News & Politics

Wellstone for President

A look back at Paul Wellstone's remarkable record shows what Americans lost today -- the most principled member of the Democratic Party.
This article appeared in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press in December 1998, just a few days before Paul Wellstone decided not to run for President. Wellstone died today, with his wife and daughter, in a plane crash in Minnesota.

December 12, 1998 -- When Exxon, the number one oil company, gobbled up number two Mobil, and the number one grain company, Cargill devoured runner-up Continental Grain, and the number one bank, Citicorp snapped up Travelers Insurance, the silence from Washington was deafening. The New York Times observed, "scarcely a politician of any stripe headed for the cameras" to question "whether the deals were good for the country, for workers or for consumers."

Except one. Paul Wellstone. "Senator Paul Wellstone, the Minnesota Democrat," the Times noted, "is among the few in Congress still exercised about the concentration of corporate power."

Indeed he is. Wellstone, who won a come-from-nowhere grassroots campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1990, has fashioned a remarkably consistent record on behalf of the little guy and against concentrated power. Soon Wellstone will announce his candidacy for the presidency. His record speaks for itself.

In 1996, Wellstone was among the very few who voted against the Telecommunications Act. He argued it would open the door to concentrated ownership. He was right. Over the next 22 months, more than 1,000 radio stations were sold. Some 450 owners left the field. Single companies have come to dominate local radio broadcasting.

This year, the Senate voted 97 to 1 to pass a bankruptcy reform act. The lone dissenter? You guessed it. "It is a great bill for the credit card companies," said Wellstone, "but it sure doesn't help working families trying to break the cycle of debt."

In 1993, Wellstone bucked Bill Clinton by actively campaigning against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Paul wasn't against trade, but he was against giving corporations special privileges.

Wellstone's not just a lone wolf. In 1993, when the United States tried one more time to join the rest of the industrialized world in making access to medical care a right, not a privilege, Wellstone helped organize a grassroots coalition that gained considerable support in Congress in favor of a system similar to Canada's 30-year-old program: a single insurer, private doctors, universal coverage and local control. Republicans insisted there was no problem. Clinton proposed a bill that would corral people into vast managed care systems.

Today over 40 million people lack health care and although Clinton's health plan failed, the country has moved rapidly in the direction he espoused. The result? Ownership of health facilities in fewer and fewer hands and remote insurance bureaucrats making medical decisions. Paul Wellstone was right again.

In 1996, Paul bravely voted against ending the nation's commitment to the poor. He was the only politician running for reelection who did so. "If you want to reduce poverty, stop scapegoating people," he said. "Start focusing on a good education and a good job." True to his word, this year Paul introduced a bill that would have allowed welfare recipients to count as work two years of vocational education or college. The bill gained bipartisan support and passed the Senate but House Republicans killed the initiative.

The Senate vote for this year's bloated military budget was 98 to 2. Such an expenditure, Wellstone insisted, "does not reflect our priorities as a nation." If we have insufficient money to care for the poor, repair leaking schools and provide adequate health care, he argued, it is unconscionable to spend billions on new weapons systems that even the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress they did not need or want.

Paul believes in personal responsibility as much as any conservative Republican. But he defines the term a bit differently. Thus for example, he voted against a federal bill that would have allowed lily-white Vermont and New Hampshire to dump their radioactive waste 2,000 miles away in a poor, remote, largely Hispanic community in Texas. He was one of only 15 Senators who opposed the bill.

Wellstone fervently believes that government can do right, but he also knows that too often it does wrong. He believes the reason is that money speaks too loudly in Washington. To combat this aristocratic tendency, Paul authored a campaign finance reform bill which, unlike Bill Clinton's tepid initiative, would truly take a major step forward in giving government back to the people.

Can Wellstone become president? I don't know. But recent elections indicate that Americans are looking for an alternative. They want someone who speaks their language and has demonstrated a willingness to act in their interest, even when he has to act alone. Wellstone fits that bill. I for one, am looking forward to hearing his voice in the presidential campaign.
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