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Minn. Democrats Mourn the Face of Change

With the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, the party faces the challenge of finding a replacement that will continue to inspire voter loyalty.

October 27, 2002|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The air rang with defiant chants, with the soaring anthem "We Shall Overcome." But in the dusk of a heartbreaking day, an aching lament echoed louder still. Cupping candles against the drizzle, rubbing at their tears, young and old, well and ill, gay and straight, black, white, Hmong and Native American murmured to each other: "No one will ever fill his shoes."

Minnesota Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, the fist-pumping, uncompromising, proudly liberal crusader, was dead.

His name would be added to the fabled roll call of Minnesota populists: Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, an early champion of Medicare; Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who called the Vietnam War immoral; Vice President Walter F. Mondale; Gov. Orville Freeman; U.S. Supreme Court Justices Warren Burger and Harry Blackmun -- these were men who made Minnesota liberals proud by fighting for the poor, the sick, the oppressed, both at home and on the national stage.

On a tough Saturday of mourning and maneuvering, Minnesota Democrats faced hard questions about who might carry on that tradition.

The immediate concern was finding a strong candidate to replace Wellstone just a week before an election regarded as key to holding control of the Senate.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 31, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 13 inches; 494 words Type of Material: Correction
Warren E. Burger -- A story about Minnesota's populist tradition in Section A on Sunday incompletely characterized the record of former U.S. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. Appointed by Richard Nixon, he was a conservative Republican. But he also wrote several key opinions that delighted liberals. He supported busing to end school segregation, stricter regulation of gun owners, enhanced protection for victims of sexual discrimination and a woman's right to choose abortion.

But there was a pressing need, as well, to win over voters who loved Wellstone for his feisty independence -- but who saw little in his party to inspire continued loyalty now that their hero was gone.

"I'm going to become a Green because that's the only place where people are still talking about these issues ... of the working man's rights," said one such disillusioned voter, 65-year-old Karen Avaloz, an artist. "I adored Wellstone, but I don't see anyone else in politics who could hold a candle to him."

The two-term senator, his wife and daughter and five others died Friday morning when their turboprop plane crashed in northern Minnesota. News of his death drew thousands of mourners to the state Capitol by the day's end, including Karmit Bulman, 44, an activist for battered women who was supposed to hold a fund-raiser for Wellstone on Saturday.

"They can select someone else to run, but it won't be the same," she said.

Outside analysts agree that Minnesota's Democrats have been foundering in recent years. The state's Democratic-Farmer-Labor party came about from a long-ago merger between the Democrats and the Farmer-Labor Party. Aggressively liberal, the DFL long had a lock on statewide politics.

But it was also insular -- tending to promote, as political scientist Lilly Goren put it, "liberal Democrats and their sons, and their sons, and their sons." The party tradition of picking candidates for statewide office by caucus, rather than an open primary election, may have perpetuated an old-boy network.

"If [Democratic leaders] haven't known you all their lives, it's very hard to break in with that system," said Goren, a professor at the College of St. Catherine's in St. Paul. As a result, she added, "the DFL may not have as big a farm team as they should."

Four years ago, the DFL reached for the old guard in selecting attorney Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey III, son of the former vice president, to run for governor. He came in last in a three-way contest that boosted ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura, an independent, into power. This year's gubernatorial candidate, Roger Moe, is another veteran DFL stalwart, serving as a state senator for 30 years. He has been locked in a three-way tie, struggling to hold on to his Democratic base in the face of a strong charge by another independent, former Rep. Tim Penny.

The lack of new faces has discouraged some voters, who consider it a bit of a miracle that Wellstone -- an unknown college professor in rumpled clothes -- managed to secure the DFL endorsement for the Senate in 1990, then went on to beat a Republican incumbent.

Even after two terms in office, Wellstone retained a reputation as an invigorating upstart in the Minnesota DFL, and in the Democratic Party nationwide.

"He was fresher after 12 years [in Washington] than anyone I've ever met," mused state Atty. Gen. Mike Hatch, a Democrat.

As his replacement, "I'd love to see some young blood," said John Fields, 57, a disabled Vietnam veteran and longtime Wellstone fan.

The rumor mill, however, is running hot with speculation that the DFL will turn back to Mondale, though officials were reluctant to make any public announcements while the effort to recover bodies from the crash scene continued.

Mondale, 74, has a sterling reputation among Minnesota liberals as a dedicated public servant who pushes his causes with integrity, if not charisma. Yet to some voters, the choice of an old-guard politician to replace Wellstone would be depressing confirmation that the DFL has grown too stale and cautious to carry on the fight.

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