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'Camp Wellstone' builds on legacy of late senator
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Orientation at Camp Wellstone in Columbus, Ohio. (MPR Photo/ Mark Zdechlik)
October 25th marks one year since the plane crash that took the life of Senator Paul Wellstone. Wellstone, his wife and daughter and five others were killed when their small plane crashed on its approach to the Eveleth Virginia Municipal Airport in northeastern Minnesota. Some of the people closest to the former senator think they've found a way to build on Wellstone's legacy. They're trying to teach thousands of people how Wellstone won elections by assembling a base of supporters and energizing them. "Camp Wellstone" is open to anyone interested in running for office, working on a campaign or becoming a community activist.

Columbus, OH — Extra chairs are needed alongside the lecture tables in a large room in the student union at Ohio State University in Columbus. It's Friday afternoon and about 100 people have traded a beautiful October weekend to undergo 2 1/2 days of intensive political training. Only one other time has Camp Wellstone been held outside of Minnesota.

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Image A community organizer

The man who ran all three of Paul Wellstone's Senate campaigns, Jeff Blodgett, now works as the executive director of a non-profit called Wellstone Action. He tells the campers that Camp Wellstone is designed to teach the principles of Paul Wellstone's politics.

"Wellstone didn't believe politics was just being in campaigns or running for office or being community organizers or being candidates," he tells them. "He believed it was all of the above."

The campers appear to be almost evenly divided between men and women. Most are white college students. But there are some people of color and plenty of older people as well. Among them is 73-year-old Dave Staley.

"My first election that I remember as a kid was 1940 when President Roosevelt was running for re-election," he notes.

Staley, who lives outside of Columbus, says for decades he's worked on local campaigns. He says he couldn't pass up a chance to learn from Wellstone's associates.

Ohio State freshman political science major Nick Benson felt the same way. "I was really inspired by Sen. Wellstone and I wanted to get involved and hone my skills so I could be more involved and follow his model," Benson says.

I don't care what political bent it is or background to say, 'how do I make a difference?'
- David Wellstone

The camp is divided into three tracks of instruction. Dave Staley and Nick Benson are taking part sessions designed for people who want to work on campaigns. Another track is tailored toward teaching community organizing skills. The third course is intended exclusively for candidates like T.J., 29, who's traveled to Columbus from Cleveland for the camp.

"I wanted an edge," says Dow. "I wanted to be able to build off of what I accomplished two years ago in my first race."

Dow lost his initial bid for a seat in the Ohio Legislature. He's running again now and hoping Camp Wellstone will help him fine tune his message.

Pam Cobb, a middle-aged woman working to promote single-payer health care, is in the community organizing track. "I'm hoping to become more political savvy myself and I'm hoping to do some networking with other people in Ohio."

Camp time is divided between classroom lectures and small group exercises. No attention is paid to Paul Wellstone's legislative agenda. There are no sessions about tax or energy policy or foreign affairs.

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Image Nick Benson in "class"

Instead it's a nuts-and-bolts nonpartisan crash course in political organizing. Participants can use the skills they acquire however they wish. Campers pay just $35 to cover the cost of meals during the seminar.

Wellstone Action bankrolls the roughly $20,000 it says it takes to put on each camp. The money goes toward renting space. It also covers travel expenses for political professionals brought in to augment the work of Wellstone Action staff.

Trainers share their particular expertise, customizing their message to each of the three tracks. They focus on organizing campaigns, raising money, targeting voters and working with volunteers.

Jeff Blodgett says the camps are not "Wellstone worship weekends." Instead, Blodgett says, "These are very substantive training sessions on a lot of very specific tactics and techniques."

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Image A candidate in the Wellstone mold

Many of the techniques tie in directly with the way Paul Wellstone conducted politics. The training stresses the importance of one-on-one communication and building personal relationships.

Wellstone's son, David, says his father would be proud of the training. David Wellstone and his brother, Mark, co-chair Wellstone Action.

"We all sat down and we came up with, what do we want the legacy to be? My dad has a legacy. My mom has a legacy. But how do we carry it forward? How do we get young people involved? How do we do grass roots stuff so that people can go into their communities and just be the best that they can be. I think that that's stuff my parents would both be proud of," Wellstone says.

Campers are constantly busy. When they're not listening to lectures, they attempt to apply their newly learn skills in simulations. All of the work is done under tight deadlines to reflect real-life pressures of a campaign.

In one simulation, campers are given just 15 minutes to come up with a crisis communication strategy after an opponent reveals wrongdoing on the part of a candidate.

Campers also put together campaign finance plans, and commercials, and they come up with ways to generate free media attention. In the candidate's track, there are stump speech and door-knocking exercises.

By Sunday afternoon most of people who showed up Friday have stuck with the camp.

T.J. Dow, the 29-year-old who hopes to get elected to the Ohio State Assembly, says Camp Wellstone is giving people education previously out of reach for many.

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Image David Wellstone

"It's definitely going to have an impact," says Dow. "I think you have a lot of future advocates. They're training them and giving them access to something that they would not have been able to afford."

David Wellstone says that's the point. And he says he's and brother are committed long term to the work of Wellstone Action.

"I believe it could become a juggernaut for getting people involved in their communities," Wellstone says. "I don't care what political bent it is or background, to say, 'how do I make a difference?' The sky's the limit as to what this organization can do."

Wellstone Action is planning to put on 27 more Camp Wellstones before the end of next year. Blodgett says the organization hopes to have moved 3,500 people through its training by the end of 2004

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