More than 16 years after his death, the legacy of Sen. Paul Wellstone is palpable in the 2020 presidential campaign.
Several candidates who are in the White House race or are weighing a bid call the Minnesota Democrat an inspiration, and some issues he championed remain party priorities.
Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, encouraged Sen. Amy Klobuchar to run for Hennepin County attorney and to seek higher office after that. “Whenever the going was tough” in her campaigns, she said in an interview, “I always thought in my mind, ‘Well, Paul thought I could do this.’ ”
When Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was asked on Feb. 10 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to name her mentor, she spoke of her late-night phone conversations with Wellstone. They collaborated on bankruptcy legislation while she was a Harvard professor.
“There are certainly echoes of Wellstone” in this campaign, said Bill Lofy, a Vermont-based political consultant who worked for him starting in 1994. Democrats are emphasizing “a core set of values” that reflect Wellstone’s call for “politics that’s more straightforward and unapologetic,” he said.
Some of Wellstone’s goals — universal health care, protecting the environment, campaign finance reform, ending violence against women — are part of the Democratic Party’s new progressive agenda.
The Minnesota Democrat and his wife would be gratified “that issues they pursued with such heart and dedication are still front and center,” said Rick Kahn, the treasurer for Wellstone’s U.S. Senate campaigns. He believes that voters are hungry for a candidate who, like Wellstone, “will actually fight for them.”
Wellstone won the seat in a 1990 upset, was re-elected in 1996 and was days away from another election when he, Sheila and six others died in a plane crash near Eveleth, Minn., on Oct. 25, 2002. Wellstone was 58.
He had presidential ambitions of his own. In 1998, he formed an exploratory committee for a possible run in 2000. In 1999 he opted not to pursue the nomination.
Now his son David Wellstone is considering an active role in the 2020 campaign. He hopes to organize a national movement to press presidential candidates to commit to specific steps to address mental health and addiction issues.
“What better way to honor both my folks one last time?” said David Wellstone, who lives in Northfield and operates sober-living housing. His father worked for more than a decade on a bill requiring insurers to cover addiction and mental health treatment. It became law in 2008.
Jeff Blodgett managed Wellstone’s campaigns and is now a special adviser to Klobuchar’s presidential campaign. If Wellstone had run for president, his candidacy might have resembled Sen. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent bid for the 2016 Democratic nomination — “only better,” Blodgett said.
Wellstone had “an additional twinkle in his eye that may have been missing” in Sanders’ campaign, he said.
Sanders said on the fifth anniversary of the plane crash that history would remember Wellstone as “one of the great senators of our time.”
Klobuchar said that Wellstone’s tenets remain relevant. “He cared about a lot of issues, but he had a major economic focus,” she said. “That is still very much in the party — for good reason, because the income gap hasn’t really changed. … He always stood up for the most vulnerable.”
In a speech on the Senate floor in 2017 — 15 years after Wellstone’s death — Klobuchar said that he made people believe “that getting involved in politics could make a real difference in their lives.”
Former Sen. Al Franken wrote a remembrance of Wellstone for this report. “How would Paul feel about his ideas being an important part of the national political dialogue?” the Minnesota Democrat asked. “Other than being frustrated that he isn’t up there giving a tub-thumper, he would be thrilled.”
Franken said he’s curious about what Wellstone would make of Medicare-for-all plans and is certain that the late senator would be “laser-focused on income inequality” and would be “fighting for fully funding early childhood education.”
Franken remembers Wellstone’s “authenticity, his passion, and his political courage.”
Both Wellstones worked for passage of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. It provided funding for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women. Then-Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who is now weighing a presidential run, led the fight.
Biden received an award named for Sheila Wellstone in 2009 because of those efforts. When he visited Minnesota in 2016, Biden spoke to anti-domestic violence activists at the Wellstone Center, a community-service hub in St. Paul.
Bill Hillsman, president of North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis, said that Wellstone had a lasting effect on candidates’ messaging.
Hillsman produced TV ads for Wellstone’s 1990 campaign, including one in which the candidate raced through his biography, explaining that he couldn’t afford a longer commercial. Another featured Wellstone fruitlessly hunting for his Republican opponent, Sen. Rudy Boschwitz.
Quirky ads have since become a campaign staple. The commercials worked because of the candidate’s authenticity, which is impossible to feign, Hillsman said. Working with Wellstone “was like a miracle. … From the very first time we put him on camera, it was like this is for real.”
Those who worked with Wellstone can’t help wondering what role he might be playing in the emerging 2020 presidential race.
David Wellstone thinks his father would approve of his effort to elevate mental health and addiction issues. “It’s the kind of thing he would do, the kind of thing that he would smile down on,” he said.
Wellstone’s message, Kahn said, would be, “It’s up to you. You have to make it happen.”
Blodgett agreed: “He would talk about how it’s up to us and it’s our responsibility and in our power to change things.”