I knew Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone for 20 years.
We met through our involvement with MPIRG, a Ralph Nader- organized and student-directed public interest group. When I started work at a rural legal aid office representing low-income farmers, Paul was working to organize farmers to push for a minimum price like the minimum wage.
Paul was a champion of my community of legal aid workers for the poor, and the many communities of low-income people we serve. Many people talk about lending a hand to the poor, disenfranchised and oppressed. They wonder why there isn’t someone there for the little guy. They think about it while watching “A Christmas Carol,” waiting for Scrooge to become the better person he is capable of being.
Not nearly enough people work towards this principle on a daily basis, let alone consider it in the voting booth. Others even reject it. Paul and Sheila Wellstone worked on it with every moment of their time and with every ounce of their energy.
Paul was not afraid to oppose what would harm the most defenseless. He got so much done, but often for those who are invisible to many: the poor, disabled, victims of violence, small business owners and farmers. I knew that when my youngest daughter, Rosie, was born with physical and mental disabilities, Paul would be there for her. He received support from around the country because so many people do not have a voice in their representatives.
It broke my heart that so many would vigorously attack him for his principles and his work. But Paul Wellstone was not one to recoil in anger. Just as he quietly dealt with his increasing physical disabilities, he would smile, look for the positive and move forward.
Paul and Sheila had a unique marriage and partnership. His causes were hers, and her causes were his. Even among politicians whom I liked, I often liked their spouses more. I think of Eleanor Roosevelt. With Paul and Sheila, I loved them both. It was as if they were one person with two heads.
I volunteered on each of Paul’s campaigns, and played jazz piano for many of his fundraisers. I visited whenever I could. We would talk about the concerns of the low-income tenants I represent at Legal Aid, the issues of the day, and our families. He always made time for me.
And then there were the hugs. I had a senator who both hugged, and was huggable. If I ever develop a bad back, I will blame Paul.
Having said all of this, you might think that I was one of their best friends. I was not, but Paul and Sheila made me feel like I was. They remembered so much about my family between our meetings, and they took such pride in our accomplishments. When my daughter Shannon invited Paul to a band concert, he wrote back. Paul even called from an airport when he saw I was the focus of a newspaper article. These last few days I learned that so many other people had similar experiences.
In 1968, at age 12, I was old enough to be aware of the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, but not old or aware enough to fully comprehend how their deaths touched so many people. While I came to understand it over time, I did not “feel” it until now.
My 16-year-old daughter Kelsey also feels it. She called me from school when she heard of the plane crash, and we cried together on the phone. She has never known a time when Paul was not her senator, and he is the standard against which she and her friends measure politicians. That alone is a great legacy, leaving me with a sense of optimism in the midst of dark times.
Whenever I would see Paul and Sheila, I would start by thanking them for all that they did, and how they inspired so many. If I didn’t talk fast enough, Paul would cut me off midstream and thank me, and my legal aid colleagues, for all that we do in service to the poor. He said “we” were “his” heroes.
So how do we remember Paul and Sheila, their daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson, campaign workers Mary McEvoy, Tom Lapic and William McLaughlin, and pilots Richard Conroy and Michael Guess? Lend a hand to someone in need, give time and money to organizations who do the same, and work and vote for candidates who want the same.
It appears that for the present, a small fraction of the population, but a majority of the subset of citizens in Minnesota and the country who vote, have chosen another road. Perhaps the end to “A Christmas Carol” will have to wait for another day. But it will never come if those committed to social justice do not carry on. Paul and Sheila showed us how to make social justice important to a voting majority. We must learn to do it again. “Stand up, keep fighting!”
Larry McDonough is a legal aid attorney, law school professor and jazz pianist in St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org