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United They Sit

Shawn Barber

In late September Mark Dayton picked up the phone and called a local radio talk show with the apparent hope of quelling Minnesotans' fears in the wake of the terrorist attacks. The state's junior senator and a self-proclaimed liberal, he arranged to visit KSTP-AM 1500's St. Paul studios to appear on Post 9/11, a temporary midmorning program that addressed the aftermath of the tragedy.

"We didn't know if we were going to be bombing Afghanistan or what the next step was, so I looked forward to having a U.S. Senator on the show," recalls Ron Rosenbaum, one of the show's hosts and a local attorney who is more properly described as a provocateur than as a liberal or a conservative. It was soon clear, he says, that Dayton was there less to inform listeners of any actual congressional activity than he was to shore up the notion that he was on board in the war against terror.

"Anything we asked him, it was like he had a mantra," Rosenbaum continues. "'I support the president'--that's all he said."

Co-host Mark O'Connell, a news-radio veteran, concurs. "He was almost robotic," he says. "He was in a suit, and as nice as could be. But he always came back to supporting the administration and its efforts." The two, along with co-host Dan Conry, a former New York cop, were surprised that Dayton would fall in line so easily with such a conservative administration.

To make matters worse, Senator 100--as Rosenbaum has dubbed Dayton in reference to his lack of seniority in the Senate--seemed to be slightly deficient in his understanding of "geopolitical issues"; complex questions about Afghanistan brought quizzical looks from Dayton, Rosenbaum remembers. After a little discussion, the attorney began to wonder whether the senator had been even keeping up with his newspapers. When the segment was over, the senator left the studio without ever making eye contact with the hosts, they say.

"None of us came away from that interview feeling like we knew more about what was going on," Rosenbaum says with an uneasy chuckle. "In fact, it seemed like we knew less. We were more frightened." It was not, he continues sarcastically, "a confidence-building measure."

Still, the talk-show appearance was notable. At a time when many Americans were looking for leadership, the senators had seemed deafeningly silent. Even their harshest critics concede that the first few weeks after the attacks were hard times to do anything but seek to support a sense of national unity. But even so, both seemed cowed by the conservative currents of life during wartime. "In times like these, some boats rise and some boats sink," Rosenbaum says. "I was going to say our senators are missing in action, but I guess I'd say they are just simply missing."

As those painful weeks lengthen into months, however, the number of political insiders and onetime supporters voicing frustration with Minnesota's famously progressive senators is growing. Can it be, they're asking, that Minnesota, the home of populist legends like Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and, yes, even Jesse Ventura, is now represented in Washington, D.C., by a couple of status quo politicians?

 

In the days and weeks after the attacks, White House officials and lawmakers alike were eager to appear hawkish. Talking centered on preventing another attack and fighting terrorism on our own shores. To that end, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was pushing a far-reaching anti-terrorism bill. He wanted Congress to grant federal agents unprecedented authority to tap phones; monitor computers, e-mail, and Internet use; and crack down on money-wiring services--all things that in other times have been considered violations of people's basic rights.

On October 11, the day the bill was to be debated in the Senate, panicked civil libertarians spent hours lobbying lawmakers. They were concerned that few senators knew that Ashcroft was working last-minute changes into the legislation. Though they pressed Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, to strike down the bill's most draconian provisions, the only senator who expressed any sympathy was Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold.

At 8:00 p.m., the Patriot Act hit the Senate floor. Feingold had reserved an hour to speak against the bill and propose three amendments severely limiting surveillance powers to be granted to the FBI and CIA. A handful of other senators also wanted floor time; Paul Wellstone reserved ten minutes.

Wellstone began by expressing appreciation for the "time and energy" his colleagues had put into the drafting of the bill. He praised two of Feingold's provisions, which mostly authorized grants to local governments to "respond to and prevent acts of terrorism," including the purchase of "needed equipment," and to provide more training to firefighters and emergency personnel. The week before, he added, he had traveled to Moorhead, Mankato, and Rochester and spoken with firefighters about their needs.

 

Despite some misgivings--namely provisions allowing federal authorities to use "roving wiretaps" on "multiple communications devices"--Wellstone urged immediate support for the bill. "Although I still have some reservations about certain provisions of the bill as they might affect civil liberties, I am pleased with the inclusion of several civil-liberty safeguards," he said. "Nearly all of us have said since September 11 that if that day's terror is allowed to undermine our democratic principles and practices, then the terrorists have won a victory. We should pass this bill today."

