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Paul David Wellstone (July 21, 1944 - October 25, 2002) was a two-term U.S. Senator from the state of Minnesotamarker and member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which is affiliated with the national Democratic Party. Before being elected to the Senate in 1990, he was a professor of political science at Carleton Collegemarker. Wellstone was a liberal and a leading spokesman for the liberal wing of the national Democratic Party. He served in the Senate from 1991 until his death in a plane crash on 25 October 2002, 11 days before the US senate election in which he was running for a third term. His wife, Sheila, and daughter, Marcia, also died in the crash. They had two other grown children, David and Mark, who now co-chair the Wellstone Action nonprofit group.

Early life

Wellstone was born in Washington D.C.marker to Ukrainianmarker-Jewish immigrants, Leon and Minnie Wellstone, and raised in Arlington, Virginiamarker. Originally, his family name was Wexelstein, but his father changed the name to Wellstone in the 1930s when he encountered virulent anti-semitism. He attended Yorktown High Schoolmarker in Arlington. He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hillmarker (UNC) on a wrestling scholarship, graduating with a degree in political science in three years and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He was an undefeated Atlantic Coast Conference champion in wrestling.

Wellstone married in 1963. In 1965 he earned his B.A. in Political Science; William Keech and Joel Schwartz served as his thesis advisers. Four years later he was awarded a Ph.D. in Political Science. Wellstone's 1969 doctoral dissertation at UNC was "Black Militants in the Ghetto: Why They Believe in Violence." Upon earning his Ph.D., Wellstone accepted a job as a Professor of Political Science at Carleton Collegemarker in Northfieldmarker, Minnesotamarker, where he taught until his election to the Senate in 1990.

During the 1970s, he became involved in community organizing, working with the working poor and other politically disenfranchised communities. The first organization he founded was the Organization for a Better Rice County, a group consisting mainly of single parents on welfare, which he organized to advocate for public housing, affordable health care, improved public education, free school lunches, and a publicly-funded day care center . During this same period, he also began organizing with union members, farmers, and liberal activists. Later, he would use these connections in his bid for the Senate.

In the early 1970s, the trustees of Carleton College considered firing him, and actually did fire him for a short time, but his students held a sit-in that resulted in him getting his job back and becoming the youngest professor at Carleton to ever get tenure.

Political career

In 1982, he ran for state auditor but lost to Arne Carlson. In 1988, he was the Minnesota campaign manager for Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign.

In 1990, Wellstone ran for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Rudy Boschwitz, beginning the race as a serious underdog. He narrowly won the election, after being outspent by a 7-to-1 margin. Wellstone played off of his underdog image by airing a number of quirky, humorous advertisements created by political consultant Bill Hillsman including "Fast Paul" and "Looking for Rudy", a pastiche of the 1989 Michael Moore documentary Roger & Me. Boschwitz was also hurt by a letter his supporters wrote, on campaign stationery, to members of the Minnesota Jewish community days before the election, accusing Wellstone of being a "bad Jew" for marrying a Gentile and not raising his children in the Jewish faith. (Boschwitz, like Wellstone, is Jewish.) Wellstone's reply, widely broadcast on Minnesota television, was, "He has a problem with Christians, then." Boschwitz was the only incumbent U.S. senator to lose re-election that year.

Wellstone defeated Boschwitz again for re-election in 1996. During that campaign, Boschwitz ran ads accusing Wellstone of being "embarrassingly liberal" and calling him "Senator Welfare". Boschwitz accused Wellstone of supporting flag burning, a move that some believe possibly backfired. Prior to that accusation, Boschwitz had significantly outspent Wellstone on campaign advertising and the race was closely contested, but Wellstone went on to beat Boschwitz by a nine-point margin in a three way race (Dean Barkley received 7%).

