YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A Memorial for Wellstone Draws 20,000

Political colleagues and ordinary citizens mourn the death of the Minnesota senator and remember his fight for social justice.

October 30, 2002|Richard Simon and Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writers

MINNEAPOLIS — From the political elite to the working class, more than 20,000 people gathered here Tuesday night to remember Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) as a man of principle and a true liberal "willing to fight the lonely fight.'' The memorial service for Wellstone, who was running for a third term, came as state Democratic leaders prepared today to name former Vice President Walter F. Mondale to replace him as the party's nominee on Tuesday's ballot.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) was the only politician who spoke, wrapping up the service with a speech that combined fond memories of his "best friend in the Senate" with rousing political remarks that had the audience on their feet, pumping their fists and cheering loudly.

"I believe that Paul was the soul of the Senate," Harkin said. "Sometimes he cast votes that even some of his friends disagreed with, on war or on welfare. But when he did, he was the mirror in which we, his colleagues, looked at ourselves and searched our own hearts."

At the service, which at times took on the aspects of a revival meeting, a rock concert and a political rally, people from every walk of life crowded into the University of Minnesota's Williams Arena. Mourners began lining up three hours before the service. To accommodate the overflow crowds, the service was broadcast in an adjoining building and large video screens were set up outside.

"Help us win this election for Paul Wellstone," said Rick Kahn, a friend and former student of Wellstone, a onetime political science professor, in his remarks to the crowd.

Former President Bill Clinton was there, as were former Vice Presidents Al Gore and Mondale and more than half of the Senate--Wellstone's liberal allies as well as his conservative foes. Cheers rang out when Mondale, accompanied by his wife, Joan, entered the hall, and again at the end of the service when he waved to the crowd that included farmers, steelworkers and veterans, all part of Wellstone's core political constituency.

People waited for hours to enter the arena, as long lines snaked around the block. Inside, they sat on the floor and on the steps in the aisles. Almost everyone wore green Wellstone campaign buttons. One Minnesotan wore an old "Mondale for President" button.

Charlie Kundinger, 56, a home renovator from St. Paul, arrived two hours early, only to find himself in the back of the arena without a seat. But he said it was important for him to attend.

"It's a huge loss," he said. "He was extremely well loved.''

The White House offered to send Vice President Dick Cheney. But Wellstone's family declined, saying they were concerned about the security that would be required. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson represented the Bush administration.

Wellstone, along with his wife, his daughter, three staff members and two pilots, died in the crash of a small plane near Eveleth, Minn., on Friday. At the White House, Bush paused during a bill signing to observe a moment of silence for a "devoted public servant."

"Paul Wellstone was a deeply principled and good-hearted man," Bush said. "He'll be missed by all who knew him."

Harkin called Wellstone a true liberal who "constantly reminded those of us who are Democrats of the real center of gravity of our party, the progressive ground of our being: that everyone should have the chance to reach his or her potential in our society.''

Recalling Wellstone's self-deprecating humor, Harkin recounted one of his friend's favorite stories. Wellstone had just finished speaking on the Senate floor when Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) approached him and said, "Young man, you remind me of Hubert Humphrey." Wellstone swelled with pride, and then Sen. Hollings added: "You talk too much."

"He could partner with Ted Kennedy or Pete Domenici," Harkin said. "He could fiercely oppose Jesse Helms' view and become Jesse Helms' friend."

And he added: "No one ever wore the title of senator better or used it less. To the people of Minnesota, I say thank you for giving Paul to the rest of the nation."

One of Wellstone's sons, David, remembered his father as "organizing, always organizing. He had social justice in his bones."

Wellstone's son Mark said his father used to say, "Never separate the lives you live from the words you speak."

"We will carry on the fight," he said. Parked outside was the rickety old green bus that Wellstone used during his first Senate campaign in 1990 and that he brought out of mothballs to use again this year.

Wellstone's death so close to the election cast a new measure of political drama and uncertainty over the national battle for control of the Senate. Democrats now hold a one-seat majority, and the outcome of the Minnesota race -- one of a handful of tight contests around the county -- could tip the Senate to the Republicans.

In a sign of Minnesota's importance, Bush had been expected to campaign there Sunday for the GOP Senate nominee, Norm Coleman.

Los Angeles Times Articles