What Senators Can Learn from Paul Wellstone

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I had never met a guy with so much energy. It was hard to believe that so much enthusiasm could fit inside a 5'5" frame. That was my first impression when I met Paul Wellstone. He was visiting an elementary school in one of the South Bronx's worst neighborhoods, meeting seven-year-olds who couldn't vote for him. Why was he there? It was 2000, he wasn't running for reelection, he wasn't running for president, and yet there he was talking with teachers in a state a thousand miles from his own. He was there because he believed those kids were the people he was fighting for on the floor of the Senate.

Senator Paul Wellstone, who died Friday when his campaign plane crashed, had a lot of courage to match all that enthusiasm. Most politicians and reporters stress how liberal he was. But even if he had been Jesse Helms' and Strom Thurmond's ideological buddy on Capitol Hill, Wellstone would have had something special that set him apart from most of his colleagues. Wellstone was unapologetic about his convictions. He did not change his views based on polls or focus groups. Throughout the '90s, as the Senate shifted to Republican control, and Democrats moved further to the center, Wellstone passionately held on to his ideals.

That was never more evident then just a few weeks ago, when he cast one of his final votes. President Bush asked Congress to authorize him to use force against Iraq, arguing that a resolution would strengthen his hand during negotiations with the United Nations. With Election Day only a month away, most Democratic senators were not willing to vote no and risk being called unpatriotic by Republican challengers. Despite having serious reservations about Bush's rush to war, every Democrat facing a reelection fight voted yes — except for Wellstone. He voted against war with Iraq in 1991, he hadn't changed his views, and he wasn't going to apologize for them, despite the fact he was already running behind in the polls back home. And yet, a funny thing happened. In the week after the vote, his numbers improved. He took a slight lead over Republican Norm Coleman. Even Minnesotans who didn't agree with Wellstone's stance on Iraq were proud to have a senator who voted for what he believed in.

Wellstone's vote provided a sharp contrast with everything else that went on in Congress during the last two years. In 2000, when voters elected a closely divided House and Senate, most pundits prophesied that Republicans and Democrats would learn to work together. Instead, the past two years have been marked by complete gridlock. And despite the constant Republican refrain this fall that Tom Daschle is a tyrannical obstructionist, both parties are to blame. Republicans in the House have spent most of the past six months passing bills they know Senate Democrats will never touch, just so they can tout them during the campaign. Neither party has been willing to sit down and work out compromises.

When Wellstone arrived in 1991, he was an ideological troublemaker. He stepped on a lot of toes and got very little done during his first year. Then he realized he needed to play by the rules, befriend potential allies on both sides of the aisle, and learn to compromise. But he didn't give up his principles doing it. Some critics argued he could afford to be so liberal because he was from Minnesota, home to such icons of the left as Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. But today's Minnesota is not so liberal. When Wellstone launched his first campaign in 1990, both incumbent senators were Republicans. In 1998, the state decided a professional wrestler would make a good governor. Today's Minnesota is fairly well split between conservatives, moderates and liberals. In fact, the top three candidates for the governor's seat that Jesse Ventura is leaving — a Republican, Democrat and independent — are currently locked in a three way tie.

Wellstone may have stood to the left of most of his constituents, but they still reelected him in 1996. If he hadn't held such strong convictions, and hadn't stuck to them, he wouldn't have won two terms. His courage of conviction should be a lesson to all the politicians he leaves behind: Stand up for what you believe in, and keep fighting for it until the fight is done.