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Remembering Paul Wellstone

By Ron Pollack,


This blog was originally posted at 

Ten years ago, on October 25, 2002, our nation lost a truly genuine and very decent American leader. When Senator Paul Wellstone perished in a plane crash — along with his wife, Sheila, his daughter, Marcia, two campaign staffers, the senator’s driver and two co-pilots — we were deprived of a tireless champion for hard-working, moderate-income families across America and for peace throughout the world.

Paul was one of those rare and refreshing people whose humanitarian ideals consistently guided his actions as a public leader. Throughout his almost dozen years in the United States Senate, it was those ideals, rather than personal political expediency, that animated his actions as well as his caring, compassionate voice.

The last time I saw Paul — at a health care forum we both addressed in Minneapolis, a few days before his death — I asked him about the vote he had just cast opposing congressional authorization of the war in Iraq. His vote, less than one month before Minnesotans would go to the polls to decide his very close reelection race, was vintage Paul. It predictably placed his reelection prospects in further jeopardy: He was one of only five senators up for reelection, and the only one in a predictably tight race, who voted against the war.

I have seen news accounts that Paul, after casting this vote, said to his wife, “I just cost myself the election.” But, in our totally private discussion before the forum, I heard something quite different: After repeating his all-too-prescient reasons that a war in Iraq would be harmful, his indomitable optimism shone through. He had faith that his fellow Minnesotans, whether they supported or opposed the war, would be respectful of the conscientious basis of his position and vote.  Win or lose — and he really thought he would win — he felt secure that he did the right thing.

My most frequent contacts with Paul occurred in the context of health care reform. As an active member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions, he spoke eloquently, passionately, and frequently about the need for fundamental change that would result in all Americans gaining access to high-quality, affordable health coverage and care. He believed it was unconscionable for the richest nation in the world to leave tens of millions of people without the health care they need.

As he tried to galvanize public support for fundamental reform, he also worked hard to achieve incremental improvements in America’s health care system. He was a leading voice in support of the Patients’ Bill of Rights — legislation that would empower patients and their doctors to stop insurance company abuses, for example by providing prompt, fair hearings when insurers improperly denied coverage for needed health treatments.

Most notably, however, Paul teamed up with Republican Senator Pete Domenici to promote mental health research, funding, and treatment. The two senators co-sponsored and promoted the Mental Health Parity Act, a groundbreaking law designed to ensure that health coverage of mental illnesses be provided on par with coverage of other medical illnesses. He also co-authored, with Republican Representative Jim Ramstad, the Fairness in Treatment Act to establish parity in treatment for those suffering from alcohol and drug addiction.

Paul’s energetic leadership, and his passion and eloquence, inspired many millions of people across the country. As a result, he was in constant demand as a speaker at countless forums. I remember most vividly Paul’s appearance in January 2002 as the closing speaker at our annual Health Action conference for health care activists from around the country.

Before his Saturday lunchtime speech, Paul flew to Washington from another engagement the night before in Minnesota. When he arrived, he was in extreme physical pain due to his chronic back problems — problems that apparently arose from his competitive wrestling bouts at the University of North Carolina as the undefeated Atlantic Coast Conference wrestling champion. We found a quiet place for Paul to lie down so that his back pain would ease.

No one attending Paul’s lunchtime speech could have guessed that Paul had been in excruciating pain. His speech was laced with good humor, thoughtful content, and inspirational words of encouragement. It was a tour de force, and he received a warm, enthusiastic, and long-lasting standing ovation. It was the perfect, inspirational ending for activists returning to their communities so they would continue to work energetically in common cause with Paul.

Paul is still missed by so many of us. I suspect, however, that his cheerful, good soul is comforted by the fact that his leadership for fundamental health care reform has finally resulted in landmark legislation that will provide health coverage for tens of millions of uninsured Americans. He helped pave the way for that historic victory.