Farewell to a Giant
Paul Wellstone died as he lived -- fighting the good fight
That was the instantaneous mournful reaction of Louis Dubose to the news that Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone had died in a plane crash with his wife, daughter, and five other people last Friday morning. Dubose was formerly Chronicle politics editor and editor of The Texas Observer, and is co-author (with Molly Ivins) of Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Career of George W. Bush. Dubose and Ivins are at work on a second book, about the Bush presidency, and in the course of his reporting Dubose visited Wellstone and his staff in D.C. Dubose was researching the administration's withdrawal of workplace ergonomic rules -- developed over 10 years and two administrations -- that would have protected millions of workers from on-the-job injuries, mostly from repetitive physical stress.
"There were plenty of Congress members who opposed the change," said Dubose. "But for most of them it was abstract -- they didn't understand directly what the fight was about. Wellstone did -- he was livid. When [Sec. of Labor] Elaine Chao testified before the Senate committee that the administration preferred 'voluntary' measures by businesses, there were the usual bland questions from most of the committee.
"But Wellstone was furious, and he just tore into her. He saw it as a betrayal of working people. 'So you have no standard to prosecute, do you?' he demanded. She tried to sidestep him, but he just wouldn't have it -- she finally had to admit there was no real standard of enforcement at all."
Dubose had described for Wellstone and his staff the job conditions of catfish-processing factory workers, mostly African-American women, in Belzoni, Miss. The women stand at conveyor belts for eight to 10 hours, gutting and cleaning thousands of catfish by hand on every shift, with a minimum quota of 12 per minute. Eventually, the weeks, months, and years of repetitive motion take their toll: Many of the women are forced to quit because they can no longer use their hands, misshapen into claws by the relentless stress.
"Wellstone understood immediately what was at stake for those women, and for millions of other workers like them. There are other liberals up there [at the Capitol], but it was his issue." Dubose paused. "What a loss -- it's overwhelming."
I met Paul Wellstone only once, when he was in Austin several years ago for an organizing conference and then an Observer fundraiser at Scholz Garten. He was short and stocky, subdued in conversation, not visibly the firebrand of his reputation. But then, he took the stage to talk about the importance of progressive politics, of grassroots organizing, of speaking out and fighting on behalf of the ordinary working people largely ignored in all our political discourse. He was eloquent, funny, pugnacious, inspirational, and utterly convincing that politics could be, once again, about much more than swing voters, focus groups, wedge issues -- and big money.
The Minnesota Mensch
"He was a 5'5" giant," said his friend Jim Hightower, "a throwback to the days when senators were senators. He was unafraid of the money power, the media clique, all the bastards, and he died as he lived -- running a grassroots campaign against Bush, Bush's money, and Bush's war. ... If we had 50 Paul Wellstones in the Senate -- if we had 20 -- this country wouldn't have any problems. Now we have none. ...
"It was just so joyous to have him here," continued Hightower. "He was a helluva guy to hang out with, and he and his wife Sheila were such a team -- they both came out of community organizing. In a day when senators are all about money and hairdos, he was all about principle, about rallying people to defend their rights. ... [For Texans] the closest comparison I can make is to Ralph Yarborough -- I got the same feeling about politics from working with Wellstone that I hadn't had since I was 24 years old and working for Yarborough."
When Molly Ivins, another close friend, first heard the news, she said simply, "What a sweet Minnesota mensch -- a very rare type."
On that Friday morning, several of us at the Chronicle had been talking about the previous night's televised debates for the Texas statewide offices, and concluding ruefully that -- to say the least -- we could muster little enthusiasm for the array of available candidates. "I hope they all lose," shrugged an editor. I was beginning work on an election overview column, evaluating the fine distinctions among the late campaigns, sorting out the grains of wheat from the hurricane of chaff -- when the news broke that Wellstone's small plane had crashed and, a few minutes later, that he was dead.
A Soul at Rest
Whatever you may think of the current crop of Texas politicians, even the best among them, incumbents as well as candidates of whatever ideology or party -- is there one Wellstone among them, a single person so rooted in popular activism and so determined to carry that activism into the chambers of the mighty, such as that private club of patricians called the U.S. Senate? "He was the real deal," said Dubose. "As good as you can get."
As he did before the first Gulf war, Sen. Wellstone -- held to the sticking post by Minnesota activists much like himself -- voted against the resolution for war against Iraq, defying both the president and his own party leadership, and even though he was warned it would hurt him in an extremely tight re-election campaign. Apparently, it had done the opposite -- although Wellstone couldn't know that at the time he cast his vote.
After the vote he told Minnesota reporters, "The only way to do it is to do what you honestly think is right, and then whatever happens, happens. ...
"My soul is resting on this."