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Wellstone learned to listen, lead during powerline protest
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Paul Wellstone, a professor at Carleton College at the time of the powerline protest. (Photo courtesy of Carleton College)
The struggle over the power line caught the attention of a young Carleton College professor named Paul Wellstone. He later co-authored a book about it, Powerline: The First Battle of America's Energy War. The protest helped shape the man who went on to the U.S. Senate as a champion for the little guy against the power structure.

Undated — Two rural electric cooperatives began planning the powerline in 1972. It would run for more than 400 miles, from the coal fields of North Dakota to just outside the Twin Cites.

In North Dakota, the line encountered little opposition, but west-central Minnesota was a different story.

Dairy farmer Alice Tripp remembers, "the surveyors came onto County Road 14, which goes past our farm. So we started taking a stand there. They tried to stand in front of the surveyors and tried to stop the surveyors, and some people just said we don't want this, you have to get out of here."

It was the summer of 1976. Alice Tripp, her husband, John, and many of their neighbors had refused to sign easements granting permission for the line to cross their land. Local township boards had passed resolutions against the powerline, and several counties had refused to grant permits. One farmer had been arrested for ramming a tractor into a surveyor's pickup truck.

As John Tripp saw it, what angered many farmers was the power companies' attitude.

"We thought they weren't very decent about the way they went about it, seemed like they were going to take our land, that was it, and we had nothing to say about it. That was the big item to a lot of people. And we were kind of afraid of it. We'd heard from people out west that they have a line like this that wasn't very pleasant -- and it isn't, either," Tripp says.

The Tripps first met Paul Wellstone when he and another young Carlton College professor, Mike Casper, began showing up for powerline protests, including one at the state Capitol.

"They got more and more interested, and you know they wrote a book," says Alice Tripp. "They came up to our house quite a bit. He was just real sympathetic, he had some tactical suggestions, you know. They gave us advice. We were pretty green. We didn't know how to protest, we didn't know how to do any of that stuff, but Mike and Paul both did that."

As the farmers' protest grew, it attracted supporters from the Twin Cities.

George Crocker was an activist who had spent a year and a half in prison for refusing to serve in the Vietnam war. He remembers seeing Wellstone for the first time at a farmers' meeting in the town hall of Lowry in west central Minnesota in the winter of 1978.

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Image Wellstone's book about the protest.

"Having people like Paul there and the students that he brought with them was a very empowering thing for the communities. You've heard Paul speak, you know how Paul can talk. You know how he can go to the heart of a matter and help people understand not only what's wrong but what's right and where there's hope and why it's important to do the right thing and and where is the principle here and what are we standing for, he provided that for people," Crocker says.

Patty Kakak was working on her parents dairy farm when she joined the powerline protest. She met Wellstone for the first time when he was doing interviews for his book.

"What I think Paul was so good at was listening and getting you to express what you were about, and I talked about my feelings for the land, and how I felt the environment needed to be preserved, and what he did -- I can't remember specifically his words -- was give me assurance that I knew what I was talking about," recalls Kakak.

The farmers ultimately lost their fight. The powerline began transmitting electricity from North Dakota in 1979. But Kakak says Wellstone saw connections between the powerline protest and other grassroots struggles.

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Image Patty Kakak remembers

Later, she worked with him during the farm crisis of the 1980s. They and 35 other people were arrested at a bank in the central Minnesota town of Paynesville. They were trying to stop a farm foreclosure.

"It felt like it was similar problems. The small farmers were being pushed off their land whether it was from the farm economy, or powerlines, or roads or development, there was all these connections and people saw them. Farmers weren't -- we were called dumb farmers all my growing up years, I grew up with that term -- but they're not. And they knew what was going on," she says.

When David Morris met Wellstone in the early 1980s, both were working on energy issues. Morris says Wellstone mentioned the powerline fight only in passing, but Morris can trace its influence on Wellstone's views on energy, and on his later life in politics.

"I think Paul also learned how to speak to another constituency. I mean Paul was always interested in speaking to people where they were. And his background was in civil rights in North Carolina, so he spoke to people of a different color, and in this case he was speaking to farmers and to rural communities, and then later in Austin -- the Hormel strike in Austin -- he talked to industrial workers. And so this was part of his learning to listen and learning to lead," says Morris.

Morris now runs a non-profit institute researching energy issues. He believes the powerline fight helped make Wellstone a strong supporter of alternative energy, such as wind and solar, instead of centralized powerplants and big transmission lines.

"He was, 'til the day he died, still heavily involved in energy policy in the United States Senate, and one of the things that he was fighting was the proposed energy bill that would have enabled more high-voltage transmission lines, more long-distance piping of oil from Alaska, more central power plants, a pre-emption of local authority, a pre-emption of state authority. All those things are in the energy bill, and Paul was opposed to all of those things. And so, 25 years after fighting at the localest of all levels, he was fighting at the highest of all levels, for the same things."

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