Five years after his death, Wellstone's legacy lives on

A few months after U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash a new bumper sticker surfaced on a few Minnesota cars. "Park the bus." It was a conservative jab referring not only to the old, green school bus that Wellstone campaigned in, but a...

A few months after U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash a new bumper sticker surfaced on a few Minnesota cars.

"Park the bus."

It was a conservative jab referring not only to the old, green school bus that Wellstone campaigned in, but also Wellstone's populist, progressive, liberal philosophy itself.

Another sticker was less subtle: "He's dead. Get over it."

But long after those anti-Wellstone stickers tattered and faded, Northland progressives say the green bus still is moving. New, pro-Wellstone bumper stickers still are sprouting. And while Wellstone will have been dead five years on Thursday, his legacy has developed a life of its own.


"I'm still amazed, nearly every day, when his name comes up or something comes up and Paul gets mentioned and people speak up about how touched they were by him," said Erik Peterson, a UMD professor and director of education and labor programs for Wellstone Action, a group founded to carry the Wellstone legacy forward. "Show a Wellstone video now and people still stand up and applaud. People get tears in their eyes. ... It doesn't seem to be fading at all."

Wellstone, D-Minn., died Oct. 25, 2002, in a plane crash outside Eveleth. His wife, Sheila; their daughter, Marcia Markuson; campaign workers Will McLaughlin, Tom Lapic and Mary McEvoy; and pilots Richard Conroy and Michael Guess also died in the crash.

The Beech King A100

turboprop was on its way to the Iron Range for the funeral of Benny Rukavina, the father of state Rep. Tom Rukavina. The National Transportation Safety Board later blamed the crash on pilot error.

rally the cause

In Duluth, a few months after the crash, Peterson and other Wellstone supporters still were mourning -- not just their senator's death but the election just days after the crash of Republican Norm Coleman to Wellstone's Senate seat. They formed Progressive Action, a Northland group dedicated to forwarding Wellstone's ideals -- opposition to the war in Iraq; human rights; health care for all Americans; support for organized labor, fair wages and benefits; mental health and environmental protection.

Supporting those ideals, they figured, was the best way to honor Wellstone. The Duluth group has been trying to recruit, foster and elect progressive candidates and civic leaders ever since -- not just running for office, but working for causes or volunteering for organizations.

"After Paul died, I thought we have depended too long on one person to carry the cause. So that's when I made a real point to get involved," said Sharla Gardner, a founder of Progressive Action and a candidate for the Duluth City Council's 3rd District seat.


Wellstone's message was to get active in your community, Gardner said. For some, it's making phone calls or knocking on doors. For others, it is becoming a candidate.

"I never thought I would run for public office. ... But it's an extension of what Paul was talking about, about contributing and getting involved and taking back our democracy," Gardner said. "Everyone has to look at their own strengths and what they can do and use that to get involved. That's what Paul has inspired in me."


At about the same time as Progressive Action formed in Duluth, Wellstone Action was formed in the Twin Cities by Wellstone family and former staff members. Since then the group has trained more than 14,300 people nationwide at events such as Camp Wellstone, aimed at potential candidates for public office, campaign organizers and citizen activists.

Has it worked?

Success shouldn't be measured only by the number of progressive candidates who win elections, supporters say. But the list of Wellstone Action graduates who have been elected is getting longer, including freshman U.S. Congressman Tim Walz from southeastern Minnesota; Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie; Minnesota State Auditor Rebecca Otto; St. Louis County Attorney Melanie Ford and more than half of the freshman class of the 2007 Minnesota Legislature elected last fall as DFLers swept into majority. Duluth city council candidates Tony Cuneo, Jeff Anderson and Laurie Johnson also are Wellstone Action graduates.

Dozens of other graduates worked as campaign managers and staffers. Gardner attended a Camp Wellstone seminar in Duluth in May.

The alumni list includes Chad McKenna, a 2006 UMD graduate who works as an organizer for the Northeastern Minnesota Labor Council, a federation of regional AFL-CIO unions based in Duluth.


McKenna, 25, never met Paul Wellstone. He wasn't old enough to vote for Wellstone in 1990 or 1996 and was denied the chance in 2002. But McKenna says the Wellstone Action courses have been invaluable as he works for labor-endorsed candidates to win next month's local elections.

McKenna, a business major, said Wellstone embodied his own beliefs in social change and economic justice. For McKenna, Wellstone's legacy is very much alive.

"The courses were very much nuts and bolts, how to take this energy and make it work, how to win," McKenna said. "I never got to see him speak or vote for him. ... But seeing his kind of progressiveness, seeing the kind of politics he advocated for, made me want to get involved."


Jeff Blodgett, executive director and senior trainer for Wellstone Action, said the movement has gone national. More than 70 people offer Wellstone Action training in nearly all states. More than 30,000 people have donated money to keep the organization moving.

The group has advocated for a few core Wellstone beliefs and key legislation, namely mental health and preventing violence against women, but has avoided partisan issues.

"We aren't an advocacy group. We don't endorse candidates or issues for the most part. We get mostly progressives, but we have had a few conservatives go through the courses," Blodgett said. "What we try to do is get people to reconnect with those ideals and use that to give them the tools to succeed."

Blodgett said 2002 was a low point for progressives in Minnesota and across the nation. Since then "people are getting up off the floor, dusting themselves off and getting back in the fray," Blodgett said. "I think we've been a part of that."


Wellstone Action has become the liberal equivalent of the Arlington, Va.-based Leadership Institute, which has trained a generation of conservative politicos and activists -- about 59,000 people since 1979 -- how to win races and foster a conservative agenda.

Morton Blackwell, founder and director of the institute and a lifelong Republican, said he's aware of Wellstone Action but not the group's programs. But he said any philosophy that wants to advance a political agenda must develop strong leaders from within.

"In politics, nothing moves unless it is pushed. And you have to have someone who is leading to push things in the right direction," Blackwell said. "Democratic participation is not instinctive. Primitive tribes did not elect their leaders, it was the guy with the biggest club. Voting and participation is an acquired habit that has to be cultivated."

Blodgett, a student of Wellstone's at Carleton College, took up his professor's causes, including working as a community organizer during the 1980s farm crisis. He served 13 years as Wellstone's senior aide, adviser and campaign manager for all three U.S. Senate races.

After the plane crash, Blodgett worried that the Wellstone legacy might fade without the charismatic man to carry the torch. That mourning has given way to a new reality that, while Wellstone can't be duplicated, his memory can be inspirational.

"I've stopped looking for the one person to replace Paul," Blodgett said. "Instead, I see a new wave of leadership that is redefining how we do politics and how we bring people together. That's Paul Wellstone's legacy."

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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