Honoring Paul Wellstone: Fighting Like Hell for Health Care Reform
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I had the rare privilege of meeting one of my heroes, Paul Wellstone, shortly before his death in 2002 when I visited Washington as part of a conference for high school students interested in politics. We had the opportunity to meet several senators during our time in Washington, but Paul Wellstone treated us differently -- more like we were friends coming over for a cup of coffee than a bunch of nerdy high school students on a trip. He insisted that we not call him "senator," but instead simply Paul.
While other senators were going on and on about their accomplishments or telling corny jokes, Paul went around and asked what issues were important to us and what we were doing currently to advocate for these policies. He suggested ideas about how we could become more involved, more effective, and what other issues we might want to get involved in. He encouraged us "to go out and fight because that was the only way change has ever been achieved." Paul's faith in my ability to achieve social change inspired me so much that I spent the rest of my summer volunteering full time to help elect Ed Rendell as governor in Pennsylvania.
A few months later. I was in tears as I listened to the news over NPR that Paul Wellstone and his loving wife, Shelia, had died in a plane crash on their way to a funeral of a steelworker in Northern Minnesota. Paul Wellstone, a tireless champion of the working class served as an inspiration to a generation of activists during the dark days of a decade long Republican reign. For the last seven years, I have kept a photo of Paul Wellstone and me on my desk as a source of inspiration for when the times get tough.
Paul came to the United States Senate under the most unusual of circumstances. He was a college professor who had been arrested protesting with union workers and had previously spent most of his career organizing welfare mothers and poor farmers. No one had expected him to win his first campaign for Senate against an incumbent Republican Senator as he was outspent nearly seven to one. Paul had a secret weapon though his ability to inspire regular people to get out and organize. Unemployed, single mothers held bake sales to help fund his campaign, youth not old enough to vote spent hours volunteering for him. He formed a grassroots army of thousands of ordinary folks and trained them in community organizing.
When Paul Wellstone was elected to the Senate, he never forgot the thousands of ordinary folks that put their hopes and their dreams in him by working to get him elected. He summed up his philosophy about why he was in the Senate by saying, "I don't represent the big oil companies, the big pharmaceuticals or the big insurance industry. They already have great representation in Washington. Its the rest of the people that need representation."
Many Senators had referred to Paul as "The Conscience of the Senate." Only 5 feet 4 inches tall and walking with a severe limp, Wellstone would stand on the floor of the U.S. Senate and rail against corporates interests with the tenacity of the All-American wrestler that he was once. And then he would go back home on the weekends and teach those people how to community organize and fight against the powerful interests that were ruining their lives. Its unknown how many people Wellstone inspired, but to this day you can still see thousands of green bumper stickers in Minnesota with the phrase "W.W.W.D. - What Would Wellstone Do?"