Paul Wellstone Biography

Born Paul David Wellstone, July 21, 1944, in Washington, DC; died in a plane crash, October 25, 2002, in Eveleth, MN. United States Senator. Paul Wellstone, a Democratic senator from Minnesota, was known for his strongly liberal positions and beliefs. During his eleven years in the Senate, he championed human rights as a foreign policy issue, supported abortion rights and gun control, and opposed both the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and the war on Iraq in 2002.

Wellstone was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in the capitol's suburbs, in Arlington, Virginia. After finishing high school in his hometown, he went on to earn a bachelor's degree from the University of North Carolina in 1965. He continued his studies at North Carolina, completing a Ph.D. in political science in 1969. Along the way, he became a champion collegiate wrestler, and married Sheila Ison. Wellstone's politics were also shaped during this time by the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements of the 1960s. This was reflected in the topic of his dissertation, which was called Black Militants in the Ghetto: Why They Believe in Violence.

Wellstone's first career was as a college professor. After earning his doctorate, he joined the faculty of Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota, not far from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. He taught there for a total of 21 years—up until the time he was elected to the U.S. Senate. At Carlton, he became known for his political activism, joining protests against the Vietnam war and against other United States military actions, including the bombing of Cambodia. In the service of this last cause, he was arrested for civil disobedience.

It was during his time at Carlton that Wellstone developed the oratorical style for which he became known as a senator—asking questions, engaging his listeners, and challenging them to get involved in the issues he discussed. As a precursor to his political career, Wellstone co–chaired Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign in Minnesota, switching his efforts to helping the campaign of Michael Dukakis after he, not Jackson, received the Democratic nomination. Two years after that presidential campaign, Wellston ran his own campaign for Senate, unseating the incumbent, republican Rudy Boschwitz.

Wellstone was elected to his first term in the Senate with an unorthodox, populist campaign that upset a much–better–funded Republican incumbent. Wellstone won that first campaign with 50 percent of the vote to Boschwitz's 48 percent. Among his campaign promises were statements that he would create controversy, fight for liberal causes, and serve in the Senate for only two terms. He ran again in 1996 after his first term was up, again beating Boschwitz with 50 percent of the vote, this time to Boschwitz's 41 percent. At the time of his death, Wellstone was on his way toward breaking one of his campaign promises by running for a third term.

Most observers agreed that Wellstone, who began his first term in office in 1991, made good on his promise to fight for the causes he believed in, even when he appeared to have little chance of winning. For instance, he was one of the few in Congress to vote in October of 2002 against authorizing President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. He also strongly opposed the first President Bush on the first Persian Gulf War in 1991. He opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, and was an advocate for gun control laws and a proponent of abortion rights.

Between the two wars in the Persian Gulf, Wellstone became known as a fierce advocate for advancing human rights as a foreign policy issue, for seeking to increase government funding for health care, welfare, and education. Not one for compromise, Wellstone often gave impassioned speeches advancing his views on the Senate floor, even in cases where it was clear that his cause would not win. "He was always the last guy standing with the last amendment," Senator Byron L. Dorgan, a democrat from North Dakota, told Nick Anderson in the Los Angeles Times. "It was always about children, or the poor."

Wellstone considered the idea of running for president in 2000, but decided against it after doctors advised him that the ruptured disk in his back for which he was being treated would not stand up to the rigors of campaign travel. Wellstone published a memoir in 2001 called The Conscience of a Liberal.

Wellstone died in a plane crash in a rural area of Minnesota on October 25, 2002, while on his way to a funeral for the father of a state legislator. Also killed in the crash were Wellstone's wife, Sheila, their daughter, Marcia, as well five other people on board the plane. The twin–engine, propeller plane went down without warning in a freezing drizzle in Minnesota's North Woods. The plane had been attempting to land in Eveleth, Minnesota, and it came down about two miles short of the runway.

At the time of his death, Wellstone was heavily campaigning for his third term as a U.S. Senator, even though, as he had publicly revealed, he suffered from a mild form of multiple sclerosis. Both President Bush and his Republican party invested heavily in trying to defeat him. According to polls, he had a good chance of defeating his challenger, Republican Norm Coleman. The race would have been a close one, and on it depended the fate of the Democrats' control of the Senate; a win by Wellstone would have preserved the Democrats' single–seat Senate lead, while a loss would allow the Republicans to take control. After Wellstone's death, Coleman was elected to fill Wellstone's vacant Senate seat.

Wellstone died at the age of 58. He is survived by two sons, David and Mark, and six grandchildren.


Chicago Tribune, October 26, 2002, p. 1, p. 12; Los Angeles Times, October 26, 2002, p. A16; New York Times, October 26, 2002, p. A19; Washington Post, October 26, 2002, p. A1, p. A6.

Michael Belfiore

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