Sen. Paul Wellstone and the portents of his death, two decades later

October 24, 2022 6:00 am

The late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, laughs with his wife Sheila and members of the Somali community during a Somali Voter Participation Campaign with Will McLaughlin (2nd L), a campaign worker, walking behind on October 19, 2002 in Minneapolis. Wellstone, his wife Sheila, daughter Marcia Wellstone-Markuson, Will McLaughlin and four others were killed in a plane crash October 25, 2002. Photo by Scott Cohen/Getty Images.

When I was a kid I spent most summers riding my bicycle along every back road within 25 miles of our house near Forbes. This habit toured me through the nooks and crannies of the Mesabi Iron Range, the geography of which still wallpapers the interior of my brain. I went everywhere, but there was a route through the woods near my house that was my go-to thinking ride. I called it the Bodas Road loop.

Looking back, the things I thought about most were politics and the money my family needed. The money problems were like a lot of people I knew, but the politics came because budget cuts were just starting to hit Iron Range schools like mine. I loved school. It took me out of the problems at home and opened the world to me. I wanted college, but would be on my own for that. I saw a guy speaking about this problem once. He made sense to me. His name was Paul Wellstone.

Tomorrow, 20 years will have passed since the death of U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife Sheila, their daughter Marcia and four others in a plane crash near Eveleth, Minnesota. Today, a memorial stands on that road where I used to ride my bike. Meanwhile, as before, an important election approaches.

On Oct. 24, 2002, another midterm election accelerated toward its consequential finish. Wellstone, a Northfield Democrat in his second term, faced Republican challenger Norm Coleman of St. Paul, in a race that ranked high on national campaign watchlists. 

Coleman had pulled ahead in the polls earlier in the campaign, but one recent poll showed Wellstone back on top. This was big news because Wellstone had just voted against authorizing the war in Iraq, the only senator facing a competitive race to do so.

As the candidates raced across the state during the final two weeks, Wellstone decided to divert his plane north to catch the funeral of the father of Iron Range lawmaker Tom Rukavina, a longtime ally. That plane wouldn’t make it to the small airport across the road from my grandparent’s house.

I watched the news splay across the TV screen between a split shift at the small daily newspaper I edited in 2002. I remembered how I met Wellstone that one summer in 1996, how he seemed excited that I would study journalism. Six years later I was right where I wanted to be. Or so I thought. Just like Sept. 11 of the previous year, I would have to tear down a front page for something horrible.

The death of the Wellstones and the others on that plane were sad for personal reasons. But, in retrospect, what followed was more instructive about the direction our politics would take. One of the speakers at Wellstone’s funeral made a partisan speech. I watched it on television and thought it was out of place. But what followed shocked me.

Newspaper websites and e-mail accounts were new at the time. Most letters to the editor still came to the office by mail or hand delivered in the flesh by local cranks. Much of my time was spent typesetting these very screeds. But on the day after Wellstone’s funeral, hundreds of e-mails began pouring into the newspaper inbox.

They were all exactly the same, signed by different people. The message decried the skullduggery of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party for exploiting Wellstone’s death. Some website autogenerated the letters and spammed the inboxes of every newspaper in Minnesota. The effort was ham-handed by modern standards. These were clearly not original letters by unique individuals, but a shotgun campaign. Nevertheless, it would be 24 hours before I could sort out this massive influx of artificial sentiment. By that time, new letters began to arrive that seemed to quote from the first batch.

Between talk radio and the coordinated messaging of these letters, the tone of how Wellstone’s death was reported changed immediately. A grief-stricken DFL called Walter Mondale out of retirement to run as a replacement candidate. Mondale’s rust, the partisanship accusations, and political headwinds combined to sink Mondale’s candidacy. Coleman won in what would be the last Minnesota GOP U.S. Senate win to date.

This was the beginning of a divide that was less about policy and more about the perceived realities of fellow citizens.

Had he lived, Paul Wellstone would be 78 today. He might not be a senator anymore but, then again, old age hardly disqualifies one from the United States Senate. We can only imagine how Wellstone might have reacted to the last 20 years of politics. 

It seems unlikely he’d enjoy the results, but who really has? Republicans and Democrats have both won elections in the past two decades. But these victories only brought their supporters momentary relief and no lasting joy. A handful of major outcomes were achieved — the Affordable Care Act for Democrats; a conservative Supreme Court for Republicans — but no one sleeps well while thinking about American politics.

That’s what we lost in 2002. Not just Wellstone, but a world where happy warriors for righteous causes could exist outside their partisan holding pens. His death didn’t cause this problem, but it did reveal the schism in American life unearthed by 9/11 and our chaotic, divergent media landscape. Wellstone’s were a politics of rolling up sleeves and diving into the kitchen to meet the staff, no matter their demographics. After he died, more of us began looking at our chosen screens and repeating the things we saw there. This was and is to our great detriment.

Here comes another election, one in which all sides fight for the survival of separate but equally fragile narratives. Yes, we should vote. No, we should not despair. But we cannot forget what was taken from us in the shadows of 9/11 and the rise of authoritarian tendencies here and around the world.

Democracy is an act of faith, and all good faith must sometimes suffer the darkness. We would do well to remember the quote Paul so often repeated, “Whatever happened to the idea that we all do better when we all do better?”

People die, but ideas may be reborn with the touch of a worker’s hand. E pluribus unum

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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.