MINNEAPOLIS – “Stand up, keep fighting,” the refrain from a Wellstone campaign song, rocked Williams Arena here Oct. 29 as more than 20,000 people packed a memorial service for Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife Sheila, daughter Marcia and three campaign staff members and crew who died in a plane crash Oct. 25.
Clapping, foot-stomping and cheers mingled with tears as the overflow crowd paid tribute to the Wellstones as champions for the little people and vowed, fists pumping, to “win this election for Paul.”
Wellstone, 58, was in the final weeks of a tough battle to win a third term in the U.S. Senate (see story page 3). A former community organizer, he was professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., for 20 years before being elected to the Senate in 1990. Sheila Wellstone, 58, was a national advocate for victims of domestic violence.
In a moving tribute, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said, “I loved him like a brother. [He] was one of those rare souls that so many saw as their best friend.” But Harkin went on to say the remarkable spontaneous outpouring for Wellstone was a tribute to the “yearning for a politics that can put principle above the latest poll result.”
“Now we must continue Paul’s journey for justice in America,” Harkin told the crowd. “Will you stand up and keep fighting for social and economic justice? Say yes!” The arena echoed “Yes” from the floor to the rafters.
Cheers greeted the arrival of a host of national political figures, including former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, Sens. Tom Daschle, Edward Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Hillary Rodham Clinton. The fighting tone of this memorial/rally showed as Sen. Trent Lott, symbol of the ultra-right, was booed as he walked to his seat with a frozen smile. Earlier, the Wellstone sons told Vice President Richard Cheney not to come.
The biggest hurrahs went to former Vice President Walter Mondale, who was expected to step in to replace Wellstone. Also present were the Rev. Jesse Jackson, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, and other labor and progressive leaders.
But the spirit of the event was the “ordinary folk,” who started lining up at noon for the 6:30 memorial: Iron Range miners, firefighters, disabled men and women in wheelchairs, students, carpenters, teachers, farmers, seniors, veterans, clergy, American Indians, Somalis, Hmong, Latinos, African Americans.
As the memorial began, Clyde Bellecourt led a Native American Indian drum group, Thunder Nation, in a tribute to the Wellstones. Drummer Jim Anderson, culture chairman of the Mendota Dakota Community in Anoka, Minn., told the World Wellstone was “a champion for little people.”
A group of retired LTV steelworkers rode three hours on a bus from the Iron Range, not far from where the Wellstone plane crashed. Wellstone had come “a dozen times at least” to help in their struggles for medical and prescription drug coverage. “We owe a lot to Paul Wellstone,” David Trach, Aurora chapter president of Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, told the World.
Outside Wellstone campaign headquarters in St. Paul, people have been coming to leave messages, artwork, flowers, hard hats, work boots, lighted candles, a canoe paddle, a guitar and other tributes, or just to share their grief.
A handwritten sign from two people in Sunrise, Minn., reads, “You spoke for ‘The Common Man’ and ‘Union Workers!’ Thank you. We’ll remember.” “You are the spirit of Minnesota,” says one of many posters from Ethiopian, Somali, and Hmong immigrants; another reads, “Thank you for understanding the needs of immigrants in Minnesota. Thank you for helping us. We want to keep you in our hearts forever. We love you.”
Wearing his Teamster jacket, Ben Rademacher, who worked 25 years at Coca-Cola Bottling, said Wellstone was “for the poor people, for the workers, for the seniors.” Pointing to a “No War on Iraq” sign, Rademacher said, although he didn’t agree with Wellstone’s opposition to the war, “I give him credit. I respect him. He stood up. He’s a fighter.”
At the memorial, Wellstone’s friend Rick Kahn said, “We will not sit quiet. We will never settle for the quick deal that buys the quick headline but leaves for too many people behind. We will fight every one of his fights. We will achieve victories in Paul Wellstone’s name.” To the cheering crowd he repeated over and over, “Help us win this election for Paul Wellstone.”
David Wellstone, Paul and Sheila’s older son, ended his eulogy declaring, “We know what we got to do, and let’s do it!”
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