Teacher, Organizer, Campaigner, Senator.
Late Senator Paul Wellstone was not only a teacher, community organizer, campaigner & Minnesota Senator. He was a son of Minnie & Leon, husband to Sheila & father to 3 wonderful children. His memory will live forever.
1944 – 2002
Born in 1944 and raised in Arlington, Virginia, Paul Wellstone was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. His mother, Minnie, was a cafeteria worker, and his father, Leon, was a writer and federal employee. His father left Russia shortly before Bolshevik purges took the lives of Paul’s grandparents. Both parents instilled in him a commitment to education, justice, and civic participation. As a young man, Paul displayed the intensity and passion that would later define his career. He was a head shorter than his classmates but excelled in sports as a wrestler and cross-country runner. He was a top student as well.
At sixteen, Paul met Sheila Ison at the Maryland shore. They dated during high school and married in 1963. They were married for 39 years.
Paul went to the University of North Carolina and focused on both academics and athletics. As a wrestler, he won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. In 1965, he graduated from UNC after three years of study, and Sheila gave birth to the first of their three children. By age 20, Wellstone was a champion wrestler, husband, father, and college graduate.
Paul went on to get his PhD in political science from UNC, then moved to Minnesota, becoming a teacher, community organizer, political campaigner, and United States Senator.
“Politics is not just about power and money games, politics is about the improvement of people’s lives, about lessening human suffering in our world, and bringing about more peace and justice.“
Paul was a professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. For two decades he taught courses on politics, social movements, poverty, and race. Wellstone encouraged his students to take part in political action and to use their knowledge to make change. His unorthodox teaching style became his trademark.
He also immersed himself in campus activism – organizing protests, criticizing the school’s administration for its ties to corporate interests, and speaking out on issues affecting the community. His activism made him controversial with his colleagues, but popular with his students. He built strong friendships with his students and influenced many to become organizers and teachers themselves. A number of Wellstone’s students worked on his campaigns and in his Senate offices.
Wellstone taught at Carleton until he was elected to the United States Senate in 1990. He spoke frequently of his desire to return to teaching at a community college in Minnesota when his service in Washington ended.
“The best thing that I ever said to students at Carleton was this: Do not separate the lives that you live from the words that you speak.“
Paul Wellstone was a community organizer who spent decades building coalitions of workers, environmentalists, farmers, students, and low-income people.
Wellstone was always more an organizer than a traditional college professor. “It was clear,” said Sy Schuster, a Carleton friend and colleague, “that he was less concerned about academic political science than about political science directly serving people’s needs.”
In the 1970s and 80s, Wellstone became an accomplished grassroots organizer. With a group of low-income women, he helped start the Organization for a Better Rice County-a successful advocacy group for poor rural residents. He was also active in Vietnam war protests, labor struggles, family farm organizing, and other economic justice issues. He wrote two books about his organizing experiences.
To Wellstone, the goal of an organizer is to empower other people to participate in democracy and to become leaders themselves. He inspired thousands of people to do just that.
“We need a new kind of citizenship so that people earn the rank of the patriot because of involvement in their community affairs. We as a society need to encourage people to focus not just on individual wants but on serving the larger community.“
As a political campaigner, Paul Wellstone was a trailblazer. He was an authentic leader who stood up for his beliefs. He built huge, volunteer-driven campaign organizations, closely aligned with the social movements of his time. He created effective political coalitions from a patchwork of constituencies: unions and workers, farmers, environmentalists, immigrants, young people, people of color, gays, and lesbians.
Wellstone campaigned differently from most politicians. Outspoken about his populist views, he believed in telling voters where he stood on issues, even if they might not agree with him. He advocated for social and economic justice, universal health care, workers’ rights, a healthy environment, and investment in education.
But it wasn’t just his politics that set Wellstone apart. His honesty, integrity, and straightforward approach appealed to Minnesotans across the ideological spectrum. Traveling the state in his trademark green bus, he showed an uncommon ability to relate to ordinary citizens. His optimism, self-deprecating charm, and energy made him a highly effective politician. Like his hero, Hubert H. Humphrey, he was a “happy warrior” who relished a political battle, but waged it with a smile.
In 1996, Wellstone ran for and won a second term. In 2002, he sought a third Senate term, and was a top target for defeat by conservatives. A month before the election, he cast a principled vote against the impending war in Iraq. Polls showed him with a lead going into the final two weeks of the campaign.
“The insurance companies, drug companies, and oil companies might not like me very much. But they already have great representation in Washington. It’s the rest of the people that need it.”
As a United States Senator, Paul Wellstone was known for his passionate advocacy of progressive politics, his mastery of Senate rules, and his efforts to empower citizens. He maintained his commitment to progressive values and welcomed vigorous political debate. His integrity and graciousness earned him the respect of colleagues across political lines. Wellstone counted conservative Republicans among, his best friends in Washington. Recalling his disarming demeanor, one colleague said, “It was impossible not to like Paul Wellstone.”
During Wellstone’ first term, he wrote, and passed, the Senate reform legislation to ban gifts from lobbyists to senators and to limit the influence of special interests. In his second term, he helped pass legislation to prevent sex trafficking and domestic violence, to protect the rights of workers, and to protect the environment, especially the Alaska wilderness. He won several national awards for his work with veterans, and received wide praise for his alliance with Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico to prevent insurance discrimination against people suffering from mental illness.
“I am so proud to be a senator from Minnesota. I never dreamed I’d have this opportunity. It’s the greatest honor of my life, and I owe everything to the people of Minnesota.”