Remembering Wellstone: 10 years after crash, iconic Minnesota senator legend lives on
ST. PAUL – Paul Wellstone lives on.
A decade after he died in a northeastern Minnesota airplane crash, the U.S. senator’s legacy remains strong and his namesake son is looking to make it stronger.
More than two dozen buildings and programs are named after Wellstone. An organization carrying his name has visited all 50 states to train 55,000 candidates, campaign staff and community organizers in the late senator’s unique style. Twelve years after Wellstone began fighting for it, and six years after his death, Congress passed a bill giving mental health and addiction patients equal coverage by insurers.
Now, as the crash’s Oct. 25 anniversary approaches, Paul David Wellstone Jr. is coming out of self-imposed exile to launch what could be the biggest honor yet for his father, an organization to make sure the federal Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 improves the lives of mentally ill and addicted Americans as it was designed. The law was written to force insurance companies to treat mental health and addiction patients similar to those with physical medical issues.
The younger Wellstone, who goes by “Dave,” returned to St. Paul two months ago after living in the California mountains most of the time since his father, mother, sister, three campaign aides and two pilots died on a chilly, gray and wet Friday morning.
The mental health organization launch comes on the heels of release of his book, “Becoming Wellstone,” about the crash, his father and his own experience as he felt a need to escape post-crash pressures.
Wellstone had withdrawn to a home amid California’s redwood trees, in a house now billed as a place in the Santa Cruz Mountains for “bolstering creative energy” with a variety of programs for artists, writers and others.
He gradually came out of his retreat from society to help get the mental health act passed and once his two children graduated from high school, he began looking at moving back to Minnesota.
Wellstone now lives in St. Paul with his second wife, arriving in time to promote his book and prepare the mental health initiative.
“I am set to pounce as soon as the election is over,” Wellstone said.
The elder Wellstone saw problems in the country’s mental health system with issues his brother faced getting treatment.
“I got thrust into it,” the younger Wellstone said about the issue. “It found me, I didn’t find it.”
He said the new non-profit group is a good way to extend his father’s legacy, and the younger Wellstone said he is the person to do it.
“I have some access through who my dad was,” Wellstone said during an interview a couple of blocks from his home in the Grand Avenue neighborhood of St. Paul.
His father’s name still carries weight in many circles.
“My dad was well respected, well loved,” Wellstone said. “So if my name is Paul Wellstone Jr., I can use a nonprofit to make sure the law we passed in his name has teeth and is being followed. That, at least for me, brings some meaning to everything.”
Many wonder if the younger Wellstone will follow his father’s political path, but he said that he can accomplish his goals without an election certificate.
His father worked with Republicans. They got along and worked together, in part because they understood their differences.
“His best friends were Republicans,” Dave Wellstone said. “You would not find that now. There is not the civility.”
In Minnesota, Republicans did not agree with Democrat Wellstone’s ideas, but many respected him.
The senator gave “candidates and officeholders some encouragement and some hope,” said Jeff Johnson, Minnesota’s Republican national committeeman. “He was very frank and honest and still could win.”
“I disagreed with him vehemently on many fundamental issues, but I appreciate that he always was frank,” added Johnson, a Detroit Lakes native who served in the state House and now is a Hennepin County commissioner. “He proved to us in politics that you can run a big race with a grassroots campaign.”
That type of campaigning is just what Wellstone Action teaches to “progressives,” a term usually applied to liberals who want government reform. Dave Wellstone and his brother, Mark, are co-chairmen of the organization, which trains candidates and political activists.
Wellstone Action was founded less than a year after the plane crash. The organization began Camp Wellstone on June 27, 2003, with general training programs; it has since expanded into eight programs, including those targeting American Indians, labor and students.
“Paul knew if you didn’t have a good idea and an organized base, there wasn’t much you could do,” Executive Director Ben Goldfarb of Wellstone Action said.
Wellstone Action will conduct 160 training workshops in 30 states this year alone with 18 full-time workers and many volunteers.
The organization has grown “beyond our wildest dreams,” Goldfarb said, even though a decade after the senator died fewer of its students had a direct connection with him. Still, Goldfarb said, most people know about him.
“In us, we see the Wellstone legacy,” Goldfarb said. “That name does mean a lot to a lot of people.”
For Dave Wellstone, Goldfarb’s organization is one of three major legacies his father left. The mental health law is another one, but the younger Wellstone made it clear that No. 1 is how his father lived.
“He walked his talk,” Wellstone said. “I always want people to remember that he wasn’t just a politician who once he became a politician did all this good stuff. I think that is an important kind of lesson that can permeate everyone’s life. ... Just do it in your own life, like my dad did with us.”