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Paul Wellstone Dies in Tragic Plane Crash

The death of the Minnesota senator, the conscience of the Senate, will have a major impact on American politics.
 
 
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U. S. Senator Paul Wellstone, running in a very tough campaign for reelection for a third term, was killed with his wife Sheila, his daughter Marcia and three staff aides when their plane crashed in a wooded area, two miles short of a runway on Friday, Oct. 25, in Minnesota. Today, Americans have lost not just a fine Senator but a passionate voice for justice and peace. Progressives across the land are in shock as the person many think of as the conscience of the Senate is gone.

Wellstone was targeted by Republicans and President Bush as the candidate they most wanted to defeat in the 2002 congressional elections. Bush personally intervened to convince Norm Coleman, the former mayor of St. Paul and an ex-Democrat, to run against Wellstone. With the control of the Senate hanging in the balance, the Minnesota race was perhaps the most crucial and most closely watched in the country.

Wellstone was the only Senate candidate who was willing to vote against the war resolution passed by the Senate. Wellstone stood up against the Iraq war because it was the right thing to do, irrespective of the political consequences. He declared: "No one trusts Saddam Hussein. Everybody knows he is a brutal dictator. That is not the point. The point is how to proceed; how to do this the right way. The focus should be on disarmament and getting the support of our allies in the international community."

"Will we have the same international cooperation to fight international terror if we go it alone?" asked Senator Wellstone. "In many parts of the world we need the cooperation, assets, and on-the-ground intelligence of our allies for the continued war on terror. I think going it alone, a preemptive military strike, perhaps a ground war, could very well undercut that effort."

His vote, however, gave the Republican Party the opportunity to run an expensive ad campaign attacking his vote against the resolution. But Wellstone never regretted his principled stand. "I really tried to never do anything I don't believe in, so I don't want to change it now. I really don't," Wellstone said in a recent interview with CNN. It took significant political courage to stand up against a popular president who is prepared to impugn the patriotism of those who oppose him.

The son of Russian immigrants, Wellstone was born July 21, 1944 in Arlington, Virginia. He was a strong champion of civil rights, environmental causes, hikes in the minimum wage and health-care reform. A former college wrestler, Wellstone was small in stature, but was nonetheless a formidable presence on Capitol Hill. Passionate and vocal on the Senate floor, Wellstone often engaged his opponents in colorful debate and was well-known for his feisty personality, plainspoken manner and populist stance.

The consequences of Paul Wellstone's death are sending political tremors throughout the country. His name will remain on the ballot and the chances of him being elected posthumously are quite high. The situation is eerily reminiscent of the fatal plane crash that killed Senate candidate Gov. Mel Carnahan and his son Randy on Oct. 16, 2000, in Missouri. In that case, Carnahan defeated current Attorney General John Ashcroft, from the grave, and his wife, Jean Carnahan was appointed to the seat and is now running for a permanent term. With Wellstone's wife, Sheila, perishing with her husband in the tragic plane crash no such scenario is possible.

Irrespective of what happens in the midterm elections, Americans have lost a role model who showed us what American politics could be like. The passion, integrity and hands-on enthusiasm that Paul Wellstone brought to the rough and tumble of politics will be sorely missed.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.org.