Wheedle, Leverage, Organize


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.

Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone’s former Minnesota office director, says another notable example came on a federal bankruptcy bill that gives lending companies unparalleled power to leap ahead of debtors’ need for food, housing, and education to collect on bad loans they probably never should have made in the first place. Wellstone simply tied up the bill himself. “Now, even with difficult times that will force more people into this situation, I’m sure [the bill] is going to pass,” said Blodgett.

Wellstone had other singular achievements. When House leadership refused to hear a popular bill to fight homelessness among veterans, Wellstone began withholding unanimous consent on bills referred from the House. The homeless bill passed.

Critics rightly scan this short list and wonder if Wellstone could have averted bigger disasters; given the complicated levers of power, it’s difficult to know how the universe of trade-offs would have been altered. It is true that Wellstone occasionally betrayed his principles, voting for the Defense of Marriage Act and the USA Patriot Act.

One thing a single progressive senator can’t do is dramatically change the federal judiciary. As the state’s senior senator during a Democratic presidency—which usually confers the privilege of picking federal judges—Wellstone was smacked down not once, but twice. He nominated a respected Minnesota Supreme Court justice, only to see her blackballed by his own state colleague, conservative GOP senator Rod Grams. Next came an African American state judge who had authored a courageous decision on racial sentencing discrepancies in drug crimes—earning her the enmity of the Clinton Justice Department, which, Blodgett said, forced Wellstone to withdraw the nomination.

And as inspirational as Wellstone was, he failed to remake his own Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Following the initial heady victory, his freshly laureled campaign troops created the Wellstone Alliance, a permanent organizing effort to elect progressives of all stripes. The Alliance cratered in the 1994 governor’s race when a genuine but stiff DFL reformer, John Marty, was soundly trounced by tightfisted Republican incumbent Arne Carlson.

The defeat reinforced the DFL’s always-latent timidity. Following the Marty experiment, the DFL nominated two distinctly leaden war horses for governor in 1998 and 2002, losing badly; the party fumbled control of the state house in 1998 and nearly ceded its 30-year senate majority last week. George W. Bush came within two points of besting Al Gore in this state, and—despite a spectacular organizing effort by Wellstone’s original 1990 crew—Republican Norm Coleman topped Walter Mondale by an equal amount on November 5.

Wellstone is a hero here, but his electoral progeny have not emerged. “You can’t do it on organizing alone,” Blodgett said of one lesson from the Wellstone Alliance. “If you don’t have a person you’re excited about, you can’t build and organize and win. But you have to have a person who believes in things, who has the courage of their convictions, to not be afraid of the White House. You have to have some guts to articulate a difference. Then you can win. Paul Wellstone would have won for the third time on Tuesday.”

For now, the inescapable conclusion is that Wellstone died a singular figure in state and national politics. As an organizer, he made a difference in many people’s lives, and as the shouting symbol of social justice, he gave millions hope. He earned his worship, but in the end, one senator can’t make a movement. The question now for Democrats on Capitol Hill is whether four dozen outgunned senators can.