Turning grief into action

Paul and Sheila Wellstone campaigning from the back of Sen. Wellstone’s legendary green and white campaign bus. On Oct. 25, 2002, the Wellstone’s along with their daughter Marcia, three campaign aides – Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy and Will McLaughlin- and the plane’s two pilots were killed in a plane crash in their home state of Minnesota just 10 days before Election Day.
Retail politics is the campaign practice where a candidate for elected office immerses themselves in their constituency in a grassroots fashion, talking to voters one-on-one as much as possible through door knocking, town hall meetings and other public engagement opportunities.

Paul Wellstone didn’t invent retail politics.

But he mastered it.

And he did so not simply as a calculated, pragmatic campaign strategy, but he did it because that’s who he was.

Paul Wellstone was truly a man of the people, a fact that didn’t change when he arrived on Capitol Hill in January 1991 after his election as a United States Senator from Minnesota.

“No one ever wore the title of Senator better, or used it less,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, during a no-cost reception hosted by Wellstone Action this past Wednesday night on Capitol Hill to remember Paul, Sheila, Marcia and the others lost 10 years earlier.

Sen. Harkin and Sen. Wellstone were best friends. Sen. Harkin remembered that whenever they would walk together around Capitol Hill, any walk would take twice and long because Sen. Wellstone would stop to talk to the elevator operators and the policemen and the janitors.

“He always wanted to talk to the people who kept the place working,” Sen. Harkin remembered.

That passion for engaging with people is why a group of Wellstone family members and staffers tapped into their grief and created Wellstone Action in the wake of the plane crash to enable the Wellstone legacy live on through a training institute that believes electoral politics, public policy and grassroots organizing can be woven together to create progressive change.

Since its inception in 2003, Wellstone Action has trained 55,000 alumni – including myself – in order to carry forward the work of Paul and Sheila Wellstone and a simple, yet poignant philosophy.

“Let’s never separate the words that we speak from the deeds that we do,” David Wellstone said during the reception, quoting his father.

David wrote and recently released a memoir on his grief process following the death of his parents and talking to Minnesota Public Radio about his experience.

“I embrace what happened, and I embrace moving ahead,” he told a packed room at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Wednesday.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, who was elected in 2008 to the Senate seat formerly held by Sen. Wellstone, recalled one of his final conversations with Paul a couple of weeks before the plane crash.

“He was in the political fight of his life,” Franken remembered. “And he walked up to me at a rally, and the first thing he said to me is, ‘How is your mom?’ I told him she was so sick that she couldn’t really communicate with me. He said, ‘You know, touch means so much.'”

Soon after that conversation, Sen. Franken sat with his mom and put his arm around her and remembered how much it helped him even though he wasn’t sure if it helped her.

For Sen. Franken, this was just another example of how much Sen. Wellstone truly cared about embracing people both figuratively and literally.

That’s why he carries the torch on Paul and Shiela’s top two policy priorities: mental health parity in healthcare and the Violence Against Women Act.

“I’m not going to ever stop fighting for mental health parity or substance abuse treatment because Paul never stopped fighting,” Sen. Franken told the crowd.

Sen. Wellstone’s legacy lives on in Washington, D.C., in Minnesota and all across the United States through all of Wellstone Action’s graduates who work to live up to and teach the ideals that were exuded by Paul and Sheila during policy discussion, legislative work and his beloved campaign trail.

“Paul taught me and so many people how to campaign,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, during the reception.

Sen. Harkin told the crowd how proud Paul and Sheila would be of all the great graduates and people who run Wellstone Action for turning grief into action.

“A decade later, we have moved beyond our grief, and what remains is the light of the legacy Paul left in the Senate,” he said. “He truly was the finest of men.”

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