Honoring Paul Wellstone’s Legacy: Fighting Like Hell for Health Care Reform

I had the rare privilege of meeting one of my heroes, Paul Wellstone, shortly before his death in 2002 when I visited Washington as part of a conference for high school students interested in politics. We had the opportunity to meet several senators during our time in Washington, but Paul Wellstone treated us differently — more like we were friends coming over for a cup of coffee than a bunch of nerdy high school students on a trip. He insisted that we not call him “senator,” but instead simply Paul.

While other senators were going on and on about their accomplishments or telling corny jokes, Paul went around and asked what issues were important to us and what we were doing currently to advocate for these policies. He suggested ideas about how we could become more involved, more effective, and what other issues we might want to get involved in. He encouraged us “to go out and fight because that was the only way change has ever been achieved.” Paul’s faith in my ability to achieve social change inspired me so much that I spent the rest of my summer volunteering full time to help elect Ed Rendell as governor in Pennsylvania.

A few months later. I was in tears as I listened to the news over NPR that Paul Wellstone and his loving wife, Shelia, had died in a plane crash on their way to a funeral of a steelworker in Northern Minnesota. Paul Wellstone, a tireless champion of the working class served as an inspiration to a generation of activists during the dark days of a decade long Republican reign. For the last seven years, I have kept a photo of Paul Wellstone and me on my desk as a source of inspiration for when the times get tough.

Paul came to the United States Senate under the most unusual of circumstances. He was a college professor who had been arrested protesting with union workers and had previously spent most of his career organizing welfare mothers and poor farmers. No one had expected him to win his first campaign for Senate against an incumbent Republican Senator as he was outspent nearly seven to one. Paul had a secret weapon though his ability to inspire regular people to get out and organize. Unemployed, single mothers held bake sales to help fund his campaign, youth not old enough to vote spent hours volunteering for him. He formed a grassroots army of thousands of ordinary folks and trained them in community organizing.

When Paul Wellstone was elected to the Senate, he never forgot the thousands of ordinary folks that put their hopes and their dreams in him by working to get him elected. He summed up his philosophy about why he was in the Senate by saying, “I don’t represent the big oil companies, the big pharmaceuticals or the big insurance industry. They already have great representation in Washington. Its the rest of the people that need representation.”

Many Senators had referred to Paul as “The Conscience of the Senate.” Only 5 feet 4 inches tall and walking with a severe limp, Wellstone would stand on the floor of the U.S. Senate and rail against corporates interests with the tenacity of the All-American wrestler that he was once. And then he would go back home on the weekends and teach those people how to community organize and fight against the powerful interests that were ruining their lives. Its unknown how many people Wellstone inspired, but to this day you can still see thousands of green bumper stickers in Minnesota with the phrase “W.W.W.D. — What Would Wellstone Do?”

Last week, Al Franken, a friend of Paul’s who had been inspired to run for office by Paul’s death, took back Paul’s old seat from Republican Norm Coleman. After reading, I found myself wondering of what Paul would be doing now if he was still a U.S. senator. Paul had spent the majority of his career in the minority party in the Senate. In his book Conscience of a Liberal, Paul admitted that in his time in the U.S. Senate he spent nearly 85 percent of his time defending against Republican attacks on working families and he never had the opportunity to fight for things like the big reform measures that he craved. I thought about how Paul would be down on the floor of the Senate to talk about the 20,000 people that die every year due to a lack of health coverage, or to talk about how his access to quality health care as a United States senator allowed him to continue having a productive life despite his semi-debilitating multiple sclerosis.

While Paul spent the most of his career in the minority, he did indeed spend a very brief time in the majority in 1993-1994 when Democrats had the opportunity to pass a health care reform. However, Democrats caved to the insurance companies’ lobbyists and no comprehensive health care reform was passed. As Mike Lux, a top Clinton aide at the time argued in his book The Progressive Revolution, Democrats were then swept out of power for their inability to stand up to special interests. Democrats would remain in the wilderness for the rest of Wellstone’s tenure in the Senate.

If Democrats fail to deliver on a strong public health insurance plant that an overwhelming 76% favor according to the Wall Street Journal, they too will fail as a party. Reforming health care is about standing up to the big special interests that are spending $1.4 million every day on an army of lobbyists so that they can continue to deny people the health care they need.

Furthermore, health care reform is literally about saving lives. Democrats should avoid looking for some easy compromise on health care with the insurance industry that would deny some people care in order to score a quick legislative victory.

As Wellstone said, “Politics is not about power. Politics is not about money. Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning. Politics is about the improvement of people’s lives. It’s about advancing the cause of peace and justice in our country and the world. Politics is about doing well for the people.”

Beating the insurance industry is going to be one of the toughest fights we as a movement have ever engaged in. Unfortunately, we don’t have Paul Wellstone around to fight for us anymore. However, we do have the people that Wellstone believed in the most — ourselves. So I say its about time that we ask ourselves, What Would Wellstone Do?

Mike Elk: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer and worked previously for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE). He works currently as an editor at AlterNet.

This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post on July 14, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the author.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.