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Sen. Wellstone Dies in Minn. Plane Crash

A top liberal Democrat is among 8 killed, including his wife and daughter. He was in a tight race that may affect who controls the Senate.

October 26, 2002|Richard Simon and Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writers

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), a leading liberal voice in Congress who was locked in a tight reelection campaign, was killed in a plane crash in his home state Friday, along with his wife, daughter and five others.

His death 11 days before the Nov. 5 election -- coming as Democrats thought he was gaining the upper hand in the race -- could have major repercussions on the battle for the Senate. Democrats had a one-seat margin, and the Minnesota race is one of a handful expected to determine which party controls the Senate next year.

State law allows the Democrats to substitute a name on the ballot up to four days before the election.

Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, who previously represented Minnesota in the Senate, is a prominent name under consideration.

Wellstone, 58, was on his way to the funeral of a state lawmaker's father when the twin-engine plane went down in a light snow in northern Minnesota.

The cause of the crash, including the possibility of icing on the wings, was under investigation. All eight people on board died, including three staff members and two pilots.

The staffers were identified as Will McLaughlin, 23, Tom Lapic, 49, and Mary McEvoy, 49. Richard Conry, 55, and Michael Guess, 30, were named as the pilots.

"As adults, we don't have a lot of heroes. But he was my hero," said Charlie Bulman, one of thousands of Wellstone supporters who gathered on the steps of the state Capitol in St. Paul on a drizzly, windy night Friday to mourn the senator.

Wellstone, in one of his last votes, opposed the Senate resolution passed earlier this month authorizing President Bush to use military force against Iraq. As was typical during much of his Senate tenure, Wellstone found himself very much in the minority on the issue; the resolution passed, 77 to 23.

But Wellstone was well-liked by partisan friend and foe alike, and widely respected for his commitment to his political beliefs.

Bush took note of that in paying tribute to Wellstone, calling him a "man of deep convictions, a plain-spoken fellow who did his best for his state and for his country."

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), pausing from his own reelection campaign, broke down in tears as he spoke of Wellstone, a frequent comrade-in-arms for liberal causes.

"Paul Wellstone was my closest friend in the Senate," Harkin said after composing himself. "He was the most principled public servant I've ever known.... It didn't matter a bit if his was the only vote for or against something."

In a typical comment from conservative colleagues, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) said that while he and Wellstone "differed philosophically and politically, I greatly admired and respected his energy and his commitment to public policy and the people of Minnesota."

He added: "Paul was honest, cheerful and had a wonderful sense of humor."

Another of Capitol Hill's most consistent liberals, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), called Wellstone "more than just another Democrat. He was a Democrat in the mold of the Kennedys and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He made me proud to be called a liberal."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) called Wellstone "the soul of the Senate." And Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, an independent, said the state had "suffered a deep and penetrating loss."

At the gathering at Minnesota's Capitol, that grief was evident.

Bob Freeman, 49, a volunteer with Wellstone's campaign, said that he was supposed to join up today with him on the campaign trail. "I looked into his eyes and I knew there was a lot there," said Freeman, who is disabled. "I just believed in the man. I just loved the man."

Wellstone was facing a strong challenge from Republican Norm Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul, in a race that has been watched nationally since the campaign's start.

Democrats control the Senate, 50 to 49, with one independent. With 34 seats at stake in the Nov. 5 elections, a net party turnover of just one seat would flip control to the Republicans.

"Wellstone's passing adds even more uncertainty to an already volatile political season," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Another analyst, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, said he anticipates Democrats will hold Wellstone's seat. "As long as the state Democratic party nominates a respectable candidate, that nominee will now be favored to take the seat.... An intense wave of sympathy may well help all Democrats in Minnesota on Nov. 5," he said.

Like many analysts, Sabato noted the similarity of Wellstone's death to a plane crash in Missouri late in the 2000 campaign.

Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan died in that crash less than a month before election day as he campaigned for the Senate against then-GOP incumbent John Ashcroft. Carnahan's name remained on the ballot and he won. His wife, Jean, was appointed to serve in his place.

Minnesota state law permits Democrats to substitute Wellstone's name on the ballot.

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