Wellstone's upset victory in 1990 and subsequent re-election in 1996 were also credited to a massive grassroots campaign, which inspired college students, poor people and minorities to get involved in politics for the very first time. In 1990, the number of young people involved in the campaign was so notable that shortly after the election, Walter Mondale told Wellstone that "the kids won it for you". Wellstone also spent a large portion of his Senate career working with the Hmong American community in Minnesota, an immigrant community that had not traditionally been involved in American politics. Wellstone also spent a great deal of his Senate career cultivating the veterans community - he served on the Senate Committee on Veteran's Affairs, and successfully campaigned for atomic veterans to receive compensation from the federal government and for increased spending on health care for veterans.

In 2002, Wellstone campaigned for re-election to a third term (despite an earlier campaign pledge to only serve two terms) against Republican Norm Coleman, the two-term mayor of St. Paulmarker, formerly a Democrat who had supported Wellstone in his 1996 re-election campaign. Earlier that year he announced he had a mild form of multiple sclerosis, causing the limp he had believed was an old wrestling injury.

Wellstone was in a line of left-of-center or liberal senators of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL). The first three, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Walter Mondale, were all prominent in the national Democratic Party. Shortly after joining the Senate, South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings approached Wellstone and told him, "You remind me of Hubert Humphrey. You talk too much."

Policy views

Wellstone was known for his work for peace, the environment, labor, and health care; he also joined his wife Sheila to support the rights of victims of domestic violence. He made the issue of mental illness a central focus in his career. He was a supporter of immigration to the U.S. He opposed the first Gulf War in 1991 and, in the months before his death, spoke out against the government's threats to go to war with Iraq again. He was strongly supported by groups such as Americans for Democratic Action, the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and People for the American Way.

In 1996, he voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and also excluded gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered married couples from receiving equal treatment under federal immigration, tax, welfare, Social Security and inheritance legislation. His vote angered many of his long-time supporters in the LGBT community, and it didn't help his cause when he explained that he voted because he didn't believe in re-defining marriage. However, he later asked his supporters to educate him on the issue and by 2001, when he wrote his autobiography, Conscience of a Liberal, Wellstone admitted that he had made a mistake.After voting against the congressional authorization for the war in Iraq on October 11 2002, in the midst of a tight election, Wellstone is said to have told his wife, "I just cost myself the election."

In the 2002 campaign, the Green Party ran a candidate against Wellstone. Some Greens opposed this move. The party's 2000 Vice-Presidential nominee, Winona LaDuke, described Wellstone as "a champion of the vast majority of our issues". The Green Party's decision to oppose Wellstone was criticized by some liberals.

Wellstone was the author of the 'Wellstone Amendment' added to the McCain-Feingold Bill for Campaign Finance Reform, in what came to be known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. The law, including the Wellstone Amendment, was seen as unconstitutional by groups and individuals of various political perspectives, including the Californiamarker State Democratic Party, the National Rifle Associationmarker, and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell (Kentuckymarker), the Senate Majority Whip. On December 10, 2003, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling upholding the key provisions of McCain-Feingold, including the Wellstone Amendment. Wellstone saw McCain-Feingold's protection of "advocacy" groups as a "loophole" allowing "special interests" to run last-minute election ads. (Since corporate and union money was already banished in the bill, Wellstone was presumably worried mainly about money from rich individuals.) Wellstone pushed an amendment to extend McCain-Feingold's ban on last-minute ads to nonprofits like "the NRA, the Sierra Club, the Christian Coalition, and others." Under the Wellstone Amendment, these organizations could only advertise using money raised under strict "hard money" limits—no more than $5,000 per individual.

Presidential aspirations

Shortly after his re-election to the Senate in 1996, Wellstone began contemplating a run for his party's nomination for President of the United States in 2000.

As the first stage in his nascent pseudocampaign, he embarked upon a cross-country speaking and listening tour that he dubbed "the Children's Tour" in May 1997. This tour, which took him to rural areas of Mississippimarker and Appalachia and the inner cities of Minneapolismarker, Chicagomarker, Los Angelesmarker, and Baltimoremarker, was intended to retrace the steps taken by Senator Robert F. Kennedy during a similar tour in 1966, in order to showcase the fact that conditions had not improved, as well as to test his message.

