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Paul Wellstone Struts His Presidential Stuff on New York's Stage and Receives Mixed Reviews

Also omitted from Wellstone's peroration was any mention of local issues meaningful to liberals and progressives—for example, New York City's Clean Money Clean Elections referendum, which would provide 80 per cent public funding for candidates who agree to stringent limits on contributions and spending (and for which organizers filed enough petition signatures last week to insure it a place on the ballot).

Now, Wellstone is the principal Senate cosponsor—with Massachusetts's John Kerry—of the proposed national version of Clean Money. Moreover, he can't be ignorant of the New York ballot question since he spoke for it at a recent fundraiser. Yet not only did Wellstone fail to mention the local referendum entirely, he all but ignored the issue of special interest money in politics, which is a fundamental issue for those who want to break the neoconservative stranglehold on the national Democratic Party.

Even Sipser, the meeting's organizer, couldn't conceal his profound disappointment the next day. "I had a discussion with the senator's office," Sipser told the Voice. "And I told 'em, it wasn't good. A large section of the Democratic Party is so influenced by money that they're like the Republicans. He has to talk about the impact of corporate power on every institution in America, including education. It's not enough to say, 'We're for the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party' when the whole politics of the national party have changed—we need him to talk about the fight for the redirection of the Democratic Party. It's as the leader of that movement that he can define himself and broaden his appeal."

The question period following Wellstone's speech yielded little more than his talk. When the senator got a question about how he differed from another putative Democratic presidential candidate, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, he refused to answer it, saying "I'm for the politics of enunciation, not denunciation."

"Unfortunately, he didn't manifest either," commented one labor leader after the speech. "And that's especially dumb when you're talking to an audience with such a large labor presence. Gephardt is part of the problem, and on most issues, a captive of traditional special interest politics. Wellstone's failure to say so not only doesn't educate anybody, it doesn't give labor a reason to be for him—especially when Gephardt has been wooing the unions for his own race."

Not all the reactions to Wellstone's New York outing were quite so negative—and several of the elected officials present, like Assemblymen Dick Gottfried and Ed Sullivan, made sympathetic (if noncommittal) noises when asked about this presidential candidacy. And the organizers did collect pledges of volunteer support from about half the audience.

But most seemed to agree with Sipser's assessment: "He's what we can have, not what we'd like to have. We've just gotta push him to be more of a real leader. After all, for the moment, he's all we've got."

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