Celebrating Hellraisers: Paul Wellstone

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Twenty years ago Paul Wellstone was a young college professor in rural Minnesota, always rushing between faculty meetings, a household with three kids, and rallies in support of family farmers or low-income people. Now, he’s just as busy, scrambling across the floor of the U.S. Senate to build political support for family farmers, low-income people, and the simple idea that government should be a tool to improve opportunities for all Americans, not just defense contractors and brokerage firms. The mere fact of his election to the Senate seat gives Wellstone a streak of optimism about the future.

“The pressure for change–progressive change–is almost always external,” he says, noting that it often comes from outside Congress, city hall, or a state legislature. “In the last 20 years the most positive changes have come as a result of really good grassroots organizing. And it’s critically important because right now that is what’s really absent.”

When the Senate debated the telecommunications bill, Wellstone says, Capitol Hill was crammed with delegations from communications companies. But when the Senate debated education or social services bills, “there was almost a complete lack of people to fight for these causes.”

According to Wellstone, the success of the Christian right should remind us of a lesson or two about politics. “I have a real respect for people who do phone trees, call-in radio shows, who write letters to the editor, run candidates for school board, do voter registration, turn people out to vote. I think to a certain extent that a good many of us in the progressive community have forgotten the importance of good grassroots organizing. We’re going to have to do it over again.”

That was the secret of Wellstone’s victory in 1990, when almost no one gave him even the slightest chance of winning against well-heeled, two-term incumbent Rudy Boschwitz. Environmentalists, rural activists, union members, and legions of his former students at Carleton College hit the streets and the phone lines on his behalf. He won with 52 percent of the vote.

“I spend a lot of time just saying to people in the progressive community, ‘This is no time to become depressed or walk away from all of this.’ This is one of those moments in the history of this country where I think a tremendous amount is at stake. I hear Newt Gingrich say this is the future. I don’t agree.

“My own view is that people in this country are in a populist mood, not a right-wing one. That ought to be the kind of politics we thrust forward.”

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