The following year, 1998, Wellstone began to more openly investigate the possibility of running. He formed an exploratory committee that paid for his travels to Iowamarker and New Hampshiremarker, homes of the two first contests of the nomination process, to speak before organized labor and local Democrats. (His catchphrase from these speeches, "I represent the democratic wing of the Democratic Party," would later be incorporated into the 2004 stump speech of Governor Howard Dean.) He also met privately with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, allegedly to determine which of them would challenge Vice President Al Gore from the left in 2000.

Then, on January 9, 1999, Wellstone called a press conference in the Minnesota capitol building. Rather than announcing his candidacy, as had been expected, he instead declared that he would not be a candidate. His explanation was that his old wrestling injury (in reality, it would some time later be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis) prevented him from mustering the stamina necessary for a national campaign. Later that year, he would endorse the candidacy of former Senator Bill Bradley of New Jerseymarker, the only Democrat to run against Gore.

Gulf War

Senator Wellstone voted against authorizing the use of force before the Persian Gulf War on January 12, 1991 (the vote was 52–47 in favor). He also voted against the use of force before the Iraq War on October 11, 2002 (the vote was 77–23 in favor). Wellstone was one of only eleven senators to vote against both the 1991 and 2002 resolutions. The others were also all Democratic senators: Akaka-HI, Bingaman-NM, Byrd-WV, Conrad-ND, Inouye-HI, Kennedy-MA, Leahy-VT, Levin-MI, Mikulski-MD, and Sarbanes-MD.

Other key military action votes

Wellstone supported requests for military action by President Clinton, including Operation Restore Hope in Somaliamarker (1992), Operation Uphold Democracy in Haitimarker (1994), Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia and Herzegovinamarker (1995), Operation Desert Fox in Iraqmarker (1998) and Operation Allied Force in Yugoslavia (1999). On July 1, 1994, during the 100-day Rwandan Genocide from April 6 to mid-July 1994, Wellstone authored an amendment to the 1995 defense appropriations bill. The amendment expressed the sense of the Congress regarding the genocide in Rwanda and the need to expedite assistance in protecting populations at risk in that country but did not authorize military or peacekeeping aid.


On October 25, 2002, Wellstone died, along with seven others, in a plane crash in northern Minnesota, at approximately 10:22 a.m. He was 58 years old. The other victims were his wife, Sheila; one of his three children, Marcia; the two pilots Richard Conry and Michael Guess, his driver, Will McLaughlin, and campaign staffers Tom Lapic and Mary McEvoy. The plane was en route to Evelethmarker, where Wellstone was to attend the funeral of Martin Rukavina, a steelworker whose son Tom Rukavina serves in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Wellstone decided to go to the funeral instead of a rally and fundraiser in Minneapolis attended by Mondale and fellow Senator Ted Kennedy. He was to debate Norm Coleman in Duluth, Minnesotamarker that same night.

Wellstone burial plot, Minneapolis, MN.
The Beechcraft King Air A100 plane crashed into dense forest about two miles from the Evelethmarker airport, while operating under instrument flight rules. The charter plane Wellstone was traveling in had no flight data recorders. Autopsy toxicology results on both pilots were negative for drug or alcohol use. Icing, though widely reported on in following days, was considered and eventually rejected as a significant factor in the crash. The Board judged that while cloud cover might have prevented the flight crew from seeing the airport, icing did not affect the airplane's performance during the descent.

The NTSB later determined that the likely cause of the accident was the failure of both the pilot and copilot to maintain a safe minimum airspeed, leading to a stall from which they could not recover. The final two radar readings detected the airplane traveling at or just below its predicted stall speed given conditions at the time of the accident. Aviation experts speculated they might have lost situational awareness because they were lost and looking for the airport. They had been off course for several minutes and "clicked on" the runway lights, something not usually done in good visibility. There was a problem with the airport's navigational beacon (VOR). According to Minnesota Public Radio:

"The day after the crash, FAA pilots tested the VOR.
The inspection pilots reported to the NTSB that when they flew the approach without their automatic pilot engaged, the VOR repeatedly brought them about a mile south of the airport.
In one written statement an FAA pilot told the NTSB that the signal guided him one to two miles left or south of the runway.
That's the same direction Wellstone's plane was heading when it crashed."

