only poll results even partly released to the public thus far came from Wetterling's campaign back in early July, showing her three points down, 46 to 43. The Cook Political Report currently calls the race "leaning Republican." And as of September 25, Kennedy had a 4 to 3 edge over Wetterling in the amount of individual contributions raised, and a better than 7 to 1 margin in PAC money garnered. Even so, Kennedy has made an issue of Wetterling's association with two liberal grassroots fundraising groups, MoveOn.org and EMILY's List.

In a recent television commercial, titled "Security," a picture of Osama bin Laden appears on the screen while Kennedy's voiceover proclaims, "It's wrong for some to suggest that we should not have fought in Afghanistan." Contrary to the ad's implication, Wetterling has consistently supported the U.S. military action in Afghanistan.

 

Speaking by phone from Washington, Kennedy invokes MoveOn.org to justify the ad's language. "MoveOn.org opposed action in Afghanistan after 9/11. The MoveOn.org endorsement was requested [by Wetterling] and is the largest financial supporter aligned against me."

The conventional wisdom is that Kennedy's guilt-by-association ploy may be the closest the incumbent can get to "going negative" on Wetterling. "Mark absolutely cannot attack Wetterling," says Sarah Janecek, co-editor of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota and a Kennedy supporter. "She has been through an extraordinary life experience and Kennedy has to always recognize that."

Wy Spano, Janecek's DFL counterpart and co-editor of Politics in Minnesota agrees. "Wetterling is so well-associated with the long-term safety of children that Kennedy has to be very careful about calling her names. Because almost anything he would do could come off as mean-spirited. But Wetterling really can't be too negative either, because it goes against everybody's sense of who she is and what she is about."

If the Wetterling-Kennedy contest does manage to remain relatively free of rancor, the feistier presidential race could become more of a factor. There would be some justice to that, since the positions espoused by both local candidates are remarkably consonant with those of their respective presidential partymates.

Kennedy has supported President Bush's agenda with more than 90 percent of his votes, from limiting stem cell research to enacting massive and permanent tax cuts. "I reject the idea that the reason we have a deficit is because the constituents of the Sixth District are undertaxed," Kennedy flatly states. On foreign policy, Kennedy heartily endorses the way Bush has prosecuted the war on terror. If anything, his belief in the power of exporting freedom and democracy exceeds the president's. Long before Bush came around to embracing the idea, Kennedy was one of two principal authors of a bill passed by the House that would deny Iraqi reconstruction projects to firms based in countries like France, Germany, and Russia who did not support the coalition.

Wetterling hews to John Kerry's campaign platform with a similarly dogged fidelity. Asked to identify a policy area where she disagrees with Kerry, Wetterling takes a pregnant pause to consider the question and finally replies, "I haven't really spent much time positioning myself against Kerry, so I can't think of anything specific right now."

But where the fabulously wealthy, sclerotically stiff presidential contender has trouble getting the public to reconcile the man with the policy proposals, Wetterling brings an unmistakably personal compassion to Kerry's agenda. Who wouldn't expect Wetterling to support more widespread health care, more funding for education, and more tax cuts for the middle class at the expense of those with upper-six-figure incomes? And as for the reigning issue of the national campaign, Wetterling was consumed with the notion of "homeland security" before 9/11.

"We pretty much know about the politics and the big issues," Spano says. "But what we don't know about, and what I think may be the real issue, is the Wetterling persona. In a macro sense, I think it is just hard to get people to vote against her. That is a dynamic that in politics we look for more and more. From what I understand, she is comfortable with her listening position. So it is a good strategy for her, as opposed to doing something she is not comfortable with.... The people that see her will come away with the perception that she is a really nice lady that seems to care about what we think. That is not a bad perception to have. And you don't necessarily get that from Mark, who is more of a typical politician, more interested in telling you what he thinks. What has made it fascinating is that she was willing to run in the first place."

 

Back in 1989, when Minnesotans first became acquainted with the bespectacled woman with the pageboy haircut whose son had disappeared, it was natural to assume that she'd fade into the ether. The camera would soon pan to the kin of the next kidnapped woman or murdered child. But Patty Wetterling refused to disappear--or to heal. Instead, without succumbing to bitterness or depression, she has arrived at what might best be described as a state of permanent, propulsive grief.

