MINNEAPOLIS -- October 25 rolled around again and Dan Cramer knew how he'd start his day.
"Every year, on the anniversary, I pull out the Wellstone yard sign, and I put it in the yard and I take a moment of silence around that sign," Cramer, a friend and former Paul Wellstone staffer, told KARE.
"That sign will come out every year as long as I live. I keep waiting for this day to get easier after 15 years, and I think for many of us it just never does."
Cramer, who co-founded the Minneapolis-based consulting firm Grassroots Solutions, first knew Wellstone as his political science professor at Carleton College.
"I remember one of the first things he said in one of his early classes was 'You can’t separate the life you live from the words that you speak,' and I think that was his personal philosophy, for teaching, organizing and politics," Cramer recalled.
"It was really a philosophy of conviction -- walk your talk, fight for things you really believe in. And he inspired generations of people with that politics of conviction."
Wellstone excelled as a community organizer before he entered the arena as a candidate.
In addition to teaching at Carleton, Wellstone immersed himself into many volatile issues in Minnesota in the 1970s and 1980's. The Hormel strike, resistance to high voltage power transmission lines and the plight of bankrupt farmers were among the issues that drew Wellstone into action.
"He was a deeply relational politician, and this explains why a politician who was as liberal as he was, was so well-received in all of Minnesota, because he built relationships in the state," Cramer explained.
A former college wrestler who often poked fun at his own short stature, Wellstone personified energy and intensity. He embraced the role of underdog, and along the way he made friends across the political spectrum.
"That's what community organizers do, they build relationships. And people respected him because they knew he was following his convictions."
Wellstone beat the odds by winning a seat in the US Senate in 1990 with a message that he was an upstart political outsider who lived modestly and could relate to everyday people.
His opponent, two-term Republican incumbent Sen. Rudy Boschwitz had a hefty campaign war chest, and was known to generations of Minnesotans through his TV ads for his plywood and home improvement stores.
"What Paul talked about a lot in the 1990 campaign and every campaign after that was the idea that politics wasn’t about left, right or center or wasn’t about big money or power game, but was about the improvement of people’s lives."
Sheila Wellstone was a partner in every facet of her husband's public life, which is one of the reasons all of the all of the schools and other buildings named in honor of Wellstone also carry Sheila's name.
"They did everything together. They were each other’s strength, motivation," Cramer said. "Before we had Bill and Hillary Clinton we had Paul and Sheila Wellstone in Minnesota. And Sheila’s work with Paul, and on her own, was transformative work."
By the fall of 2002, Wellstone was running for a third term and locked in a tight race former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. On Oct. 25 the two were scheduled to debate in Duluth, but Wellstone decided to take a side trip to Eveleth to attend the funeral of Martin Rukavina, the father of Rep. Tom Rukavina.
Word quickly spread that morning that Wellstone's chartered plane had disappeared in the Iron Range.
It had crashed on approach to the Eveleth Airport, killing the senator, Sheila and their daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson. Campaign workers Will McLaughlin, Tom Lapic and Mary McEvoy also perished in the crash, along with pilots Richard Conry and his copilot Michael Guess.
With the election just 11 days away, former Vice President Walter Mondale agreed to bear the DFL standard. He lost to Coleman, and control of the US Senate swung to the Republicans.
One of Wellstone's top priorities, parity in insurance coverage for mental health treatment, became law six years after his death. The Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 was folded into a piece of broader federal legislation.
Cramer asserted the greatest legacy of Paul and Sheila Wellstone is the movement they fostered, the thousands of people who've been drawn to grassroots activism and community organizing since they died.
Many current elected leaders are graduates of Camp Wellstone training developed by Wellstone Action.
"People who saw him or attended event, or weren’t even alive when he died but who’ve read about him and been inspired by his type of politics. I think that’s why the Wellstone name, the bumper stickers, the buttons resonate today.
Cramer says he misses many things about his former boss, but most of all his courage.
"In 1996, he was the only incumbent senator who voted against the Welfare Reform bill," Cramer recalled. "In 2002, he was the only senator running for reelection who voted not to authorize the war in Iraq. Those are both examples of the politics of conviction."
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