Paul WellstonePaul Wellstone (July 21, 1944 - October 25, 2002) was a Democratic U.S. senator from Minnesota, elected in 1990 and serving until his death in a plane crash in 2002. He was an avowed liberal, one of the strongest spokesmen for the left wing of his party in Congress.
Wellstone pushed for peace, mental health care, and environmentalism, and joined his wife Sheila to support victims of domestic violence. He opposed the Gulf War in 1991 and in 2002 he voted against giving President Bush carte blanche authority to invade Iraq. He was strongly supported by groups such as Americans for Democratic Action.
Wellstone was far from a polished politician; rather, the 5'5" former wrestler came across like the political science professor he was. Seemingly tired or dismayed most of the time, he visibly agonized over decisions, considering all sides. But he invariably chose a position, and argued for it strongly and without compromise on the Senate floor. He earned a reputation as a windbag in his early years until he better learned the back-room dealings that allow the Senate to function smoothly. He disagreed with everybody on at least one issue, and with most other Senators on a host of them. However, Wellstone gained respect from all sides of the aisle as someone who could separate differences of political opinion from personal connections.
He was in a line of left-of-center or progressive members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party (DFL), Minnesota's version of the Democratic party, in his state. The first three, Hubert H. Humphrey, Eugene J. McCarthy and Walter F. Mondale, all ran for their party's nomination for the presidency.
Wellstone was born in Washington D.C to Russian immigrants, Leon and Minnie Wellstone, and raised in Arlington, Virginia. He went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a wrestling scholarship, graduating with a degree in political science in three years. He was an Atlantic Coast Conference champion.
Wellstone's 1969 doctoral dissertation at UNC was "Black Militants in the Ghetto: Why They Believe in Violence."
Although he had promised to step down after two terms, in 2002 Wellstone campaigned for re-election to a third term against Republican Norm Coleman. Earlier that year he announced he had a mild form of multiple sclerosis, causing the limp he had believed was an old wrestling injury.
On October 25, 2002, he was killed at the age of 58 with seven others in a plane crash in northern Minnesota. The other victims were his wife, Sheila, one of his three children, Marcia, the two pilots, and campaign staffers Will McLaughlin, Tom Lapic, and Mary McEvoy. The plane was en route to Eveleth where Wellstone was to attend the funeral of Martin Rukavina, a steelworker whose son Tom Rukavina was in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Wellstone decided to go to the funeral instead of a rally and fundraiser in Minneapolis attended by Mondale and fellow Senator Ted Kennedy. He was to debate Coleman in Duluth that night.
The Beechcraft King Air A100 plane crashed in freezing rain and snow about two miles from the Eveleth airport in dense forest. Investigators were dismayed to learn that unlike commercial planes, the charter plane Wellstone was traveling in had no cockpit voice recorder. Both pilots tested negative for drug or alcohol use. One contributing factor to the accident may have been fatigue: the day before the crash, the first pilot had flown an unexpected trip from 3 - 9:30 am and then worked a nursing shift from 6 - 10 pm. Wellstone's flight started at 9:20 am the next morning.
Wellstone's death came just 11 days before his potential re-election in a crucial race to maintain Democratic control of the Senate. Campaigning was halted by all sides. Wellstone followed Governor Mel Carnahan and Senator John Heinz in dying in plane crashes during Senate campaigns (in 2000 and 1991 respectively).
Minnesota law required that his name be struck from the ballot, to be replaced by a candidate chosen by the party. This replacement candidate was ex-Vice President Walter Mondale, who accepted the nomination and later lost the election to Norm Coleman.
The memorial service for Wellstone and the other victims of the crash was held in a basketball arena of the University of Minnesota and was broadcast live on TV. The highly partisan nature of some of the speeches (and the booing of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott) was later criticized by Republicans, who complained that Democrats had essentially received free election campaign airtime. Governor Jesse Ventura, who had the option to pick a replacement senator to serve out Wellstone's term which lasted until January 2003, called the service embarrassing. He announced on his radio show that he would solicit resumés for the senatorial position and that he wouldn't consider Democrats. On November 4th, the day before Election Day, he appointed state planning commissioner Dean Barkley to complete Wellstone's Senate term.
Wellstone is survived by his sons David and Mark and six grandchildren.