It is a nature that provides her with flashes of intimate eloquence. Her description of what it meant to her when the vets released a white balloon for Jacob is one example. Her reaction to Kennedy's inference that she wouldn't support the invasion of Afghanistan is another.

"Let me just tell you how it hit me when the Twin Towers were attacked and crumbled on 9/11. I watched day after day along with those other 10,000 families. I watched the horror of not knowing. All of those people standing with those signs: Have you seen my dad? Have you seen my son?

 

"I have been there. I have felt that terror before. You don't know who is the enemy and when it is going to happen again-and where is my loved one? I know those dynamics. And from my work over the past 15 years, I know the correct response is to go to law enforcement and give them the tools necessary to do the job. And that's why I would have supported us going to Afghanistan. I can't believe he has the...that he would choose to try and state my opinions for me. I am hard on crime and I would track down terrorists."

Before she declared her candidacy, no one would have dared presume to question or define Wetterling, whose image was as close to sainthood as a public figure can achieve. But sainthood for Wetterling was never the goal, but a means to an end, to a higher goal that, at age 54, remains out of reach. "You know what? I would have really been happy to be a stay-at-home mom or a junior high math teacher with my four kids," she says. "That didn't happen. So at any given point in your life, you have got a choice on how you deal with that."

A catalyst in her decision to run for office was the discovery of Dru Sjodin's body and her subsequent attendance at Sjodin's wake and funeral. "I realized I'd gone to one too many funerals. I'd participated in one too many laws named after children, and it was really hurting my spirit. It is like being the ambulance at the bottom of a cliff. I've been trying-and it is really hard sometimes-to focus on the prevention and the hope. You know, it has been all about 'Jacob's Hope,' 'Share the Hope,' 'the Power of Hope.'"

For a moment during this litany, her tone of voice takes on a sharp, exasperated edge. Then Wetterling catches herself. "And I still believe in hope in every fiber of my being. We've got to do more to build a better, safer world and safer communities. And I've been effective at doing some of that work. I know how the system works; I have already passed state and federal law. I have functioned in Washington. I've helped write books and a family survival guide. I've established networks with law enforcement, and helped get 10,000 families the ability to talk to each other.

"So when Janet [Robert] dropped out of the race and all the people kept calling me and asking me to run, I decided to take all that I have learned and advocated and do it on a bigger and broader scale for more people."

Asked how that would be done on a practical basis, Wetterling replies, "Take education. The federal government passed a law-No Child Left Behind. They didn't honor the promise of how much funding it would get. We need to look at every part of that law and figure out how to make it the useful tool it was designed to be. You can't just pass the laws; you've got to make them effective. I know that through sex-offender registration. You have to keep revisiting it and making sure that all 50 states are in compliance.

"Another example is homeland security. That's about going after the bad guys, the terrorists. I've been doing that-we call them sex offenders. Either way, they are the people in your community that don't keep your kids safe. You have to give law enforcement the tools and the communication skills to know how to deal with them and make your community safer."

As the interview continues in this vein, touching on a wide variety of issues and policy strategies, I gradually forget exactly who I am dealing with, and pose a careless, inelegantly phrased question. When you consider all the experiences in your life, I say, are you ever grateful that you've had the opportunities to do things that you might not otherwise have been able to do?

Wetterling reacts as if I'd just slapped her in the face. Tears well up in her eyes as she says in a near whisper, "I'd give it up. I'd give it all up." After a brief pause, her voice still thick with emotion, she adds, "That's a pretty harsh question."

I guess what I'm trying to say, I add, is, do you sometimes think that maybe things happen for a reason?

"I can think of no reason why a child would get kidnapped," she says. "I've had the opportunity to speak before George Bush in the White House. I've met and spoken with President Clinton four times. But the price is just too great."

 

In May of this year, Mark Kennedy told Congressional Quarterly, "I am, for better or worse, a businessman."

Until now, Patty Wetterling has been, for better or worse, the mother of a missing son. What she becomes next may be in her neighbors' hands.


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