Ultimately, only Feingold voted against the bill. The House passed a carbon copy the next day. "For me, the most disappointing surprise in the Senate tally was the Paul Wellstone vote," wrote Nat Hentoff, a columnist for the Village Voice and longtime Wellstone admirer. "He is one of the few authentic liberals left in Congress."

Later Wellstone tried to backpedal--albeit just a little. On December 3 the senator drafted a letter to Leahy, raising a number of concerns regarding the nation's civil-rights climate. Wellstone took pains to note his opposition to special wartime military tribunals and to an executive order signed by President Bush in November granting the federal government the power to conduct secret trials of suspected terrorists.

"Your leadership and your committee's oversight will be essential to ensure that this critical balance [of national security and civil rights] can be effectively maintained," Wellstone wrote to Leahy, head of the Senate's powerful Judiciary Committee. "Even--perhaps especially--in wartime, Congress and the courts have a critical role in assuring that balance."

It was too little, too late to appease many. "He screwed up and pissed off his constituents. He has to backpedal and put this stuff out to show that he's still concerned about civil rights," offers Ken Pentel, a coordinator for the Green Party of Minnesota and former gubernatorial candidate. "You can't hold him accountable for the whole Senate. But at least from Senator Wellstone you might expect something to distinguish himself. Instead, there was nothing. Complete silence."

Bill Hillsman, a local advertising executive who is a veteran of Wellstone's and other high-profile political campaigns, offers some explanation. "The Democrats," he says, "don't have an agenda right now."

Some political observers argue that that lack of agenda is an obvious outgrowth of recent circumstances. "In the Wellstone case, he was damned if he did and damned if he didn't," posits Sarah Janecek, co-editor of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota and a self-described conservative. "It is a very tough time to be a liberal, and it's hard for any populist politician. To have done anything about the antiterrorism legislation would have been political suicide for Paul."

But there are also those who argue that a loyal opposition is most needed during times of seeming national unanimity. And on that score, they say, Wellstone and Dayton could have done more. For example, attorney Ron Rosenbaum is one of the many people--progressive and conservative alike--who believe that federal bureaucrats can always come up with reasons why a given event justifies the broadening of their powers. And, he claims, there hasn't been this much power handed to Washington, D.C., since the late 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson's administration was embroiled in the Vietnam War and had taken on poverty and civil-rights issues.

"History has led us to believe that this type of bill is to be used for other means," Rosenbaum says. "Plenty of conservatives have raised concerns about this bill. Like Wellstone or dislike him, at least he had an opinion. You expect him to be in there on something like this. [But] at a time like never before in my lifetime, there's nobody leading from Minnesota."

Pentel is quick to agree. "Anytime there's a war," he says, "it's going to be a ruse to go after civil liberties."

Wellstone shrugs off their concerns. "These people are upset just because they disagree," he says. He was swayed by a clause in the bill that allows yearly review by Congress and calls for an end to the bill's "enhanced surveillance" provisions in four years. "I said that night on the Senate floor: If this isn't sunsetted, I won't go for it--and it was," he says. "It is not open-ended. It specifically refers to the September 11th attack on our country."

Even so, Wellstone notes that he had several worries concerning the bill. "There are some provisions on electronic surveillance that are problematical, that I don't agree with, that I think will be abused," he concedes. And he is concerned that Ashcroft has continued to push for even more power, including the authority to try suspect terrorists in a private tribunal and to detain suspected terrorists without explanation.

 

Wellstone adds that he thought long and hard before he cast his vote. "I decided to go back to the apartment and be alone," he recalls. "I always try to do that, on every bill I've done, just to make sure what I believe is right."

"Here were things and provisions in this bill that we have to do, and that are important to do, and if we don't, more people could be killed and be murdered," he continues. "And my thought was, 'If that happens, it's not reversible. People lose their lives.'"

"If we do it and there's abuse, then you can start raising Cain about changing it the next year," he says. "If there is abuse, I will be the most outspoken about it."

 

Like any other dark-horse victory, Paul Wellstone's arrival on the Minnesota political scene has become the stuff of legend. A political-science professor from Carleton College with thinning hair and a notable lack of fashion sense, Wellstone waged a homespun, low-budget campaign in 1990. He used a dilapidated school bus to whistlestop around the state giving fiery, passionate speeches about social justice, poverty, education, better energy standards, and campaign-finance reform. An unknown at the start of election season, Wellstone ended up trumping two-term Republican Rudy Boschwitz, who was the only incumbent to lose in that year's Senate races.

