Political frenzy followed Oct. 25 Wellstone airplane crash
ST. PAUL – A decision Paul Wellstone made 10 years ago may have cost him his life, but it was typical for the U.S. senator.
While running for his third U.S. Senate term representing Minnesota, Wellstone opted against appearing with former Vice President Walter Mondale and U.S. Sens. Edward Kennedy and Tom Daschle in the Twin Cities to instead attend a funeral of a friend on the Iron Range. The senator’s son, Dave Wellstone, said in a recent interview that his father connected with common folks.
“That is one of the things that no one ever knew that was a legacy of my dad,” he said. “He had a knack for the personal stuff.”
Wellstone, 58, died on the gray morning of Oct. 25, 2002, in an airplane crash upon approach to the Eveleth-Virginia airport.
Also dying in the crash were his wife, Sheila; their daughter, Marcia Wellstone Markuson, and three members of the campaign staff, Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy, and Will McLaughlin. The two pilots, who eventually were blamed in the crash, also died.
They were stopping at a funeral for the father of Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, before heading to a Duluth campaign event.
The crash was 11 days before the election, setting in motion the rapid nomination of a replacement, Mondale, who had served in the Senate two decades earlier.
Republican Norm Coleman beat Mondale.
Democrat Wellstone became involved in issues such as a Hormel meat-packing plant workers’ strike and a farmer protest against a power line. The Jewish college professor of Russian ancestry won his first Senate race in 1990.
Mondale and the two visiting senators rushed to the Wellstone campaign office on St. Paul’s University Avenue when word began to spread about the crash on that drizzly Friday morning. They emerged with somber faces, telling the country that it had lost a special person.
“Today, the nation lost its most passionate advocate for fairness and justice for all,” Kennedy said. “All of us who knew and loved Paul Wellstone in the Senate are devastated by his loss. He had an intense passion and enormous ability to reach out, touch and improve the lives of the people he served so brilliantly.”
Within minutes of the crash, hundreds of Minnesotans headed to the campaign office, many bringing flowers they put on a chain-link fence. Others posted notes honoring the Wellstones.
The gray, damp day was appropriate for their mood.
“We must be strong,” then-Gov. Jesse Ventura said. “And to be strong, we only need to remember Paul Wellstone’s energy, Paul Wellstone’s integrity, Paul Wellstone’s absolute love of his country, the people he represented, his friends and most of all his family.”
The night of the crash, thousands gathered in front of the Minnesota Capitol for a memorial event.
Most Minnesota politicians suspended campaigning right after the crash, but talk almost immediately began about nominating Mondale to replace Wellstone on the Nov. 5 ballot.
The decision was important nationally because the Senate was in Democratic control by a single vote before Wellstone’s death. He was in a neck-and-neck contest with Coleman.
Politics remained quiet, in the public eye at least, until the night of Oct. 29, when 20,000 gathered in the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena for a Wellstone memorial service televised nationally.
As political dignitaries such as former President Bill Clinton watched from the stands, the service began rather routinely. But when Wellstone follower Rick Kahn began speaking, everything changed.
Kahn’s voice became louder and louder as he delivered an emotional speech.
“If Paul Wellstone’s legacy comes to an end, then our spirits will be crushed and we will drown in a river of tears,” Kahn said. “We are begging you, do not let that happen. We are begging you to help us win this Senate election for Paul Wellstone.”
As Kahn urged Minnesotans to “win this election for Paul,” Ventura walked out in protest. Republicans accused Wellstone supporters of turning the memorial service into a Democratic pep rally.
Many political observers said Kahn’s remarks sealed the Coleman victory, and affected other races, because it upset Minnesotans who expected a more traditional service.