Other pilots at the charter company told NTSB that both Conry and Guess displayed below average flying skills. Conry had a well-known tendency to allow copilots to take over all functions of the aircraft as if they were the sole pilot during flights. After the crash, three copilots told of occasions in which they had to take control of the aircraft away from Conry. After one of those incidents, only three days before the crash, the copilot had urged Conry to retire. A few months before the crash, Conry told another pilot, Timothy M. Cooney, a childhood friend, that he had difficulty piloting and landing King Airs. Significant discrepancies were also found in pilot Richard Conry's flight logs in the course of the post-accident investigation indicating he had probably greatly exaggerated his flying experience, most of which had been accrued before a 12 year hiatus from flying due to a fraud conviction and poor eyesight. In 2001 Conry had Lasik surgery but it only improved his vision to 20/50, 20/30 and he was required by FAA regulations to wear corrective lenses, however Cooney and Mrs. Conry said he had stopped wearing them. The coroner who examined his badly burned body was unable to determine if he was wearing contacts at the time of the crash.

Michael L. Guess, the First Officer, was characterized by his colleagues interviewed by the NTSB report as being "below average" in proficiency. Guess was cited by coworkers as having to be consistently reminded to keep his hand on the throttle and maintain airspeed during approaches. Guess had two previous piloting jobs, 1998-9 with Skydive Hutchinson as a pilot and in 1999 with Northwest Airlines as a trainee instructor. However he was dismissed from both jobs for lack of ability. Conry’s wife told the NTSB that her husband told her “the other pilots thought Guess was not a good pilot.”

The song "The Ballad of Paul and Sheila" by folk artist Mason Jennings was written about the deaths of the senator and his wife.


Don Hazen, executive editor of Alternet, wrote of the death, "Progressives across the land are in shock as the person many think of as the conscience of the Senate is gone." Wellstone died just 11 days before his potential re-election in a crucial race to maintain Democratic control of the Senate. Campaigning was halted by all sides. Minnesota law required that his name be stricken from the ballot, to be replaced by a candidate chosen by the party. The replacement candidate was former Vice President Walter Mondale.

The 20,000-capacity memorial service for Wellstone and the other victims of the crash was held in Williams Arenamarker at the University of Minnesotamarker and was broadcast live on national TV. Many high profile politicians attended the memorial, including former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, and more than half of the U.S. Senate. The White House offered to send Vice-President Dick Cheney to the service, but the Wellstone family declined.

Ventura—who had the option to pick a replacement senator to serve out the remainder of Wellstone's term through January 2003—criticized the event for its political tone and declared that he would solicit résumés for the senatorial position from everyone except Democrats.

On November 4, the day before the election, Ventura appointed state planning commissioner Dean Barkley, founder and chair of Ventura's Independence Party of Minnesota, to complete the remaining two months of Wellstone's Senate term; he had run against Wellstone in 1996. Coleman ultimately won Wellstone's seat.


Paul Wellstone marker
with stones.
Wellstone is survived by his sons David and Mark and six grandchildren. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations has created the AFL-CIO Senator Paul Wellstone Award for supporters of the rights of labor unions. Presidential candidate Howard Dean and California state senator John Burton both received the first award in January 2003. In 2004, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hillmarker dedicated the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Memorial Garden as a tribute to the couple, both graduates of the university.

Near the site of his plane crash, a memorial to the Wellstones was dedicated on September 25, 2005. His distinctive green bus was present, as well as hundreds of supporters and loved ones. The Senator and his wife were laid to rest at Lakewood Cemeterymarker in Minneapolis, the same cemetery in which Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey is interred. A memorial sculpture near Lake Calhounmarker marks their gravesites. Visitors sometimes follow the Jewish custom of placing small stones on the boulder marking the family plot or on the individual markers. His legacy continues as Wellstone Action, a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization that trains citizens and potential candidates with a liberal agenda.