To be sure, Wellstone radiated a kind of Minnesota populism that began with 1930s Gov. Floyd B. Olson and included Gov. Harold Stassen and senators Eugene McCarthy and Walter Mondale. Wellstone himself idolized Hubert Humphrey. But it was clear that he would be different even from those highly respected politicians. Overnight, Wellstone became an icon of Sixties radicalism and idealism, someone who would remain the consummate Washington outsider and stick to his beliefs, come hell or high water. Being inside the Beltway, he insisted, would never change him.

He ruffled feathers upon arriving in Washington by parking the campaign bus in the Senate parking lot, taking up four reserved spaces. He broke tradition at his swearing in by having Mondale accompany him, an invitation traditionally extended to the senior senator from a newcomer's state--in this case, Republican Dave Durenberger. And at his first meet-and-greet at the White House he broke protocol by attacking President George Bush's Persian Gulf policy with a barrage of in-your-face questions.

While some in the political establishment back home rolled their eyes, many of his supporters were galvanized by what they saw as their man's strong individuality. As the country careened toward a war with Iraq over Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, Wellstone and his wife Sheila visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where, before a throng of cameras, he made a tearful, impassioned anti-war speech. Veterans groups were outraged, and it solidified some notions around the country that Wellstone was a left-wing wacko. But at the time, Wellstone's office claimed that Minnesotans supported his position two to one.

Twelve years down the road, however, there's a feeling that Wellstone's years in Washington have diluted his resolve. For example, last March he almost single-handedly killed the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform bill by voting to attach several provisions that made it unpassable, if not unconstitutional. The bill aimed to limit campaign-related TV advertising by special-interest groups. Wellstone rallied enough votes to enact even further spending restrictions in a move that was widely viewed as a cynical attempt by Democrats to kill the bill. (Ultimately, the Senate passed the bill; a different version stalled in the House.)

The episode surprised many who remembered Wellstone championing campaign-finance reform back in 1990. But Bill Hillsman, the ad strategist largely credited with getting Wellstone elected then and reelected in 1996, says the senator had a precise strategy when he cast his campaign-finance vote. "He was already running against somebody with a lot of money," Hillsman claims, referring to Wellstone's 2002 reelection bid against Norm Coleman. "[Wellstone] knew that he needs the money, but has to save face. So he gets way out in front of it. He attaches good-sounding amendments to look like he's really tough on campaign-finance reform."

Wellstone's staff denies this allegation, insisting that he was trying to close a major loophole in the bill.

Last month both Wellstone and Dayton voted against President Bush's education bill, even though many on both sides of the aisle thought the package was a boon for public schools. Last week President Bush signed the $26 billion law, providing the opportunity for schools and individual families to seek money for educational programs. The measure proved to be a public-relations victory for the Bush administration: Even die-hard liberal Ted Kennedy embraced it. Wellstone, however, said there wasn't enough money in it.

 

He and Dayton have been unable to make headway on a farm bill they obviously care about quite deeply. The bill, which would have earmarked $170 billion to subsidize small farms and prevent further growth by corporate "factory farms," stalled in the wake of the terrorist attacks. ("Post 9/11, it was inappropriate for any politician to push an agenda not really related to terrorism," notes Janecek. "[And] the number of people who fit the profile of the liberal family farmer has decreased.")

Has Wellstone strayed from his initial, populist path? "That's an understatement," Hillsman says. "[Wellstone's] in an election cycle again, so he can't afford to stick his neck out."

Possibly most controversial, however, is Wellstone's decision to break his 1990 promise to serve two terms and quit. While perhaps too much has been made of his change of heart, the senator reneged on his promise with the kind of sanctimony not seen from him before--making the claim that he had to run against Coleman to fight against the Bush administration agenda. Even a year ago, this would have seemed like a noble reason for Wellstone to run for a third term. But more recently, say some onetime supporters, it seems disingenuous.

"The only reason he's still in office is that Paul's swing vote is the Perot/Ventura vote," opines Hillsman, referring to a good number of white working-class men just north of the Twin Cities metro area. "They don't agree with him on any issues, but the notion that he was honest and had integrity played to those voters. Their thought is, 'We ought to have one of those sons-of-bitches in office.' Paul Wellstone doesn't have that integrity anymore. It's disintegrated."

With the Senate now controlled by the Democrats by a margin of one vote, the Wellstone-Coleman race figures to be one of the most important Senate races in the country, and one that will not be easily won. It will be very messy and very expensive. Given these stakes, Janecek says, Wellstone can't afford to make himself an easy target. "Coleman is the president's boy, so at the very least Wellstone can say that he supported the president," she says. "Part of the problem with his effectiveness now is that I really believe he's out raising money."

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.

"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.

"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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