In 1990, Bernard Rapoport got a call from Tony Mazzocchi–the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers union official who was so disillusioned with the Democratic Party that he founded a labor party. Mazzocchi told Rapoport there was not an American politician he cared about. Yet he was asking Rapoport–the insurance company executive and former U.T. Board of Regents chair (and financial supporter of this publication)–to contribute to a candidate in a U.S. senate race.
“Tony told me Paul Wellstone believes in everything we believe in,” said Rapoport. The man who inspired Mazzocchi (who died early last month) to suspend his boycott of Democratic political candidates was a political science professor who had joined Hormel workers on a picket line and gone to jail for protesting unfair lending practices. Rapoport promised to “open up the bank” for Wellstone. Mazzocchi promised he wouldn’t be disappointed. Paul Wellstone, Mazzocchi predicted, would not waver from his principles.
Months later, the freshman senator from Minnesota began his first speech on the floor of the Senate:
I rise to speak in this chamber for the first time with a very heavy heart. I wanted my first speech to be about children and education, and health care and a credible energy policy and the environment. I never thought that the first time I would have an opportunity to speak in this chamber the topic would be such a grave topic: life and death.
Wellstone followed his speech by casting a vote against authorizing President George Herbert Walker Bush to take the nation into war in the Persian Gulf. Over the course of two terms in the Senate, Wellstone would cast other votes based on principle. Perhaps the greatest political risk he took was his vote against President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform proposal–at a moment when Wellstone knew that the Republican incumbent he narrowly defeated in 1990 would be his well-financed challenger in 1996. Paul Wellstone was the only Senator facing reelection who voted against welfare reform.
He told the Observer in 1997 that he could not in good conscience “vote for a piece of legislation that will impoverish more children or put more children in harm’s way.” When Wellstone spoke with us he was breaking in a presidential campaign speech at an Observer event at Scholz Garden in Austin. In response to his party’s support of welfare reform, which Wellstone considered an abandonment of the nation’s poor, he had followed Robert Kennedy’s American odyssey down into Harlan County, Kentucky, and through the Mississippi Delta. Wellstone intended to remind his party of its historical commitment to the nation’s poor and working poor. And to reflect on the possibility of a presidential race of his own.
When we discussed the presidential candidacy he ultimately abandoned, Wellstone was honest. He could not conceive of a strategy that would take the retail politics and organizing principles that won him two races in Minnesota into a national presidential campaign. Particularly when the primaries “turn south.”
Wellstone was back in Texas a year later, applying his principles to what most of his colleagues in the Senate considered an affair best left to the two senators from Texas. Responding to requests from a coalition of groups in West Texas, Wellstone became the Senate’s greatest single obstacle to a plan that would have made the tiny town of Sierra Blanca the nation’s next nuclear waste dump.
Wellstone was the only U.S. Senator to stand with members of the Texas House delegation and residents of Sierra Blanca in opposition to the Sierra Blanca site. He joined Lloyd Doggett, Ciro Rodríguez, Sylvestre Reyes, and Sierra Blanca Catholic pastor Rev. Ralph Solis at a Capitol press conference called by opponents of the Sierra Blanca dump in 1998.
“The tragedy of Sierra Blanca is part of a larger and very disturbing pattern across the country,” Wellstone said. “In far too many instances, poor people of color simply do not have the political clout to keep waste and pollution out of their communities.”
Wellstone’s attempt to salvage an amendment imposing limits on which states could export their radioactive waste to Texas failed. But the opponents of the dump ultimately won in Texas, where Wellstone’s position angered the utilities, the waste disposal industry, Governor George W. Bush, and Senators Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison.
The closing parenthesis on Wellstone’s political career was his vote last month against authorizing President George W. Bush to lead the nation into war against Iraq. Wellstone was the only Senator facing a serious opponent to vote against the war. He did so knowing it could cost him an election in which he faced a Republican opponent with huge national financial backing and campaign support from the president. (And an utterly wrong-headed and destructive campaign by the Green Party to defeat him.)
The vote fulfilled the promise Tony Mazzocchi made twelve years ago.
U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash in Minnesota on October 25, along with his wife and political collaborator, Sheila; his daughter Marcia; campaign aides Mary McEvoy, Tom Lapic, and Will McLaughlin; and two pilots. Louis Dubose is the former editor of the Observer.