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One year later, Wellstone's political effect difficult to calculate
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Sen. Paul Wellstone campaigning in 2002 (Photo courtesy of Wellstone Action!)
Sen. Paul Wellstone's supporters, admirers, and those who came to rely on his voice in the Senate say they're still grappling with the loss, and fighting to advance his agenda. But Wellstone was also a polarizing figure during his political career. He never won election to the Senate with more than 50-percent of the vote. And many of his critics said he was better at giving speeches than at passing bills.

St. Paul, Minn. — A 12-year Senate career will have its ups and downs. In 1991, as a newly-elected senator, Paul Wellstone's first public event in Washington was a press conference staged in front of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial to speak against the first Gulf War. Angry veterans groups said he was using hallowed ground to make a political statement.

But two terms later, the tide had changed. At least nine veterans group had singled him out for his work on their behalf. And in 2002, the Veterans of Foreign Wars national political action committee endorsed Wellstone over rival Norm Coleman.

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Image A veteran Wellstone fan

Mike Kodluboy, who was chairman of the Minnesota VFW PAC, says beginning in the late 1950s, Congress reneged on its promise to provide full health care coverage for veterans.

"I think it's a betrayal on behalf of Congress, and so did Paul. And he constantly strove to reintroduce the rights for veterans to have what they were promised, which was health care benefits," he said.

Full funding was never restored, although the VFW attributes incremental increases to Wellstone's efforts. And in 2001, Wellstone did successfully pass the Homeless Veterans Assistance Act. He also pressured VA officials to recognize the health complaints of servicemen and women exposed to radiation during atomic bomb tests.

Yet veteran support wasn't universal; some faulted Wellstone for not supporting anti-flag-burning legislation.

Controversy and division weren't new to Wellstone. His critics said he often found himself on the losing side, preferring impassioned rhetoric to reaching consensus. During his 1996 re-election bid, Republican Rudy Boschwitz, whom Wellstone had unseated six years earlier, attempted to paint Wellstone as an extremist who couldn't find common ground even among his own Democratic colleagues.

Those who benefited from Wellstone's advocacy applaud him for sticking to his convictions. Dennis van Roekel, the vice president of the National Education Association, says Wellstone's consistent, public message motivated thousands of followers.

"People in a position of power and influence to, I think, challenge each of us as ordinary citizens to care enough about today's children to make a difference: how do you put a price on that? It is absolutely priceless," he said.

Even so, a key priority for Wellstone and like-minded colleagues remained elusive: increased federal funding for special education.

Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier says Wellstone's contentious style energized some but alienated others. Schier says it was, nevertheless, effective.

"That may, indeed, have compromised him in some of the more arcane dealings of Senate life," Schier said. "But I think that was a tradeoff he was more than happy to make, because I think he believed that by being public and confrontational about his agenda he could have effects on national politics. And he did have significant effects on national politics."

Wellstone emerged as a vocal critic of welfare reform, both Iraq wars, the recent Bush tax cuts, and oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. During last year's campaign, then-candidate Norm Coleman attempted to turn that record of opposition against Wellstone, defining him as an obstructionist who blocked and stalled rather than delivered.

Coleman eventually won the election, defeating former Vice President Walter Mondale who stepped into Wellstone's place five days after the plane crash and six days before the election. Not long after Coleman's swearing-in, the new senator claimed that on just about every issue he was a "99-percent improvement over Paul Wellstone."

After fierce criticism, Coleman clarified his remarks, saying he was referring simply to his ability to work with the White House. Now, after nine months in office, Coleman says he has a new understanding of Wellstone's legacy.

"At times it may be simply raising your voice, which is what he did. So I appreciate that. I have some different perspectives on the ways to get things done; I have a different perspective on -- you know, my vision of the role of the Senate is probably different than his. But I have a deep and profound appreciation, being here, of what he tried to do, what he was about, what his voice meant in this institution," Coleman said.

In Wellstone's last years in office his voice was raised loudly and frequently on mental health and substance abuse issues. One of his more visible initiatives was an attempt to require health insurance companies to pay for the treatment of mental health disorders just as they do for physical diseases.

Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., the chief sponsor of the House version of the bill, says Wellstone's efforts can't be overstated.

"Nobody fought harder to provide access to treatment for the 54 million Americans with mental illness than Paul Wellstone. Nobody fought harder to end the discrimination against people with mental illness, nobody fought harder than Paul Wellstone," according to Ramstad.

But the legislation hasn't passed. It remains stuck in committees in both the House and the Senate. Earlier this week, Senate Democrats urged Republican leaders to act on the measure, which is named in honor of Wellstone.

Sen. Mark Dayton, DFL-Minn., says failure to act would leave a gap in Wellstone's legacy. "It means that this country is still, unfortunately, behind the vision that he had for America. And it means that the Congress is still even farther behind Paul's vision, which wouldn't suprise him because he was out in the front and ahead of most of the rest of Congress so often in his career here."

Wellstone's vision, however, appears to be catching on -- at least within his own party. In the '90s many Democrats allied themselves with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. This year, several Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, have embraced Wellstone's populist image. During a summer fundraising stop in the Twin Cities, Dean reaffirmed his solidarity with the late senator.

"We've got to fight back and stand up for what we believe. That's what Paul Wellstone was all about. So, even though I didn't know Paul well, I think that there are a lot of people in Minnesota who, you know, having known Paul as well as they did, believe in the same kind of message that I'm pushing for, which is it's time for Democrats to be Democrats again," Dean said.

Former Wellstone staffers and campaign workers have also picked up the Wellstone banner, holding seminars and workshops on political organizing and activism. But the opportunity to pass final judgement on his effectiveness and his legacy lay with the voters of Minnesota from whom he had sought a third term. That opportunity was lost one year ago just outside the Eveleth airport: the final victim of the plane crash.

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