Flashback Friday: Looking Back at Paul Wellstone, 15 Years after His Death | KSTP.com

Flashback Friday: Looking Back at Paul Wellstone, 15 Years after His Death

October 20, 2017 10:04 AM

Were his father still with us, and were he still an active part of the political landscape, David Wellstone is fairly certain he'd have been the focus of at least a tweet or two from the current occupant of the Oval Office by now.

"I'll bet you anything he would've been called 'Little' Paul Wellstone, or something like that," David said, making reference to President Donald Trump's penchant for attaching nicknames to political opponents.

"It definitely would have gotten to that point. He would have gotten under this president's skin," he said. "He wouldn't have backed down from this kind of stuff. It would have energized him."

It was 15 years ago this coming week, on Oct. 25, 2002, that Wellstone, his wife Sheila, daughter Marcia, three members of his campaign staff and both the pilot and co-pilot were killed in a plane crash near Eveleth in northern Minnesota.

The Democratic senator, who was first elected in an upset victory over incumbent Rudy Boschwitz in 1990, and was re-elected in 1996, was in the midst of running for a third term against Republican Norm Coleman at the time.

The accident occurred just 11 days before the election.

In the years since his death, Wellstone's memory has remained strong, especially among those who support the progressive causes for which he fought.

"Minnesota has produced some unique characters in politics over the years," said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton who worked with Wellstone when he taught in the department from 1969 until his election to the Senate in 1990.

"People have created a name for themselves because of their exceptional political traits, and he was certainly amongst that group. He was a major figure in the history of the DFL. His nomination and election helped move the party more toward the left in a really enduring way," Schier said.

Among the issues Wellstone was most passionate about was mental health, which is why David was proud he was able to play a key role in helping secure passage of the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008.

The bill was meant to ensure health plans and insurers cover mental health and addiction in a comparable way to coverage of physical illnesses.

"He always saw it as a civil rights issue," David Wellstone said. "He knew how important an issue it was. And when I see some of the things we're dealing with today, it makes me realize even more what a visionary he was."

Among the issues David said his father would likely be engaged in today is the opioid addiction crisis.

"You just look around and see the number of opioid-related deaths we're dealing with," he said. "It really has reached crisis level." 

He added, "That's why I'm thinking of trying to find ways to take my Dad and Mom's names and enjoin that battle. Because if they were still alive, they'd be all over it."

Another way the Wellstone legacy endures is through Wellstone Action, a nonprofit organization based in St. Paul and chaired by David and his brother Mark, who resides in Colorado.

Among its missions is training potential future progressive leaders, both in the community and the political arena. U.S. representatives Tim Walz and Keith Ellison are among those who have worked with the group over the years.

"There are the names that you've heard about," David Wellstone said. "But then there are the untold number of people who have gone out into their communities and made those communities better places."

David said he is proud to see his father still remembered by so many, even those who may have opposed him politically.

"I think people saw him act with integrity," he said. "You always knew where he stood. Even people who disagreed with him respected that."

He said he is doing the best he can to maintain the legacy his father established.

"My main job is to not screw that up," David said. "He already left such a big legacy during his lifetime. And, over time, it's just gotten bigger and bigger all on its own. The thing I'm most proud of is that I haven't done anything to screw that up."

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