Wheedle, Leverage, Organize

Paul Wellstone's Lesson for the Overwhelmed Dems

The October 25 death of Senator Paul Wellstone provoked an outpouring of national grief, but the savage November 5 election remade his Democratic survivors into living memorials, marginalized political figures who must effectively counter overwhelming power. The coming troika—a solidly Republican White House, House of Representatives, and Senate—has not been seen since 1954. Soon-to-be Senate minority leader Tom Daschle has said he and his Democratic colleagues won't quit fighting, even if you wonder exactly what principles this increasingly ragtag band will fight for.

With the Democrats all, at least numerically, Wellstones now, what can one man's lonely legislative experience teach them? The late senator from Minnesota was so often the sole progressive voice, the one martyr calling for social justice above the din of the greedy. Unlike his predecessors Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, he leaves behind no Civil Rights Act, no Medicare, no sweeping, iconic policy legacy. Then again, more powerful recent Democrats haven't, either.

Wellstone's ability to enact good policy and block bad may have been smaller-scale, but it wasn't Lilliputian. A few lefties dinged the fiery community organizer for never again commanding the megaphone as he did during his opposition to the Gulf War (when the newcomer reportedly earned the sobriquet "chickenshit" from the first president Bush). And while Wellstone couldn't pass single-payer health care, he expanded a politically palatable single-payer scheme, the Veterans Administration. Wellstone spearheaded the fight to give "atomic veterans"—soldiers who contracted cancer after being exposed to military radioactivity—compensation and care. More sweepingly, he leveraged the flag and tirelessly wheedled hundreds of millions more for overall VA care, forcing Republicans to accept a bigger progressive program.

Thanks to what became a 12-year health-policy ground war, the chickenshit became a hero to soldiers, winning an endorsement from the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 2002. Their support hardly turned him jingoistic. Instead, in his last major stand, he announced his opposition to George W.'s Iraq II resolution—then watched his lead in the race back home keep growing.

Accused by some of having become a tinkerer, Wellstone nonetheless was able to knit together old soldiers and new peaceniks, amassing numbers to pull causes back from the fringe. "Here's this guy—by all accounts he's a freak, he offends people, he doesn't obey protocol, and he shouldn't be effective," said Marie Zellar, Minnesota director for Clean Water Action, who worked with him on the Farm Bill last year. "Harkin and Daschle have the ideals, but they're not organizers. Wellstone said, 'Hey, let's take some plays out of the campaign book. Let's organize.' "

Zellar credits him with helping bread-and-butter farmers and energy activists form a winning coalition, one that turned the Farm Bill into a measure for renewable fuels. "We were thinking, 'Damn it, why do we keep getting painted into a corner when we are an answer to energy policy?' " she says. Wellstone had them recruit support from Midwestern lawmakers, whose constituents had empty acres for wind farms and homegrown crops for alternatives to petroleum.

"His staff came back and organized," she continued. "Having his name on a bill was the kiss of death, but they said to us, 'Who do you have in South Dakota who can contact [Democratic senator Tim Johnson]? He doesn't quite get it. You need to talk to so-and-so in North Dakota.' They gave the marching orders to people all over the Midwest."

The result was significant federal funding for renewable energy, tied to farm production. "He parlayed populism into policy, and now these two issues are forever linked, the rural economy and energy policy," Zellar said. "You can't tease this apart, and for conservatives who thrive on divide-and-conquer, this is their ultimate nightmare."

Dick Senese, Wellstone's finance director and a constituent advocate, says Democratic legislators should remodel their staffs to look like the one Wellstone had. "Paul's attitude as a community organizer went to Washington with him. He hired great staff folks to work and organize on issues really near and dear to him. You get a certain amount of money for staff based on the size of your state, and"—Senese chuckles—"Paul wanted a large staff, so you accepted not making as much."

Backed by the right people, Wellstone worked hard to forge other coalitions, among them a nascent "blue-green" alliance of union workers and environmentalists. In 1996, he expanded GOP senator Pete Domenici's wish list for mental health parity in insurance caps—originally limited to five or six major biological disorders, recalled policy aide Mark Anderson. "Paul said, 'Let's open it up, to grief counseling, whatever conditions exist where there is an effective treatment,' " Anderson said. "He gave speeches, worked the mental health community. They lobbied, and he expanded the definition."

Although conservative Republicans such as Senator Phil Gramm tried to sabotage the Domenici-Wellstone bill, it passed, and this year, a so-called full-parity bill is on the verge of succeeding. Domenici may name it for Wellstone.

Nor was Wellstone a stranger to plain old parliamentary finagling. Through amendments and delaying tactics, he held up drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge long enough for activists to organize. "His response to Bush's fucked-up energy policy was great—he just started throwing monkey wrenches in their works, slowing a policy that was totally greased," Zellar said.

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