Remembering Paul Wellstone

Four years ago today, Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash, along with his wife, Sheila, daughter Marcia and several campaign staffers--Mary McEvoy, Tom Lapic, and Will McLaughlin. On that day, the progressive movement lost an amazing voice for a decent America. In some ways, I don't think we've ever been the same.

He was the only senator running for re-election who had the courage to vote against the Iraq war resolution. And it wasn't an easy political vote--he was in a tough re-election race but one that I believe he would have won because ultimately Minnesota voters, even those who didn't always agree with him, respected his integrity and authenticity. Frankly, had he been alive today, I think there would be a huge movement to get him to take up the banner as the progressive candidate for the 2008 Democratic nomination (though, with his typical self-deprecating humor, Paul once dismissed his chances of running for president, saying, "I'm short, I'm Jewish and I'm a liberal") While other senators who want to grab the nomination explain their vote for the war resolution as one that was cast because they were lied to or because of "false intelligence," Paul had the moral compass to understand that attacking Iraq was immoral, unnecessary and would lead to the pointless deaths of tens of thousands of people.

What would an America be like if Sen. Paul Wellstone had still been in the U.S. Senate? Well, for one thing, Republican Norm Coleman would not be a U.S. Senator. You can bet Paul would have led a filibuster fight against the nominations of now-Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts. My guess is that he would also have stood with Russ Feingold and called for the censure of the president--a position that no other Democrats have the courage to take.

I don't know of any politician today who I think has the moral courage and decency that Paul had--and his integrity stands even starker relief to the people who now run this country and run for political office (Republicans and Democrats). While he was a progressive, he also appealed to voters across the political spectrum because people knew that he was in the political arena to advance the interests of regular people, not the powerful. Putting aside his policy positions, his vision of politics was so much more than what we see in the unbridled ambitions of the political machines that vie for power: "Politics is not just about power and money games, politics can be about the improvement of peoples lives, about lessening human suffering in our world and bringing about more peace and more justice," he said. It's one reason that I adopted his slogan during my campaign: Vote For What You Believe In. I often invoked his memory, reminding people what a different country we would be if we had 51 Paul Wellstones in the U.S. Senate.

And he saw how our system was slowly being corrupted by the influence of money: "Money, all to often, determines who runs for office. Should a person have to be a millionaire to run for the U.S. Senate? Money, all too often, determines what both Democrats and Republicans have to say on the issues for fear of offending big contributors. Should a candidate mortgage his or her vision to the wealthy and powerful and privileged? Money, all too often, determines how our elected officials spend their time in Washington. Politics becomes about amassing huge amounts of money. Issues and accountability don't count when it comes to the cozy relationship between a Senator or Representative and the political action committees who contribute the big bucks. They give the money to influence legislation and expect results. But during campaigns and elections most of what the people get is images. Not issues, not accountability. As a result people view politics as phony, irrelevant to their lives, and a game where the rules are rigged for the well healed and powerful interest, not ordinary citizens."

I will always remember exactly where I was when I heard Paul had been killed and who I called immediately to share the pain of the loss of an amazing individual. Even though I didn't live in Minnesota, I thought of him as my senator. And I still cry when I think of what we have lost. But, at the same time, his legacy will remain strongest if we keep on fighting hard. At the end of my campaign, I quoted Paul to the many people who had worked so hard: "The future will not belong to those who sit on the sidelines. The future will not belong to the cynics. The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams."

I'd like people to post their own recollections of Paul Wellstone and what he meant to you.