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On Paul Wellstone's Birthday

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Today would have been the great liberal Senator Paul Wellstone's sixty-seventh birthday. He was killed in a plane crash in 2002 along with his wife Sheila, his daughter Marcia, and three members of his staff, and two pilots. It was just eleven days before he was slated to win his third term in office to a Senate equally divided between Republicans and Democrats.

For those of us who knew and believed in him -- and there were a lot of us -- his death was life-changing and devastating. Over the years since most of us have only missed him more. I, personally, have not healed at all. And the gaping hole his loss created in our political system, to me, has only widened.

As a means of helping keep him and what he stood for alive, here is what I wrote about him shortly after he died.

I first met Paul Wellstone in 1993 on a rainy Spring night in Washington, DC, at 10 PM.

The Capitol was built on land reclaimed from a swamp. When it rains in DC, it rains buckets. So it was that night. It was late. No one was around.

I stood in the "Hart Horseshoe," the area outside the Hart Senate Office Building where cars pull in and out to let Senators stay dry. I had no umbrella. I had just given up all hope of dryness or dignity. I'd removed my new shoes and tucked them under my shirt, and I'd rolled up my pant legs. I was about to venture into the deluge when I heard a voice behind me.

"How many blocks to your car?"

It was Senator Wellstone with an umbrella.

I happened to know that Wellstone lived across the street from Hart. I'd seen him and Sheila walking to and from the office many times. So I told him that I appreciated the kind implication that he might walk me to my car, but that my car was parked ten blocks away. His response: "We gonna talk or walk?"

He raised his umbrella over my head, and we headed off into the rain. When we got to my car we were completely soaked, and then I drove him home. He had no idea who I was, he didn't know I worked for another Senator, and I didn't want him to know anything. I didn't want to detract from his act of pure generosity by creating a feedback loop.

A month later I walked onto the Senate Floor for the first time. This was 1993, the Dems were in the majority. Wellstone presided over the Senate. He saw me and he scratched his head, then mouthed the word "you?" I nodded. He smiled at me. Later on we talked in the hallway. I worked for Senator Lieberman at the time.

Three years later he called me from the Senate Floor. I was now working for Senator Kerry, but looking to get more involved in education policy, and Paul needed an education staffer. So I took the job eagerly, and worked for him as Legislative Assistant, and then as Chief Education Counsel. I ran phone banks for him during 1996 Campaign. I volunteered my time to his Presidential Exploratory Committee. I would have followed him to the ends of the earth.

As would almost every person I met during my almost four years on his staff. It's common for Senate staff to hero-worship their bosses. But one of Paul's strengths was that he didn't allow hero worship. He demanded to be called "Paul." He gave his attention to everybody, religiously. Typically, Chiefs of Staff and Press Secretaries fight with each other merely for the opportunity to drive senators to the airport. Wellstone's door was so profoundly open that he had a hard time even finding interns to drive him.

But he could find me just fine. In memory of the night we met, I was always willing to drive Paul. For four years, Paul's scheduler would send out a polite e-mail soliciting drivers for Paul before walking Paul's official license plate over to my desk and telling me where to pick him up. And that's how I got to know Paul best, over the course of a hundred comings and goings, wheels up, wheels down.

The rides also gave me a great deal of time with Sheila, which I needed, because I was hired to be her advisor as well as Paul's. Her issue was domestic violence, and she fought for the rights of abused women, children, and the elderly like no one in Washington had ever fought.

And they gave me time with his daughter Marcia, which was good. Because I had a crush on Marcia. We all had a crush on Marcia. It was effortless. She was warm and smart and beautiful and down to earth.

The guy who drove Paul on the other end, in Minnesota, was Tom Lapic. Tom had been deputy press secretary to Paul in DC, until he married Trudy and moved to Minnesota. Unless I'm mistaken, Tom was offered the post of Secretary of Agriculture in the Ventura Administration. As I recall, he turned it down, saying "As long as Paul's in office, I'll be on his staff." His words ran true to the last second.

Also on that plane was Mary McEvoy. I like to take credit for "discovering" Mary. She was the early childhood expert in Minnesota who I depended on most heavily, as I handled Children's issues for Paul. I adored her. She was brilliant and funny and supportive and boundlessly enthusiastic about Paul.

I sought to involve her in everything and anything I could. She ended up joining Paul's campaign staff. My memory may be faulty; perhaps she was involved with Wellstone's campaigns before I even knew her. But I do know that she made me feel as though my encouragement led her to a deeper involvement with Paul. That's the way she was. Mary went down with Paul and Sheila and Tom, and she left behind three children of her own.

There's no way to measure the loss of Paul Wellstone. But I don't want to contribute to the diminishment of his character by referring to him, like most people are now, as "Liberal, scrappy, principled, and always standing up for what he believes in." Those words are accurate, but not in the least complete.

He was the leader of his wing of his party. He was the direct political descendent from FDR, JFK, LBJ, and RFK.

And he got there by breaking all conventional rules. He wasn't telegenic. He wasn't good at raising money (until recently). He wasn't tall, he wasn't smooth, he wasn't polished. He took stances against popular opinion -- often. And the people he fought to help had no money or political power to offer him in return. His supporters weren't "likely voters."

And yet he won and he won, and he was just pulling ahead and likely to win again. And yet he created reams of legislation for the underprivileged in this country. And yet he was taken seriously as a presidential candidate, and yet he forged lasting and effective partnerships with Republican of stature such as John McCain, Pete Domenici, and even (then-Speaker) Hastert.

Yes, there was a reason that Wellstone was the number one target for the Republicans in each election. He was a player. He got things done. And he attracted people to the political process who would otherwise not have become involved.

Yet his model has perhaps only been followed once -- by Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. All the barriers Wellstone broke are well situated to fall back into place.

That is not what he would have wanted. He would have wanted everyone he inspired to follow his example. To throw conventional wisdom to the wind, and dig in, and fight to serve.

By all accounts, he was happy on the day he died. He was in a campaign. He was with his people. He was with his wife and daughter.

And he always will be.

If he's going to always be with us, though, we're going to have to remember him, still be inspired by him, and seek to emulate him even more than we ever have before.

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