When U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and former Vice President Walter Mondale spoke at the University of Minnesota on Sunday, an event timed to the 15th anniversary of the death of Minnesota political icon Paul Wellstone, the subject was how Democrats could regain their lost mojo.

The party is at a crossroads, promoters of the event noted, with Republicans controlling the White House, Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state legislatures nationwide.

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Quantified by power in office, it's the worst scenario for Democrats since 1929.

The way out of the wilderness and back to mattering could be found, it was suggested at the event, by going the "Wellstone way," a mix of economic populism and grassroots organizing.

Fifteen years after the plane crash near Eveleth that claimed Wellstone's life, Democrats remain hopeful that another Wellstone-like figure will surface nationally, or at least in Minnesota - someone with the rare combination of principle, passion, oratory skill and charisma.

Yet even if another Wellstone-like figure doesn't emerge, maybe the party can still learn from the Wellstone effort, some party activists say.

"It's all about getting back to understanding the people you represent. Wellstone was a great mobilizer (for labor and social issues) before he was a great organizer for campaigns. He knew how to connect with the people," said state Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, who attended the Wellstone event Sunday.

Schultz said speakers rightly scolded party leaders, saying Democrats had somehow become known as the party of elites rather than the party of the people who Wellstone championed - the underclass and the working class.

Schultz agreed with Ellison and Warren, who warned against a growing rift among Democrats between the old "elite" establishment - think Hillary Clinton - and young progressives who backed Bernie Sanders in the runup to the 2016 election. That rift contributed to the win by Republican Donald Trump, they noted, and stands in the way of Democrats ever winning back Congress, the White House or statehouses.

"The Democratic Party has struggled with this elitism problem. That the party is a bunch of Ivy League-educated people who make their living on Wall Street," Schultz said. "We need to get back to talking to people about what they need and explaining to them what we're doing for them. We need to take back the agenda."

Sen. Paul Wellstone speaks to a crowd on Oct. 31, 1999, at the entrance of ME International in Duluth. (News Tribune file photo)
Sen. Paul Wellstone speaks to a crowd on Oct. 31, 1999, at the entrance of ME International in Duluth. (News Tribune file photo)

Justin Perpich, 8th Congressional District DFL chair, said Wellstone understood pocketbook politics better than anyone.

"I think the way to regain his energy and make sure we are moving forward is to focus on the economic populism," Perpich said.

Wellstone was different than most candidates for statewide office, Perpich noted; he was a liberal southern Minnesota college professor. Yet working-class Northlanders bonded with him, especially labor union members.

"He took the time to come up here and took his campaign to the people and got to know these people. He ended up being someone that they trusted," Perpich said. "He didn't come up here just to ask for votes and then leave to head back south. He took the time to built the relationships."

Whether another Wellstone comes around or not, Democrats need to go back to his strategy to win, Schultz said.

"Ellison compared Wellstone to FDR in that many people cried when they died because they felt so strongly about them," Schultz said. "They felt that way about Paul because they felt like he knew what they needed, what they wanted. And he did. He got to know people at all levels and he voted his beliefs."

Surprise rise to office

In 1982, Wellstone, a Carleton College professor known for his community activism and spitfire demeanor, ran for state auditor. His unorthodox style garnered him some media attention. But as Wellstone gave impassioned speeches about issues that had little to do with the auditor's job he was trounced in the election by incumbent Republican Arne Carlson.

Wellstone's supporters began orchestrating his bid for the U.S. Senate in the late '80s. Early on, Wellstone received the backing of United Steelworkers, construction unions and local political leaders on the Iron Range and in Duluth, and he used that northern base to win the party's endorsement at the 1990 DFL state convention.

Wellstone went on to face a popular Republican incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz, in the general election. He ran on an agenda of health care, economic security, environmental protection and campaign finance reform, issues that played well in Duluth and across Northeastern Minnesota, where he won by wide margins.

Statewide, Wellstone had been given little chance to win the seat. But he traveled across the state in an old green school bus that came to symbolize the grassroots campaign. While Wellstone was lauded for some quirky, low-budget TV ads, it was mostly a campaign taken to the people at meeting halls statewide. Outspent by Boschwitz 7-1, Wellstone stunned almost everyone by winning in 1990 and then doing it again, also against Boschwitz, in 1996.

Wellstone won elections despite his sometimes controversial voting record. He voted against two wars with Iraq, was a tireless supporter of mental health issues, supported universal (single payer) health care and backed the cause of labor unions and the working class. Yet even some independent and conservative voters were attracted to his straightforward manner.

Flowers are seen at a marker at the Wellstone Memorial and Historical Site near Eveleth on Tuesday. (John Myers / DNT)
Flowers are seen at a marker at the Wellstone Memorial and Historical Site near Eveleth on Tuesday. (John Myers / DNT)

Cold, dark day

It appeared Wellstone was on his way to a third term - he was well ahead of former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman in polls - when the plane crash occurred on Oct. 25, 2002, on a cold, rainy Iron Range morning.

Federal investigators blamed the crash on the pilots, saying they lowered the chartered plane's landing gear at too low a speed, causing the plane to stall, or lose flight, and crash into a swamp on landing approach to the Eveleth-Virginia Airport. Investigators said neither icing nor mechanical problems played any role in the crash, and that lack of training and bad judgment on the crew on the approach were the primary contributing factors.

Wellstone and his entourage were traveling to Eveleth to attend the funeral of the father of longtime friend and state lawmaker Tom Rukavina. Also killed were Wellstone's wife, Sheila, their daughter, Marcia Markuson, campaign staff members Will McLaughlin, Tom Lapic and Mary McEvoy, and pilots Richard Conry, captain, and Michael Guess, co-pilot.

A six-acre memorial and historic marker are now located at the scene of the crash along Bodas Road outside Eveleth.

The crash happened just 12 days before the election, with polls showing Wellstone ahead. His death sent the campaign into tumult, and Republicans captured the seat when Coleman topped Mondale, who had been placed on the ballot by court order to replace Wellstone.

Wellstone Remembrance Day

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has proclaimed "Wellstone Remembrance Day" in Minnesota today, the 15th anniversary of the plane crash that claimed the lives of U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife, his daughter, three aides and two pilots.

"Paul was an extraordinary political leader. He truly believed, and practiced, 'Politics of the people, by the people, and for the people.' He worked passionately for the best interests of Minnesotans in Washington, D.C.," Dayton said in a statement. "In today's divisive political climate, let us remember his conviction, as well as his civility, in working tirelessly for the betterment of others."

Dayton served alongside Wellstone in the Senate from January 2001 until Wellstone's death.

More coverage

Go to the News Tribune Attic, http://attic.areavoices.com, to view archive photos from Paul Wellstone's many trips to the Northland.