In 2007, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter joined with David Wellstone to push Congress to pass legislation regarding mental health insurance. Wellstone and Carter worked to pass the "Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act" which requires equal coverage of mental and physical illnesses when policies include both types of coverage; both testified before a House subcommittee regarding the bill in July 2007. David said of his father, "Although he was passionate on many issues, there was not another issue that surpassed this in terms of his passion." Because Paul Wellstone's brother had suffered from mental illness, Wellstone had fought for changes in mental health and insurance laws when he reached the Senate.

On March 5, 2008 the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1424, the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2007, by a vote of 268-148. It was sponsored by Representatives Patrick Kennedy (D-Rhode Islandmarker) and Representative Jim Ramstad, (R-Minnesotamarker), both of whom are recovering alcoholics. The narrower Senate bill S. 558, passed earlier, was introduced by Kennedy's father, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusettsmarker), Pete Domenici, (R-New Mexicomarker), and Mike Enzi, (R-Wyomingmarker).

Electoral history

*Wellstone won the Democratic primary in 2002, but was replaced by Mondale after his death. Absentee ballots that had already been cast did not count towards Mondale's totals.


  3. [1]
  4. [2]
  5. Sen. Paul Wellstone, 1944-2002
  6. OMB Approves Benefits for Vets Suffering from Radiogenic Cancers
  7. Wellstone Welcomes White House Announcement on Increased Funding for Vets Health Care, But Says `We Must Do Better'
  8. Paul Wellstone was a true mensch and Christ-like soul
  11. 1996 Roll Call for H.R. 3396
  12. Talking Politics | Green around the gills
  13. Red Over Green Party Moves
  14. McCain-Feingold Ruling Angers Activists on Both Left and Right (
  25. Pioneer Press | 02/22/2003 | Pilot wanted to cancel Wellstone's fatal flight
  26. Human Performance 14 — Attachment 1, Interview Summaries
  27. Aircraft Accident Report
  28. pgs 8 - 10
  29. pg 26
  30. Human Performance 14 — Factual Report of Human Performance Specialist
  31. [3]
  32. Paul Wellstone Dies in Tragic Plane Crash | AlterNet
  33. At Request of Wellstones, Cheney Will Not Attend Memorial
  34. Sternberg, Bob von (October 27, 2008) Dean Barkley: As a 'viable alternative,' he's a force that matters StarTribune In the waning days of the administration, Ventura appointed Barkley to serve out the final weeks of Wellstone's Senate term after Wellstone died in a plane crash."
  36. House approval is historic moment for Wellstone's addiction and treatment crusade

Further reading

  • Blodgett, Jeff, "Winning Your Election the Wellstone Way," University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Not politics as usual, this book is an advanced strategy for running and winning a progressive campaign.
  • Casper, Barry (Mike), Lost in Washington: Finding the Way Back to Democracy in America, University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.
  • Four Arrows (Don Trent Jacobs) and Fetzer, Jim, American Assassination: the Strange Death of Senator Paul Wellstone, Vox Pop, 2004.
  • Hightower, Jim. "Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can go With the Flow". Hoboken, NJ: Wiley and Sons, Inc, 2008.
  • Lofy, Bill, Paul Wellstone: The Life of a Passionate Progressive, University of Michigan Press, 2005
  • Lofy, Bill, Politics the Wellstone Way: How to Elect Progressive Candidates and Win on Issues, University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
  • McGrath, Dennis J. and Smith, Dane, Professor Wellstone Goes to Washington: The Inside Story of a Grassroots U.S. Senate Campaign, University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
  • Wellstone, Paul, The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda, University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
  • Wellstone, Paul, How the Rural Poor Got Power: Narrative of a Grass-Roots Organizer, University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
  • Wellstone, Paul, and Barry Casper, Powerline: The First Battle of America's Energy War, University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

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